TECHNOLOGY SPECTATOR: The NBN election equation

The election battle lines have been drawn for Australia's broadband network, but the Coalition's plan of attack remains uncertain.

Technology Spectator

With the main event in Canberra now set for September, NBN watchers will wait with breathless anticipation on how the cookie crumbles. After all, the fate of the national broadband network, specifically the nature and composition of the network, hinges on the outcome of the federal election.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s unexpected reveal last week surprised many, but as far as the NBN is concerned it has forced her opposition counterpart Tony Abbott to unequivocally champion the fibre-to-the-node NBN as the Coalition’s broadband alternative.

Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull may have done the hard yards in 2012, but his promise of a faster and cheaper broadband solution is now as official as it can get and the Coalition will live or die on its promises come election day.

With the timeline now set, the Coalition’s next challenge is to sell its alternative in as earnest a fashion as it can muster. So what strategy will Turnbull and the Coalition pursue?

We caught a glimpse of it earlier this week with Liberal MP and former Optus executive Paul Fletcher telling The Australian Financial Review that the battle for the hearts and minds of voters will tread the familiar ground of highlighting Labor's ineptitude and an insistence that Labor's NBN remains far too ambitious an endeavour.

Whether the strategy will pay dividends remains to be seen, but hammering NBN Co for slow rollout and its inability to keep costs under check will presumably be the logical port of call.

NBN Co’s performance when it comes to the rollout has come under severe scrutiny, and even with the caveats of the enormity of the project, regulatory delays and poor design data, this is one front where NBN Co and the Gillard government will remain on the defensive.

The latest instance of this comes in today’s issue of The Australian, which highlights the trouble NBN Co is facing with getting the fibre to multi-dwelling units.

Turnbull told the paper that the lack of MDU progress was concerning, and news like this further fuels the Coalition’s narrative of Labor's ineptitude. What’s missing is any cogent alternative as to how it would do things differently. But for the average Australian who has heard a lot about the NBN without actually experiencing it, the Coalition’s narrative will holds some sway. Presumably more details may be revealed by Turnbull between now and September, but there are a few issues with the rollout – especially with MDUs – that the Coalition will inadvertently inherit. Add to that the prospect of lengthy renegotiations with Telstra, and the promise of delivering faster and cheaper broadband doesn’t seem like a slam dunk anymore.

Of course, it isn’t game over for NBN Co or the Gillard government, but the best counter to the Coalition’s attacks will be for NBN Co to hit its targets for March and July. This may seem a tad optimistic, but the scenario must not be discounted.

Another potential front for the Coalition to exploit is the composition of the NBN Co board. The unceremonious exit of construction chief Dan Flemming can be seen by some as another symptom of a deeper malaise at an executive level. Malcolm Turnbull has made his feelings on the board quite clear, most recently at the CommsDay Melbourne Congress 2012, and the inevitable ebb and flow within the ranks of NBN Co will continue to provide ammunition for the opposition to highlight Labor mismanagement.

Once again there is no guarantee that a Coalition government will somehow transform the NBN Co into a streamlined outfit devoid of internal or external politics; however, the Coalition may choose to focus on short-term electoral goals rather than elucidate a clear strategy.

The one area where one should expect plenty of action will be in regional Australia, where both the Coalition and Labor will have to be cautious about over-promising and under-delivering. To further illustrate this point, NBN Co has unveiled plans to bring even faster internet to the bush by doubling the wholesale broadband speeds. According to NBN Co, more than half a million premises eligible to receive the NBN’s Fixed-Wireless and Long Term Satellite services will be able to take advantage of wholesale download speeds of up to 25 Mbps and upload speeds of up to 5 Mbps.

Sounds good, but can the Coalition do any better? The National Party won’t look kindly to any signs that its electoral base is sacrificed at the altar of a cheaper NBN, and a Coalition government will have to devise an effective strategy to quell the slightest hint of discontent. Expect to hear more from Turnbull on how these areas will be served under the Coalition NBN well before election day.

So the battle lines are drawn, and with them comes the tacit recognition by the Coalition that the NBN could once again make or break its bid for power. That is a positive, and one hopes that it will spur Turnbull to release further information on the nitty gritty of the FttN, if nothing else just to keep the so-called pro-NBN zealots at bay – although continuing the attack on NBN Co may prove to be an easier option.

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