The Coalition's NBN collision course

The Coalition has ramped up the NBN pitch to the public but does its promise of a cheaper network set it on a crash course with NBN Co?

The NBN debate took an international twist this week as the opposition communications spokesman Malcolm Turnbull moved to lay down the law with regards to what the Coalition’s NBN will look like.

That vision involves a firm commitment to a mix of technologies to deliver a cheaper NBN, following the fibre footprints of overseas players like British Telecom and AT&T. While critics have wasted little time in pointing out why that approach may not be the right fit for Australia’s needs, the opposition really isn’t interested in engaging the technical merits of its model.

What it’s really interested in is making a very distinct pitch to the general voting public, which by and large now expects an improved broadband network. The pitch is simple:  Are we happy to wait for a Labor NBN that delivers the goods but will take an eternity to build, or would we rather back a network that will deliver services faster and cost a lot less.  Of course it’s not bleeding edge technology but as Turnbull points out why spend big on a four-lane highway when all you really want is a dirt road sealed.

Turnbull has expended a substantial amount of effort marketing the message this week, indulging in a prolonged slanging match with Business Spectator’s Alan Kohler, an appearance on ABC and the interview with the Australian Financial Review.

The interesting thing here is that despite having a fully costed policy ready to go the Coalition is not really interested in releasing it in full. That sort of disclosure will only subject it to inordinate scrutiny from the so-called ‘pro-NBN zealots’ who are interested in getting the best possible broadband service and eschew more feasible alternatives.

There are a couple of things that need to be kept in perspective here. Firstly, there is no definitive figure on just how much cheaper the Coalition’s NBN will be. As Alan Kohler pointed out in his piece earlier this week, the Coalition’s plan to save tens of billions of dollars by changing Labor’s NBN policy is essentially a moot point because the NBN in its present form is expected to make money for the government.

“Worse, the money saved – Turnbull estimates $20 billion – can’t be spent elsewhere or used to bring down taxes, because it is capital expenditure, not operating expenditure,” Kohler says.

Perhaps a more pertinent point made by Kohler is that the saving money mantra might not actually deliver the desired response from the public.

“Campaigning on saving money is not usually recommended, and I’m not sure the next election will be fought on the need to bring down government debt, since it’s not too high in Australia to begin with."

The other important feature of the Coalition’s NBN is that it leaves a question mark around what happens when Fibre-to-the-Node (FttN) isn’t enough and the public wants more than a 50Mbps? Presumably, the Coalition will then move to a fully-fledged Fibre-to-the-Home (FttH) network and just how much this will cost is also presumably in the fully costed plan that Turnbull was talking about this week.

The way things stand at the moment - and remember the election still a while away - the Coalition is on a collision course with NBN Co. This collision could potentially see major changes amid the ranks at NBN Co, especially if the realities of implementing a FttN model fail to live up to the rhetoric.

While a change of power at Canberra is always going to lead to some shuffling of chairs at NBN Co, I am not sure if the Coalition can afford to see a mass exodus of talent and expertise that will be crucial to the delivery of their cut-price NBN. 

Turnbull's unfortunate French connection

That will be just one of the many challenges that the Coalition will potentially have to face post-election, but for now Turnbull’s globetrotting fibre journey suffered an unexpected hiccup. The shadow communications minister may tout the efficacy of BT’s fibre deployment but when it comes to investing he is a fan of France Telecom’s FttH approaach.

Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take long for the government to exploit the situation, with Communications minister Stephen Conroy gleefully accepting this gift.

Here’s what Conroy told the chamber during Senate question time on Tuesday.

“You might ask why didn't he mention France - France is building a fibre to the home network to 15 million French homes by 2020."

"Did he invest in British Telecom? No. Has he invested in New Zealand's Telecom Chorus? No."

"Did he invest in France Telecom and its fibre to the home network? Yes, yes, yes."

France Telecom, the incumbent telco in the country, has been rolling out its FttH network since 2007 and hopes to get up to 15 million premises by the end of this decade.

 While Turnbull has qualified his investment and tried to draw a parallel to the Labor NBN, one has to wonder just how relevant this comparison is. This tendency to equate every fibre rollout across the globe into a neat one-size-fits-all template isn’t exactly useful and in this case has only left Turnbull open to more criticism. There might not be an egregious conflict of interest at play here but the episode does highlight an irony that Conroy will no doubt be keen to point out in the future.

FOI fit 

Finally, the verdict is in on whether NBN Co was complying with the Freedom of Information (FOI) laws and the man running the review, Stuart Morris QC, reckons there is no cause for concern.

According to the review, NBN Co is meeting its legal responsibilities and for now can continue to use the "commercial interests" mantra to deny FOI requests.

The review also praised NBN Co’s "pro-disclosure attitude" which has so far delivered only two successful full releases out of the 35 requests made between June 11 2011 and May 31 2012.

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