The lesser of two NBN evils

The Coalition's NBN policy is based on just as much guesswork and assumptions as Labor's original proposal. Malcolm Turnbull's response to the concerns, for now, is four parts bluster and one part “trust us”.

The release of the Coalition’s broadband policy sets the scene for voters to make a very clear choice on which broadband future they are willing to live with. However, the details revealed by Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull – which have garnered plenty of criticism – create more questions than answers, while exposing a serious weakness in the nation’s governance.

Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott have rightly criticised the NBN's cost and scheduling blowouts. However, their policy is based on just as much guesswork and assumptions as Senator Conroy’s original proposal.

While it’s often hard to distinguish Coalition and Labor policies on many substantive matters, broadband is one issue where both parties are closer than one might think. There is essentially bipartisan support for a publicly funded fast broadband solution so the dispute revolves around the cost of delivery. That’s what Australians will vote on at the federal election. 

So what are our choices? The Coalition offers patching together existing systems and filling in gaps, while Labor’s project involves building a new network that will meet the demands for much of the 21st century.

The key assumption underlying the coalition plan is that negotiating access to the copper and HFC networks with Telstra and Foxtel will be quick, clean and cheap. It’s likely an Abbott government will have to choose two of those factors and sacrifice the other.

As Technology Spectator has discussed before, Telstra is in a strong negotiating position and 'cheap' will probably be the one word sacrificed when the cost of accessing the copper and pay TV networks is discussed.

The Coalition’s biggest guess is how much copper would have to be replaced with fibre. While there’s no doubt the poor state of the copper network has been exaggerated by some of the Labor NBN supporters, Telstra’s phone infrastructure was allowed to run down as the company was fattened for privatisation under the Howard government.

How much copper or pay TV cable has to be replaced can only be guessed at by either party and was one of the reasons that Labor chose a fibre-to-the-premises approach.

Another guess is the regulatory environment. Last week the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission rejected NBN Co’s latest set of wholesaler terms – known as the SAU – and we can expect throwing the copper and HFC networks into the mix will complicate the matter further.

Malcolm Turnbull’s response to these concerns about the guesswork yesterday was four parts bluster and one part 'trust us'.

Both as bad as each other?

Unfortunately the track record of both parties shows taxpayers have almost no reason to trust either the Liberal or Labor parties.

Since Telecom Australia and the post office were split out of the Post-Master General’s office in 1975 we’ve seen successive governments bungle the communications portfolio.

Kim Beazley and Bob Hawke delivered a monolithic, dominant Telstra when they merged the Overseas Telecommunications Commission with Telecom to assuage the electrical unions.

Paul Keating and Graham Richardson displayed equal amounts of cynicism, desperation and cowardice when trying to juggle the demands of competing media tycoons over the introduction of pay-TV; the results of that botched policy are still being felt today.

The Howard government’s determination to privatise Telstra saw them do everything they could do maximise the company’s profits and attract the best sale price. Ziggy Switkowski achieved this by running down assets and protecting existing revenue streams which impeded Australia’s internet adoption. Once Telstra was privatised, the Howard government reaped what it sowed by not structurally separating the company or introducing strong oversight.

For Labor, the NBN resolved many of these historical issues and was a political success in delivering enough seats and securing independent support to form government after the hung 2010 election. Unfortunately, the cost and scope of the network was miscalculated and the NBN has run embarrassingly behind schedule and over budget.

Costly miscalculations

It’s hard not think that had Senator Conroy widely consulted with the community and the telco industry before proposing the NBN project, many of the regulatory hurdles and miscalculations would have been avoided. Certainly the process would have been far less political.

This failure to consult is part of a wider malaise: governments of both persuasions at all levels are making bad decisions based on their 'daddy knows best' attitude towards the citizens they claim to represent.

Good examples of this are Kevin Rudd’s part acceptance of the Henry tax review and Howard’s Workchoices – both were introduced without any consultation and both eventually cost those prime ministers their jobs.

At all levels of government the contempt for the mug punter – the taxpayers who pay these people’s pensions and salaries – is obvious.

This contempt was shown best by the Labor Victorian government in 2008, where leaked ministerial emails showed any public consultation over the Windsor Hotel redevelopment was a sham.

Often that consultation would have avoided long term mistakes. Speaking at a community meeting on school overcrowding on Sydney’s North Shore late last year, local Lord Mayor and independent MP Pat Reilly said “for decades local parents have been proved right every time and every time Macquarie Street has been proved wrong.”

Interestingly, some of the incompetent and arrogant Liberal Party ministers that closed the North Shore schools against local advice during the Greiner years and are expected to play a role in the Abbott government as party statesmen.

The mess of Australian telecommunication policy is a good example of the long-term effects of not making well thought out decisions. We need to insist our political leaders consult widely and wisely on policy matters.

It’s often said voters get the politicians they deserve. If the Australian people deserve the current broadband policy mess then we’ve done something very, very bad.

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