The 'roll in' makes the NBN a liability

The NBN could have been an electoral asset for Labor if not for deals struck with the independents and Greens in 2010. Instead, it's set to be a real burden come September.

The latest figures released on the national broadband network rollout offer a useful reminder to politicians seeking to form minority government – careful what you to agree to with hard-bargaining independents.

The figures, put before the joint committee set up to track the giant project's progress by 'shareholders' Penny Wong and Stephen Conroy, show where the rollout is progressing, and what kinds of data speeds customers are buying.

But as with some other policy areas – notably carbon pricing – the figures show that while the government is getting a lot done, it's not in areas that will help its prospects in September. Commsday today reports the actual figures achieved to the end of 2012 – there were 46,078 brownfield premises passed, including 7912 in metro areas and 38,166 in non-metro areas.

For greenfield sites, NBN Co had passed 15,607 in metro areas and 10,644 in non-metro areas.

These figures add to the data released last month which showed that NBN Co will miss its June target for number of premises passed by around a third (340,000 down to about 200,000).

The brownfield sites-passed figure, in particular, is a reminder of the condition independents Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor placed on the project in 2010 – namely that it would be a 'roll in' rather than a 'roll out', giving priority to non-metro areas.

That's great in social equity terms, but prevents NBN Co from picking some low hanging fruit in metro areas on behalf of the embattled communications minister.

Connection speeds provide good and bad news for the government. The good news is that at December 2012 there were 31 retail service providers actually offering packages to subscribers, with 43 per cent of customers signing up for the 100/40 Mbps service. The bad news is that, although there were a few subscribers opting for mid-range plans, the bulk of the remainder were on slow speeds – 28.6 per cent were on 25/5Mbps speeds and 20.7 per cent were on 12/1 Mbps.

The NBN was named by Oakeshott and Windsor, along with carbon pricing, as a key reason for supporting Labor. But the roll in has been too slow, potentially making the NBN an electoral liability at the 2013 election, instead of the asset it was in 2010.

Likewise climate policy concession made to the Greens – the 'lie' that there would be "no carbon tax" would not have been a lie at all if the government had not been forced into a fixed-price period that, Prime Minister Gillard conceded early on, "functions a bit like a tax".

Those are the costs of minority government, and the horse trading Tony Abbott engaged in during the 2010 interregnum showed he was quite willing to do deals just as grand – witness, for instance, the $1 billion he offered Andrew Wilkie for a new hospital in Hobart (which Wilkie rejected).

Gillard might be considered a great negotiator, but those concessions on the NBN and carbon pricing will cost her dearly at the next election. The NBN will be scaled back and carbon pricing will, Abbott insists, be repealed.

That's two steps forward, and nearly two steps back. When the dust settles on the next election, the independents and Greens may come to regret playing hardball with Labor. And one thing looks certain – the next government won't be ruling with a knife-edge majority. 

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