With Tony Abbott’s budget reply proving to be another flashpoint for both sides at Canberra to indulge in some old-fashioned name calling, the one painfully obvious feature that stands out in the fracas is that the federal opposition sees the NBN as nothing more than a target to score cheap political points.
That shouldn’t come as a real surprise to those who have been following the debate – and while Abbott’s assertions about the network being a colossal waste of money and his continued insistence on investing that money on roads is almost laughable, it’s Malcolm Turnbull’s latest attack on the network that should raise the ire of those committed to the NBN.
Turnbull’s salvo was delivered at the Broadband World Forum Asia in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday and the shadow broadband and communications minister has used the forum to further reinforce the idea that the opposition’s NBN vision is more focused on upgrading telecoms infrastructure rather than any future-proofing of the economy.
According to Turnbull, the foundations of Labor's NBN have been laid down on a number of trade-offs – the scrapping of infrastructure based competition, higher prices for consumers and the slow lead time in getting to market.
Ironically, the slow lead time is only going to get worse if and when the Coalition comes to power in Canberra and there’s a good chance that we will end up with nothing substantial before 2020.
Meanwhile, on the issue of infrastructure-based competition, there aren’t too many telco analysts out there who reckon that a nationwide Fibre-to-the-Home network can be built based purely on that basis.
According to Paul Budde, infrastructure-based competition, as in duplicating (FttH), only works in CBDs.
“This level of competition is maintained in Australia,” Budde says.
“There are dozen of competitors here, all of which are allowed to compete.”
Finally, when it comes to higher prices for consumers, there are no indications they have to pay more than what they are currently paying for their ADSL and cable services. Skymesh’s NBN services start from $29.95 per month, Exetel’s entry-level plan costs $35.00 per month and a number of other retail providers, including Optus, offer NBN services starting from $39.95 and $49.95 per month.
Not only is this a sign of a competitive landscape but with entry prices like that take-up levels are bound to spike. The most important thing to remember here is that consumers will be getting access to a superior service and will essentially choose a plan that fits the bill for them.
Fears of higher broadband prices are linked to the overall performance of NBN Co and there is some doubt that the price controls in place could be scrapped if the financial stakes are at risk. However, the lengthy negotiation process with the ACCC has ensured that the regulator will have plenty of power to step in.
Perhaps the most galling of Turnbull’s assertions in the speech is that the NBN will not fulfil its promise of ushering in an era of innovation.
“And as for those who argue that super fast services will trigger a tsunami of innovation, we can only wonder then how it is most of the truly innovative online businesses of our time have not come from the superfast nirvanas of Korea and Japan but rather from the apparently broadband deficient United States – think Facebook, Google, Amazon, Twitter, Netflix, YouTube, Skype – it’s a very long list indeed.
"In my judgement the scarcest resource is not bandwidth, or even technology, but rather technological imagination. And it is no accident that innovation is at its greatest in the markets with the most competition and the most freedom.”
Turnbull contends that all the bulk of broadband applications – e-commerce, e-health, e-learning – do not require 100 mbps connectivity.
‘FTTN services are comfortably offering speeds well over 25 mbps, as high as 80 mbps in the UK for example, and that is more than adequate for the vast majority of residential customers. And as BT is demonstrating in the UK, it is also possible in a VDSL area nonetheless to run FTTP to particular premises who need superfast services.’
Statements like this should send a chill down the spine of those who are hoping that behind the political bluster the likes of Turnbull are truly committed to a long-term broadband vision. A FttH network provides capacity, robustness and unparalleled ubiquity that cannot be matched by the Coalition’s alternative and the tech heavyweights mentioned by Turnbull are the very ones that are championing the case for a FttH future.
Turnbull may not like the comparison but his speech is another example of the retrogressive policymaking that will certainly leave Australia with a broadband solution that will be adequate but nowhere near what’s needed to embrace a digital future.