analysis In several radio interviews this week, Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull stated that the National Broadband Network project would cause consumer broadband prices to rise higher than those currently on the market. However, unfortunately this statement was factually incorrect.
To illustrate why, firstly, let’s go through what Turnbull said. According to transcripts available on Turnbull’s website, Turnbull said the following on 2GB in an interview with Ben Fordham on Wednesday:
” … Australians are waking up to how much this is going to cost them – not just as taxpayers but also it’s going to be more expensive as a consumer. You see this is the penny that hasn’t quite dropped. I think most people recognise that this is a very, very expensive project. But what they haven’t quite – the penny hasn’t quite fully dropped that this is going to be expensive in terms of the usage charges.”
“Now what’s going to happen here is because there is no competition, because this is a government monopoly and because they are spending so much money so they’re overcapitalising it, inevitably prices are going to be high.”
In a separate interview on the same day with 2UE’s Paul Murray, Turnbull said the following: “What we do know is that it’s going to cost a bomb, and it’s not going to make broadband access any cheaper. It’s going to make it more expensive.”
The Coalition has publicly stated its opinion that broadband prices will be higher under the NBN than the current ADSL-dominated broadband market repeatedly over the past six months. In September, Liberal MP Paul Fletcher stated that new NBN pricing released by iiNet at the time was higher than existing ADSL prices. And several months earlier, Turnbull stated that early pricing released by Internode for services on the NBN demonstrated the project would drive consumer broadband prices higher.
However, unfortunately the Coalition’s statements on this matter have been factually incorrect.
Almost all of Australia’s major ISPs released their first tranche of NBN pricing over the closing months of 2011, and in almost all cases, the prices are directly comparable to current pricing available over Telstra’s copper network (ADSL) or the HFC cable networks operated by Telstra and Optus.
To illustrate this fact, let’s examine the NBN prices of Optus, and compare them with the telco’s existing ADSL broadband prices. In naked DSL, Optus currently offers three plans, at $59.99, $69.99 and $79.99 monthly price points, and with 120GB, 150GB and 500GB of data quota included. And in naked NBN, Optus offers exactly the same price points and download quotas.
In bundled DSL, Optus currently offers five plans, at $79, $99, $109, $129 and $149 price points, and with 120GB, 500GB and terabyte download quotas, with varying amounts of call charges included — usually unlimited ‘standard’ local and national telephone calls within Australia, to both landlines and mobile phones. And in bundled NBN, Optus offers many of the same price points and quotas — except sometimes they’re cheaper. The company’s $79 plan with 120 GB of data has morphed into a $64.94 plan (with, admittedly slightly lesser calling value). The $109 bundled plan with 500GB of data and unlimited calls has been copied straight across, and so has the $129 plan with a terabyte of data and unlimited calls.
It should be clear that virtually every single aspect of Optus’ NBN pricing plans represents better value than the telco’s current ADSL plans — and for exactly the same price. Optus doesn’t currently actively promote its HFC cable offering, so it’s tough to get an idea of what its prices are there. But if you compare its ADSL broadband plans to its NBN broadband plans, it seems clear that the plans are virtually identical.
It’s a similar case with Australia’s second-largest provider of ADSL broadband services, iiNet.
If you sign up for a naked DSL broadband plan through iiNet on its own network, (which comes with a bundled Internet telephony phone line), you’ll get a total of 100GB of quota (50GB on- and 50GB off-peak) for $69.95 per month. A similar plan with a bundled traditional telephone line and 100GB of on- and off-peak quota will cost you a total of $79.90 per month. If you’re not using iiNet’s DSLAM infrastructure in exchanges, you’ll pay a bit more — or the same, but with less download quota.
iiNet has two NBN plans which are comparable to this. The first comes with speeds of 12Mbps and 100GB of on- and off-peak quota, for $69.90 a month with an included Internet telephony line. Then iiNet has a 25Mbps plan with the same quota and telephone line for $74.90 a month. In short, like Optus, iiNet’s NBN plans are almost exactly the same as its ADSL plans. However, the NBN fibre technology is more reliable, has better guaranteed speeds and lower latency (responsiveness) than the current copper network.
Still not convinced? Let’s look at a another major provider, Internode, which was recently bought by iiNet, but whose prices so far remain independent. Internode currently offers a 300GB ADSL plan with a bundled telephone line for $99.90 a month. The top speeds possible on this plan are limited to 24Mbps, due to the limitations of the copper network, and most people will be getting less than 16Mbps. But for $94.95 a month, on Internode’s NBN plans, you can get a 100Mbps connection with the same 300GB monthly download quota, plus a bundled internet telephony line. Yup. A broadband plan four times faster, using more reliable technology, for $5 a month cheaper. That’s the NBN.
Now there are some anomalies in NBN pricing so far which may give the Coalition some basis for its pricing claims. For example, cut-rate ISP Exetel has priced its NBN plans significantly higher than its ADSL plans. In another example, when you get to really high-end plans — 100Mbps plans with a terabyte of download quota — pricing can shoot up in some cases.
However, these cases are not the rule.
Further analysis reveals that Exetel is still offering low-end NBN plans starting at $34.50, and its prices don’t start to get expensive compared with its ADSL pricing until you start to get to the point where you’re downloading more than 100GB of data per month. Exetel has acknowledged it’s not targeting big-downloading customers, so we’re not really surprised by its lack of competitiveness at the top end.
There is also the fact that Exetel has a miniscule share of Australia’s broadband market compared with Optus and iiNet, which are the second and third-largest providers of broadband in Australia. The prices offered by Optus, iiNet (and its subsidiary Internode) are, by definition, mainstream price points which the majority of Australians will be buying services at. And those prices are even more mundane and normal when you look at the mid-range plans (between $50 and $70 a month) bought by most Australians.
Two other major Australian broadband providers, Telstra and TPG, are yet to release NBN pricing. If both exhibit radically different pricing structures from Optus and iiNet, I will be more than happy to revisit this topic at that future date. However, I would not expect Telstra’s NBN pricing to be radically different from its current broadband pricing, which is already at the pricey end of the market. TPG’s pricing has historically been at the discount end of the market, and I would expect this trend to continue.
Lastly there is one other important fact which needs to be taken into account.
NBN Co has lodged a document with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission called a ‘Special Access Undertaking’. This document, among many other commitments, states that NBN Co will maintain prices for its key wholesale prices at the current levels for five years. In addition, the company will limit future increases to be less than the rate of inflation for 30 years. In short, in real terms, NBN Co’s wholesale prices will remain fairly stable for the next 30 years.
Taking this binding commitment into account alongside the fact that current mainstream NBN prices are directly comparable, often for a better service or even slightly cheaper, than current ADSL pricing, it is factually incorrect for the Coalition to state that consumer NBN prices will be higher than current broadband prices. And if prices were to increase, given the fact that NBN Co’s prices will remain the same, that price increase is not the NBN’s fault. That blame could be laid at the door of the retail ISPs.
With all this in mind, I would hope that the Coalition would refrain from making this claim in public in future. Or, if it does make this claim, I would hope that it would provide some evidence to make its case. This debate is not a matter of opinion. This debate is about objective fact.