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Analysis, Featured, Telecommunications - Written by Renai LeMay on Monday, February 20, 2012 15:54 - 23 Comments
Fact-checking NBN politics: Where reality defeats spin
analysis Perhaps the most common complaint about the ongoing National Broadband Network debate is the extent to which it has become dominated by misleading political spin that may obscure the fundamental ideas being discussed. With this in mind, this article will attempt to fact-check a number of recent NBN-related statements from both sides of politics. Who’s telling porkies, and how often? We’ll find out.
First things first. To keep things balanced, it’s important that everyone has access to the same material, in order to judge its accuracy for themselves. We’ve included links to all the referenced media releases below. Secondly, it’s important to note that these media releases haven’t been chosen at random. In choosing them, we deliberately picked releases where there is active conflict between members of the two sides of politics. The reason for this is to level the playing field. An incumbent minister such as Conroy issues many media releases related to their portfolio each week. Because they’re in active government, many of these will detail project and policy wins which detail actual work occurring on the ground.
Oppositions, however, don’t have this luxury, so their releases tend to be critical of the government. They have less positive material to take credit for. By choosing Labor releases that attack the Coalition rather than just highlight positive work, we hope to create somewhat of a level playing field for both. We didn’t consider the Greens for this analysis, because the party has not been active in NBN matters recently.
In analysing these releases, we’ll look for two things. Firstly, is the overall message which the release is pushing accurate, in a broad sense? Secondly, are there any obvious inaccuracies in the release?
Labor (issued by Communications Minister Stephen Conroy):
- Liberals and Nationals abandon regional Australia
- Nationals don’t understand own policy
- Turnbull attacks NBN Co for getting on with the job
- Turnbull’s credibility takes another hit
- NBN Co spends big but builds small (Liberal Senator Mary Jo Fisher)
- NBN shock for Tasmania (Liberal Senator David Bushby)
- Conroy visionary in measuring progress of NBN (Shadow Minister Malcolm Turnbull)
- Congratulations to Opticomm on its wholesale access HFC (Shadow Minister Malcolm Turnbull)
The first release, by Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, essentially alleges that the Coalition has “abandoned” regional Australia. Conroy uses criticism by Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull of Labor’s NBN satellite program announced this month to argue that the Coalition offers “no hope” to Australians living in rural areas that “they will ever receive effective and affordable broadband services”.
Now, this is a pretty clear case of a headline factual inaccuracy by Conroy.
In a major policy speech in August 2011, Turnbull stated: “For the 1.5 million or so Australians in remote or sparsely settled areas, the Coalition and Labor technology approaches are very similar – fixed wireless and satellite.” In short, Australians in rural areas do have a clear commitment by the Coalition to support satellite broadband to their area. Supporting these areas through satellite broadband (subsidies) was also a policy of the previous Howard Government. This is one policy area on which there is often bi-partisan agreement between the two sides of politics on the need for government assistance. In fact, many remote Australians would not have affordable satellite at all if it was not for the Howard Government.
However, when you get down to the nitty gritty of how that satellite access will be implemented, Conroy is also correct that the Coalition has not outlined any detail on the technical details of how it would actually provide satellite broadband to rural areas in the future. In addition, he is very likely correct that Turnbull’s claim that satellite capacity could likely be leased from the private is flat out technically wrong, and does display a lack of understanding on available satellite capacity. Delimiter has recently published an extensive analysis of Turnbull’s comments in this area suggesting this.
The second release by Conroy is actually a follow-up to a brief release issued by the Coalition’s regional telecommunications spokesperson Luke Hartsuyker, which was itself a reply to Conroy’s initial release. In it, Conroy states that the previous Howard Government’s OPEL policy did not include a satellite broadband component. In his release, Hartsuyker states: “The OPEL contract included a mixture of technologies, including satellite.”
Here Hartsuyker is flat out factually incorrect. As can be seen by separate media releases issued by then-Communications Minister Helen Coonan and Optus at the time, the OPEL contract did not include a satellite aspect. Although there are some details in his statement that are inflammatory and highly simplistic (such as his claim that all the Coalition is offering to regional areas is “vouchers”), Conroy’s media release is broadly correct: Hartsuyker does not understand the OPEL contract.
Conroy’s third release, following a fraught Senate Estimates hearing recently, sees the Minister argue that Turnbull is merely attacking NBN Co for “getting on with the job” and has not substantially explained the Coalition’s own broadband policy. This statement came in reaction to a release issued by Turnbull entitled “Conroy visionary in measuring progress of NBN”. Because the two are entwined, we’ll discuss both here.
There are two issues here which need to be examined. The first one refers to whether the Coalition has substantially explained its own rival broadband policy. This is an easy issue to address. Turnbull last outlined significant new details of the Coalition’s policy in August 2011. Since then he has appeared to expand further details of the policy further, especially when it comes to its use of Fibre to the Node technology. However, Delimiter has previously chronicled the fact that Turnbull has not yet expanded on that vision with any substantial detail. In this area, Conroy is correct. The Coalition’s broadband policy has not yet been fleshed out substantially.
The second issue raised by Conroy is that in Turnbull’s release, the Liberal MP claims NBN Co has “stopped publishing when people can expect to have internet services switched on at their premises” and is now using a different measurement metric for how far it has rolled out its network — for example, including numbers of premises in its calculations where construction is being carried out, but not finalised. In his release, Turnbull states that this change will help NBN Co “obscure” its actual progress rolling out its infrastructure.
Turnbull appears to be partially correct in this assertion. In statements to a recent Senate Estimates committee, NBN Co CEO Mike Quigley did change the way he is discussing NBN rollout figures, referring to “the total number of premises passed or with work commenced”.
However, Turnbull’s argument here is also slightly misleading. As commenters on Turnbull’s own website pointed out, NBN Co chief executive Mike Quigley also disclosed a new number of active connections in a Senate Estimates hearing recently (5,400, up from 4,000 at the beginning of 2012). I have no doubt that an up to date ‘premises passed’ figure will be disclosed in June, when NBN Co will be able to measure how close it is to its stated targets. In addition, more information is available than ever before on how and where its network is being rolled out. NBN Co will shortly publish its three-year rollout schedule.
Disclosing a number of premises under construction rather than completed may also be a better way of indicating the current activity underway at NBN Co, which is likely to have been Quigley’s intent during the Senate Estimates session. In short, although NBN Co has changed the way it is discussing its network, it does not appear to be hiding how many people are using its network and how many people and in which locations will be able to use that network. It is also providing more information, and more granular information, than it previously had been.
To sum up, in a broad sense, in this case, neither Turnbull nor Conroy are telling the whole truth. Turnbull has attacked NBN Co on a very specific point, but has not mentioned the company’s other attempts at transparency. In his own statement, Conroy was correct that the Coalition’s broadband policy remains threadbare, but he did not acknowledge that Turnbull had a point about one specific NBN Co rollout measurement.
The fourth media release issued by Conroy which we will discuss, “Turnbull’s credibility takes another hit”, alleges that Coalition Senators failed to ask a question during a lengthy Senate Estimates committee hearing last week to back the Shadow Minister’s claim that existing satellite capacity could meet NBN Co’s broadband needs. Conroy again alleges, as he has done in previous releases, that Turnbull’s satellite claims are wrong.
Delimiter searched the Hansard transcript for the Senate Estimates hearing in question (PDF) for the word “satellite”. 91 mentions came up during the session. The majority of those were by Conroy himself, NBN Co’s Quigley and Labor Senators such as Doug Cameron. However, Liberal Senator Sue Boyce did ask extensive questions about the NBN satellite program.
Arguing semantics about Conroy’s media release is a bit tricky. How does someone actually ask a question to back a claim? It’s not really clear. However, in a general sense, what seems clear is that Conroy was criticising the Coalition for not discussing NBN Co’s satellite program enough during the Senate Estimates session, when it had a good chance to do so, with Quigley available to take questions on the matter. It is true that most of the Coalition representatives didn’t ask questions on the matter. However, it is also true that at least one did. Furthermore, it is hard to make a claim that Turnbull’s credibility had been hurt because his colleagues didn’t ask questions about the satellite issue in the session.
Because of this, in a broad sense, this media release by Conroy is misleading. It does contain many statements of fact about Turnbull’s (likely incorrect) claim that NBN Co could have leased satellite capacity rather than building its own. But the way the release is constructed paints a misleading picture of the events at Senate Estimates.
The first release we will examine by the Coalition is Liberal Senator Mary Jo Fisher’s statement last week, again, following a Senate Estimates committee hearing, that NBN Co is falling short of its fibre rollout targets projected in 2010.
“The fact remains NBN’s Dec 2010 Corporate Plan promised to pass fibre by 259,000 premises by June 2012, but they’ve only passed 18,263 premises to date,” states Fisher in the release. According to NBN Co’s corporate plan, that 259,000 figure is made up of 132,000 premises passed in ‘brownfields’ rollouts (where existing network infrastructure exists), 7,000 in ‘greenfields’ rollouts (where no existing network infrastructure exists), and 120,000 in ‘greenfields Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT)’ networks — networks that may have already been built by other companies or will be built by sub-contractors and used by NBN Co.
So is NBN Co behind? The simple answer is ‘yes’. In the Senate Estimates session which Fisher refers to, NBN Co CEO Quigley acknowledged that NBN Co was currently treading water to some extent because of delays in the examination by the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission of the deal between NBN Co and Telstra. The delay is holding up NBN Co’s access to Telstra’s infrastructure.
It’s not yet clear by how much NBN Co’s is delayed. The company’s corporate plan (available online here in PDF form) only lists June targets each year, with some 1.71 million premises to have been passed by June 2013. In the Senate Estimates session, Quigley said NBN Co expects to see the total number of premises passed or with work commenced reaching to be about 758,000. However, there is little doubt that NBN Co will be behind its own goals.
However, this is also not the whole truth of the matter.
Fisher did not acknowledge in her statement that there are large external factors that are shaping NBN Co’s delays — factors which NBN Co only has limited control over. The Telstra deal and the accompanying ACCC approval is one factor. In addition, Quigley went out of his way at the hearing to highlight difficulties in the greenfields rollout (which makes up the majority of the 2012 targets) including the fact that “a policy decision” by the government had resulted in drastic changes to how that work was being done. Following early learnings, NBN Co has changed much of the way it is handling the construction in this area, signing a large deal with Fujitsu in May 2011.
“The first thing I would ask the committee is to make sure that they understand, if they are comparing the December 2010 plan with what the plans are now, those are two very significant changes,” Quigley told the committee. To sum up a very complex issue; Fisher’s statement is broadly correct, but ignores changes since the 2010 plan was drawn up, and the fact that NBN Co is nevertheless making substantial progress towards its goals. It also paints a somewhat pessimistic view of the future of the NBN rollout.
The second Coalition statement we’ll examine is by Tasmanian Senator David Bushby. In it, Bushby claims that Tasmania will be “left off the map” by Telstra because the end user hardware which had already been rolled out to several parts of the state as part of early stage NBN rollouts was not the same hardware as the rest of mainland Australia, leading to Telstra holding off on launching some commercial NBN services in the state until it could be replaced.
There’s some nuggets of truth buried in here, but as a broad brushstroke, Bushby’s media statement on the matter is extremely misleading. The problem he is complaining about really isn’t an issue in the short-term, and in the medium-term will be easily fixed by the equivalent of a brief appointment at each premise to install a small piece of network equipment.
Tasmanian residents in the handful of tiny early stage rollout zones in the state who have different hardware to that available in mainland Australia aren’t missing out. Unlike the very vast majority of Australia, they have access to very fast broadband speeds up to 100Mbps, telephony and IPTV entertainment over the NBN. They can currently choose from a handful of ISPs for the service, and will in short order be able to choose from more. That doesn’t sound like a raw deal to me.
And Telstra’s still committed to Tasmania. This is what the telco had to say on the matter: “Telstra remains committed to providing the best possible products and services for Tasmanian customers and looks forward to bringing the benefits of the National Broadband Network to all Tasmanians. This includes all areas of Tasmania based on business opportunity. Telstra will announce some very exciting NBN offers across the country in the near future.”
We have already examined the third Coalition media statement on the NBN (from Malcolm Turnbull).
The fourth statement is also by Turnbull, and covers the issue of providing wholesale access on HFC networks as an alternative to rolling out the NBN. This is a core part of the Coalition’s own broadband policy, but Optus has stated that it “does not currently have the technical ability” to supply wholesale services over its own HFC network, and has no plans to build in that capacity in the future. Conroy has also previously highlighted the difficulties of opening up the HFC networks to wholesaling.
However, Turnbull points out, fibre company Opticomm has recently started offering wholesale access to a HFC network in the Western Australian suburb of Butler, with similar technical speeds as the NBN fibre up to 100Mbps. Turnbull is correct in this release. Delimiter has verified with an Opticomm customer that the network is open to wholesale access and is being used in that manner. This means HFC wholesaling is very technically possible, and Conroy and the Government should acknowledge this fact or provide further backing to their argument on the matter.
So who is more truthful about the NBN? The Government, as represented by its Communications Minister, or the Coalition, as represented by its Shadow Communications Minister and several interested Senators? The truth is that neither side is telling the whole truth, on a consistent basis.
Our analysis showed that both Turnbull and Conroy issued one close to completely factual correct NBN media release over the past few weeks. However, both also issued misleading media releases which didn’t tell the whole truth about the situation, left pertinent facts out and attempted to spin the situation to their own advantage.
The most misleading media release was issued by a Liberal Senator — David Bushby from Tasmania. In addition, Luke Hartsuyker was flat out wrong on satellite provisions in the OPEL contract. However, three quarters of Conroy’s political NBN media releases also had substantial problems, and on the other side of the coin, probably the most factually correct media release was Turnbull’s insightful release on the Opticomm wholesale HFC network in Western Australia.
In general, we would like to encourage all sides of politics to clean up their act, following this analysis. The time when politicians can simply say what they want about the NBN and get away with it is done. The fourth estate is watching. From now on, we want a good clean debate — about facts and not misrepresentations or spin.
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