news Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has given what he described as a “solemn undertaking” to the Australian people that a Coalition Government would “complete the job of NBN Co”, instead of ripping up the network or abandoning Labor’s NBN policy altogether.
When Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull was appointed to the role in September 2010, the ABC reported that Opposition Leader Tony Abbott had ordered the Member for Wentworth to “demolish” the NBN. At the time, Abbott said he believed the NBN would “turn out to be a white elephant on a massive scale … school halls on steroids”.
Despite denials from Turnbull several weeks later that he would seek to “wreck” the project, the comments were seized upon by various figures in the Labor Party. Prime Minister Julia Gillard, has repeatedly claimed that a Coalition government would “rip up the fibre out of the ground” if it won power. In general, many Australians believe that the Coalition remains stalwartly against the NBN on philosophical grounds and would cancel the project if it won government — at a cost, according to the recent Federal Budget, of at least $1.8 billion.
However, in a radio interview on 2UE last week, Turnbull appeared to forecast a much more continuous approach to the NBN policy as a whole.
“What we will be able to do and I will give this solemn undertaking to the Australian people: We will be able to complete the job of the NBN Co,” he said. “We are not going to rip it up or tear it up or abandon it. But we will complete the objective, but we will do so in a much more cost-effective way.”
And, speaking about a Government plan to promote the NBN to school students: “The Government attributes to the NBN all of the benefits of internet access. And what it fails to do is recognise and disclose to school students the central issue in this debate, which is not whether broadband is good or whether internet access is good. But whether this reckless Labor Government is going about it in a responsible way or not. And our argument is, we say yes to high speed broadband, yes to every Australian having access to it, and yes to doing it in a cheaper, faster and more affordable way. And so the real issue is about how you do it, not the objective. And of course, they glossed over all of that because they don’t want anyone to look at their wastefulness.”
The comments appear to validate a growing industry belief that the Coalition is not planning to abandon the NBN policy or even shut down NBN Co as a going concern, but will instead seek to put its own stamp on the project, conducting a cost/benefit analysis to determine the most cost-effective way to provide high-speed broadband around Australia, and likely settling on a wider mix of technologies than currently included in Labor’s NBN policy — including, for example, a fibre to the node-style rollout in some areas and the upgrade of the HFC cable networks owned by Telstra and Optus.
Telecommunications industry analyst Paul Budde also believes the Coalition will continue the NBN rollout in some form.
In separate posts over the past few months, Budde used a speech given by Turnbull to the CommsDay conference in April 2012 as well as other communications made by the Liberal MP to make his argument that the Opposition would retain key features of the NBN.
“The Coalition’s policy is, as you know focussed on achieving a comparable outcome (ubiquitious very fast broadband) but achieving it sooner in terms of rollout, cheaper in terms of cost to taxpayers, and more affordably in terms of consumers,” said Turnbull in the speech. “All of that follows from taking a pragmatic and technological neutral approach. But above all, at the front of our priorities is reducing risks for taxpayers and risks for consumers.”
“Very important and very positive was his statement that the Coalition’s aim is to achieve a comparable outcome for the NBN, sooner and cheaper,” said Budde in a post several weeks ago. “This confirms BuddeComm’s earlier claim that some form of a National Broadband Network is here to stay.” And then in April: “There is a lot of chest-beating going on, but in reality the Coalition’s views have been moving closer to the NBN as it is currently being rolled out,” wrote Budde.
Much of the Coalition’s current focus on the NBN rests on the speed of rollout of the infrastructure.
“They will have undoubtedly wasted a lot of money but most of the — very little of the NBN will be constructed by the time of the next election,” said Turnbull on 2UE this week. “I mean, let’s face it: At this point they’ve only got 3700 people at most connected to the fibre. You know, this is after four years of talking about it. So there’s only 11 million households to go over the life of the project. It is really — this is proceeding at the pace of an arthritic snail.”
In addition, Senator Eric Abetz, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, published a statement this week echoing Turnbull’s sentiments on the NBN, following a number of Senate Estimates hearings into the NBN over the past several weeks. Again, the Liberal Senator focused more on the speed and efficiency of the NBN rollout, rather than the fundamental policy underpinnings of the project.
“Labor’s $50 billion national broadband network continues to miss its own deadlines and not reach the financial targets set out in its business case,” wrote Abetz. “To date the NBN has passed approximately 19,900 premises and claims to have 11,000 “active” connections of which 7,300 are on satellite and approximately 3,700 are on fibre. Worryingly, this means that the connection rate for fibre connections (i.e. those actually paying to use the NBN) is only 18.6 per cent. The connection rate for 100mbps fibre connections is approximately 9 per cent. Average revenue per user was $29.55 compared with $37 in the NBN‟s 2010 corporate plan.”
“In Tasmania, touted by the Government to the rest of the nation as an example of the NBN’s benefits, only ten customers a month were signed up in the first three months of this year. Estimates also revealed that 55 NBN staff travelled overseas this financial year despite the fact that NBN has no international operations. Someone should teach them how to use Skype. And amazingly, on average each NBN employee has spent more than $800 on taxi and train fares so far this financial year.”
It is fascinating to see how the Coalition’s approach to the NBN has changed radically over the past several years as Malcolm Turnbull’s understanding and maturity in the portfolio has continually grown. I think it is a tribute to the quality of the NBN debate in Australia that we appear to now have come to a point where most sides of politics agree on the fundamental policy underpinnings of much of the policy, with appropriate differences higher up the stack. It would be fascinating to see precisely how the Coalition would (will?) approach the issue in practice if it took Government. I suspect much of NBN Co as an entity and the NBN as a policy would now survive — which is not something I would have said even a year ago.
Image credit: Office of Malcolm Turnbull