analysis The Coalition’s rival National Broadband Network policy has copped a lot of flak over the past several weeks. Business Spectator commentator Alan Kohler described it as “madness” and analyst Paul Budde described the UK model it’s based on as “unconvincing”. But there’s still a lot of reasons to like the policy — and here’s five.
Broadly, the Coalition’s rival NBN policy focuses on a number of key planks. These are: Rolling out fibre to neighbourhood ‘nodes’ instead of all the way to the ‘premises’ under the Government’s NBN project; maintaining the existing HFC cable networks of Telstra and Optus; using satellite and perhaps wireless to service rural areas and separating Telstra’s retail and wholesale operations to enhance telecommunications competition.
Much of this would be done within the existing framework of the National Broadband Network Company, but Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has controversially claimed that the Coalition’s policy could be implemented “sooner, cheaper and more affordably for users”. Many commentators have strongly debated these points, and many also feel Turnbull hasn’t yet provided enough justification for why a FTTN-style rollout would be better in the long-term for Australia than the current FTTH-style deployment. However, with all this in mind and in the spirit of positivity, here’s five reasons to like the policy in general.
1. It’s 10,000 times better than the Coalition’s last policy
Unveiled during the last Federal Election by then-bumbling Shadow Communications Minister Tony Smith, the Coalition’s previous telecommunications policy was a trainwreck of a policy and contributed, according to Liberal Party research, to its loss of that election. The policy focused on a competitive backhaul network, regional and metropolitan wireless networks and an ADSL enrichment program, but was vastly inferior to Labor’s much more comprehensive NBN vision.
If the Coalition had won the last election, Australia’s telecommunications infrastructure would have inched forward at a snail’s pace for the next few years and there would have been no long-term solution to separating Telstra’s operations or upgrading its copper network.
In comparison, the Coalition’s current policy at least attempts to address most of the benefits slated to accrue from the NBN, providing an alternative replacement strategy for much of the copper last mile network to premises and a viable upgrade path for the future — as well as basics like satellite to rural areas and separating Telstra. Trust me, the current policy is a thousand times better than the last one.
2. It’s steered by a Shadow Minister who deeply understands the portfolio
Before Liberal MP Malcolm Turnbull was appointed Shadow Communications Minister in late 2010, the Coalition had a handful of MPs in the post who never really understood what they were talking about. Bruce Billson, Tony Smith and Nick Minchin, who held the portfolio’s reins for the Coalition from 2007 through late 2010, didn’t appear to follow events in the telecommunications industry from a day to day viewpoint and didn’t issue regular statements on the NBN debate, leaving Labor with almost complete free reign in the area.
In comparison, since he took on the portfolio, Turnbull has made a strenuous and genuine effort to educate himself about it, subscribing to industry journals, constantly consulting sector experts and conducting international study trips to broadband-rich countries like South Korea, as well as comparable Western countries like the UK.
But more than this, Turnbull just ‘gets’ technology. From his investments in companies like OzEmail to being one of the first parliamentarians to fall in love with the iPad, and even his comprehensive website, Turnbull is one of the most ‘tech-friendly’ politicians in the Federal Government and we love him for it. This factor is also translating into significantly better and more nuanced Coalition policy in the area of telecommunications.
3. We’ll still get faster speeds
Estimates vary extremely wildly as to what sorts of end user speeds a national FTTN network will provide Australians with or even to what degree it is feasible. In addition, there are a stack of other measures which are important when measuring the quality of telecommunications infrastructure. Upload speeds, latency, the ability to provide competitive access, reliability and future upgradability are all important factors.
But when you really get down to it, the most important factor for any future broadband network for Australia is still speed. Most Australians are still stuck on sub-par ADSL speeds — usually below 16Mbps and often below 12Mbps or even lower. Under the Coalition’s policy, most Australians are likely to see radically improved broadband speeds before 2020, and that’s the single most important thing which is in demand from politicians right now when it comes to broadband. People want faster broadband, to more of the country. Sure, we’ll get significantly faster speeds under Labor’s FTTH NBN, as well as all the other factors such as better latency and upload speeds, but I think a lot of Australians would settle for any upgrade at all right now, in the context of a chronic lack of investment in this area by telcos over the past half-decade since ADSL2+ was implemented.
4. NBN Co will remain in place
There has been a gargantuan amount of work put in over the past three years into the setup of the National Broadband Network Company. Since it was formed in April 2009, NBN Co has evolved from a small startup to a large company with more than a thousand staff located right around Australia. It has offices in every major capital city, an operations centre in Melbourne, a call centre located in Queensland, comprehensive back-office IT systems for billing and operations, and most important, a huge internal competency when it comes to deploying network infrastructure of any kind.
All of the planning for the NBN has now been done, and while it would be a colossal pain for NBN Co to switch its deployment model drastically as the Coalition is proposing, we have confidence that the engineers and executives at NBN Co can handle this sort of disruption with aplomb. Up until 2009 or so, almost all debate over Australia’s future telecommunications needs assumed that a major private corporation like Telstra or Optus would be working with the Government to deploy next-generation broadband infrastructure.
The fact that NBN Co is now in play as an independent, publicly owned organisation which focuses on network infrastructure in Australia is a huge plus, and it’s an even bigger plus that the Coalition has pledged to retain the organisation to serve its future policy needs. NBN Co has come a long way since Turnbull was ordered to “demolish” the NBN project. This is not an organisation which is going to be demolished any time soon.
5. The Coalition is always good for a joke
With the increased focus on national telecommunications policy by the Coalition over the past several years has also come a simultaneous series of hilarious public jokes by senior conservative figures commenting on matters of broadband. Whether it’s Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey claiming that 4G mobile broadband has the potential to be “far superior” to the NBN’s fibre, Liberal MP Don Randall claiming that Telstra’s wireless can exceed fibre, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott admitting that he’s “no Bill Gates” or even conservative shockjocks like Alan Jones talking about NBN “lasers”, there’s always some amusing statement coming from the conservative side of politics about the NBN which has us in stitches.
If the Coalition wasn’t focusing so much on telecommunications policy these days, Australia’s technology sector wouldn’t have half so many chances to get outraged at the latest stupid thing one of its members of parliament has said, and life wouldn’t be half as entertaining as it is now. This kind of satire almost writes itself. Face it, many of you are sitting bored at your desk on a Monday morning right now, and if a senior Coalition figure said something stupid about the NBN, it would be instantly entertaining and give you the chance to rant on Internet forums like Delimiter.
If the Coalition didn’t care about national telecommunications policy, it wouldn’t always be putting its foot in its mouth so much on the subject, and life would be a lot less entertaining. Plus, there’s nothing that technologists like better than to correct someone who has made a technically incorrect statement.
To sum up (and in all seriousness), there really is a lot to like about the Coalition’s rival NBN policy. It’s 10,000 times better than the last policy, it’s steered by the first Coalition Communications Spokesperson in half a decade who really “gets” technology, it will still provide Australians with dramatically faster broadband speeds through the avenue of the strongly competent engineers at NBN Co, and along the way we all get to have a big fat belly laugh every time a Coalition politician says something stupid. What more could you want?