news Shadow Communications Minister has taken a verbal pick axe to a number of ‘pro-NBN specialist commentators’ who he said were delivering a “partisan ideology” and helping “fantasy” triumph over fact in the ongoing national debate over the specific details of how Labor’s flagship National Broadband Network project should go ahead.
In a speech given this morning to an event held by industry newsletter Communications Day in Melbourne (the full text is available online), Turnbull outlined a number of areas in which he believed his arguments were not being addressed seriously by commentators who he said were in favour of the NBN.
Several weeks ago, Delimiter described comments which Turnbull had made about NBN Co chief executive Mike Quigley as “slander” and “flatly offensive”, in an opinionated article arguing that Quigley had performed his role competently since being appointed to lead the national broadband effort in mid-2009, and that Turnbull was unfairly targeting the executive in ongoing personal attacks which had no basis in evidence.
“Two weeks ago I was accused of, and I quote, “slandering” Michael Quigley by expressing the opinion that, fine executive though he may be, he was not the right choice for NBN Co because he hadn’t previously managed either the deployment or day-to-day operation of a telecommunications network,” said Turnbull this morning.
“Mr Quigley’s career was spent at a vendor of networking equipment, where he was extremely successful. The fortunes of a networking vendor depend on designing, bringing to market and supporting excellent products that meet the needs of customers, and persuading carriers to buy them. Mr Quigley has not worked for a telecommunications carrier. He hasn’t ever been responsible for a network rollout, or an operating telecommunications business. Nor as it happens have any of the current Directors of NBN Co – there, we have five former bankers, two former McKinsey consultants, two former equipment vendors, but no former telecom executives.”
“In my view,” Turnbull added, “this has contributed to NBN Co setting for itself milestone after unrealistic milestone that it has abjectly failed to achieve. It has contributed to NBN Co’s culture of gold-plating and excessive spending, because if capital is no constraint and those supervising the enterprise are not directly familiar with its task, the safest option is to choose the most costly option, and the easiest way to deal with mounting pressure and slipping schedules is to throw money at them.”
In a second example, Turnbull said that he had been unfairly accused of “lying” for using the term “NBN” with respect to the Coalition’s rival broadband policy. In June the Liberal MP attracted criticism for giving what he described as a “solemn undertaking” that a Coalition Government would complete the NBN objective, with some commentators arguing at the time that Turnbull’s comments were misleading, given the fact that the Coalition is proposing to substantially modify the project, using lesser capacity fibre to the node technology, rather than the Federal Government’s fibre to the home-style deployment.
“For criticising Labor’s current version of the NBN and committing the Coalition to completing the NBN by changing the specifications (back, incidently to those which the NBN planned to use between 2007 and 2009) I am accused of ‘lying’ by using the very name ‘NBN’. As though NBN is a trademark owned by the Labor Party,” said Turnbull this morning.
“As though the stipulation that NBN be only used to refer to an FTTP network was handed down on tablets of stone from the mountain. As though there was no other NBN in the world, and the two years during which Labor’s NBN was also committed to a FTTN rollout never happened.”
In a third example of what Turnbull said was “fantasy triumphing over fact” was the “tired refrain” which “pro-NBN participants in the debate” were promulgating, that by continuing to use portions of Telstra’s existing copper network, the Coalition’s changes to the NBN would lock in high copper maintenance costs.
“As I’ve pointed out countless times, Senator Conroy has already locked in a fair chunk of these costs in – for the next 20 years at least, thanks to the contract for the [universal service obligation] he signed with Telstra earlier this year,” Turnbull said, referring to supporting commentary on the issue by Communications Day.
“I have never seen this point acknowleged by the likes of David Braue, Nick Ross, Renai Le May or the other so called specialist commentators in this space,” Turnbull said. “Or by Alan Kohler or John Durie.”
Lastly, Turnbull also attacked what he said was “a frequently heard canard” that the Coalition’s rival fibre to the node plan would be “a plunge into the unknown”, and devoid of any detail.
Turnbull has consistently declined to respond to a series of questions which Delimiter put to the Shadow Communications Minister regarding the FTTN policy. Those questions are:
- What international examples of FTTN-style broadband deployments do you consider most pertinent to the Australian situation, and why?
- How long do you estimate it would take, if the Coalition wins the next Federal Election, to deploy FTTN to more than 90 percent of the Australian population?
- What, specifically, do you estimate would be the cost difference between deploying FTTN and FTTH as part of the NBN rollout?
- Do you consider it possible to re-work the current Telstra/NBN contract to focus on FTTN instead of FTTH, and how long do you estimate this would take?
- What broad details of this contract would need to change, and how long do you anticipate the ACCC would take to approve a modified version?
- Do you have a long-term plan to upgrade a FTTN-style network to a FTTH-style network, or a medium-term plan to allow ad-hoc upgrades of this network to FTTH?
However, Turnbull said today that the claim that the Coalition’s FTTN proposal lacked detail was to a great extent, “nonsense”, given that a nationwide fibre to the node upgrade of Telstra’s copper network had been “painstakingly costed” and the associated logistics carefully analysed, “no less than eight times during the past eight years”.
“A series of evolving designs for such an upgrade were presented by Telstra to the Howard Government in November 2005, August 2006 and August 2007,” said Turnbull. He added that other groups such as the rival G9 consortium of telcos led by Optus, the respondents to Labor’s initial FTTN request for proposals process and others had put costed proposals forward regarding such an upgrade.
“In May 2008 Telstra’s then-CEO suggested the total cost of such a network running to 98 per cent of premises would be approximately $15 billion – or roughly three times the funding from taxpayers proposed by Labor,” said Turnbull. He added that the cost of FTTN deployment estimated by “most industry figures” with expertise in this area had fallen substantially since 2008 – by between ten and twenty percent. “So any proposition that the approached to upgraded broadband being proposed by the Coalition is a leap into the unknown is nonsense,” Turnbull said.
The Liberal MP added: “In short there’s a significant and growing gap between reality, the facts on the ground, and the political theatrics in Canberra. That gap, bluntly, reflects a refusal to acknowledge or take heed of the facts, much less adjust policy commitments or political narratives to be consistent with them.”
“Regrettably, the same disconnect – a heroic disregard for facts, evidence and accuracy – is increasingly a feature of the broadband debate. To hear Senator Conroy or media apologists for the NBN, you’d think the program is moving along swimmingly. You’d think nobody in Australia was in urgent need of a broadband upgrade, that nobody had been disadvantaged by the fact that after five years in office Labor had managed to connect a mere14,000 premises to its new fixed line and interim satellite networks.”
“You’d think that the sight of NBN Co spending like Louis XVI and showing just about as much respect for the needs and wishes of Australian taxpayers as Louis did for his was all part of the masterplan. Although the Bourbons never to my knowledge ordered their subjects to wear red underpants on their heads.”
In contrast with these arguments which Turnbull said were misleading, the Liberal MP put forward what he said were a number of “facts” which, he said, demonstrated that the NBN project was not on track.
These ranged from what Turnbull said was the fact that those Australians most in need of upgraded broadband speeds were not getting them, to the fact that the current number of connections to the NBN were one tenth of that forecast to have been connected by this point, to what Turnbull said was the fact that NBN Co is only connecting premises to its network at a rate of six per day.
In addition, Turnbull alleged that from November 2007 until December 2010, when it released NBN Co’s first formal corporate plan, the Government actually had no “workable, properly costed, publicly released business plan – a fact not once acknowledged by those who are loudest and most insistent in their demands for the Coalition in opposition to publicly release a fully costed alternative plan without access to any of the NBN Co’s contractual or technical information.”
Turnbull added that NBN Co was refusing to disclose what its fibre network was costing per premise to roll out, but his own estimates was showing that the company’s cost per premise was about $6,400, which he said was more than twice as high as any previous high-volume fibre rollout “anywhere in the world”.
In general, Turnbull said, the debate over the NBN was not based on realistic grounds. “ … if you want to assert that Versailles is in fact being built on a shoestring, on a budget so frugal it actually renders fibre to premises economically viable without massive implicit subsidies, yet you can’t provide detailed, logical responses grounded in empirical evidence to these questions, then you will understand why we find your assertions unpersuasive,” he said.
“Because contributions to the debate based on conjecture, hope, self-interest and blind faith in the heroic forecasts of an organization yet to meet a single one of its own deadlines are not good enough.”
Let me start with some commentary about the most important aspects of Malcolm Turnbull’s speech this morning.
Mr Turnbull, as a fellow ranter of many years’ standing, I feel it incumbent upon myself to congratulate you on one of the most epic, vitriolic, eloquent rants which anyone has every delivered regarding Labor’s National Broadband Network project. No, really. Your comments this morning went into so many different areas, with so much passion; from Mike Quigley to the NBN rollout speeds; from the financial picture to presumably biased journalists and everything in between. And there were liberal lashings of scorn and derision for those who don’t share your views on these issues.
I like to see people rant. When people express strong opinions, we get to see what they’re really made of. Do they have a burning fire in their chest for a certain topic? Do their opinions slant in a certain direction? To what extent do they understand the context of what they’re talking about, and what level of evidence do they put forward to support their views.
From Turnbull’s rant this morning we learn certain things. Firstly, the Shadow Communications Minister broadly feels as though his NBN arguments are not making headway with the media, and that this is because the media is not analytical enough and sufficiently evidence-based to examine the NBN situation with clarity.
Secondly, we learn that Turnbull is well-read and usually bases his arguments on evidence. Unlike previous Coalition Shadow Ministers in the Communications Portfolio, Turnbull actually knows what he is talking about when it comes to the industry, as is evidenced by his substantial knowledge of the economics of the NBN and how it matches up with the Coalition’s rival policy.
Lastly, from Turnbull’s comments this morning we also learn that the MP is a man of principles and convictions. Turnbull’s views on the competency and personal integrity of Mike Quigley have been shot down repeatedly over the past year; and he is broadly failing to make headway with his arguments that t the NBN project has gone off-track. Australia’s population remains overwhelmingly in favour of the project as a whole. However, Turnbull has not given up on commenting in these areas and has stuck to his guns. Some may argue that he’s shooting blanks, but you have to give him points for trying; Turnbull makes as many comments about telecommunications policy in any given month as most of the previous Shadow Communications Ministers (including Conroy himself) typically make over the period of a year.
In addition, Turnbull is correct in quite a few areas. The Coalition’s current NBN policy is substantially more advanced than Labor’s was before the 2007 Federal Election. NBN Co’s rollout has been substantially delayed. And he’s right that fibre to the node, like fibre to the home, is one viable and technically accepted path forward for Australia’s fixed telecommunications infrastructure.
However, in general reading Turnbull’s speech it feels as though there is a gap at the heart of his argument which he is not addressing.
As I wrote several months ago, Turnbull has consistently failed to demonstrate sufficient evidence for his claims that FTTN would be a better path forward for Australia’s future telecommunications needs than the current FTTH plan. He has consistently failed to demonstrate that the NBN is the train wreck which he describes it as. And he has consistently failed to produce sufficient evidence to demonstrate personal management failures by the highly regarded chief executive of NBN Co, Mike Quigley.
There is also the fact that many of these issues, as Turnbull himself pointed out today, have been being discussed in Australia for the better part of a decade now.
These two facts together amount to the fact that Turnbull has not injected enough new information into a very old debate to substantially shift that debate in the way he desires. He’s not making headway in convincing commentators such as yours truly because he simply has not provided enough evidence. I’ve been watching the NBN debate for the better part of a decade now, and like many others, I have seen many arguments come and go. The ones which have stuck around and stood the test of time are the ones which led to the current NBN strategy pushed by Labor. They are persuasive and popularly supported.
I really wish Malcolm Turnbull hadn’t delivered this NBN rant this morning. Last night, the Earl of Wentworth gave a sterling, intelligent and well-considered speech about Internet freedom which many of us admired. Then this morning he got up and gave an epic anti-NBN rant on topics we’ve heard a thousand times before, using well-worn arguments which have been threshed through many times already and broadly rejected. I find it hard to comprehend how these two speeches came from the same man.
This morning Turnbull admitted he would rather talk about other subjects than the NBN. In June 2009 Paul Keating said about Turnbull that he was brilliant and fearless, but that his character flaw was that he lacked judgment. Reading Turnbull’s impassioned anti-NBN rant this morning, it’s hard to disagree.