opinion Last week Malcolm Turnbull delivered a series of very strong, evidence-based answers to key questions about his rival NBN policy, demonstrating that he would be a safe pair of hands to steward the nation’s broadband future. But, despite his eloquence and depth of knowledge, the Liberal MP has still failed to convince Australia’s technical community that his policy is better than Labor’s.
As some readers may remember, in late July this year Delimiter put a series of questions to Turnbull, in an effort to get the Shadow Communications Minister to further detail the Coalition’s rival NBN policy. The context at the time was that Turnbull was strongly pushing the idea of using a FTTN style of broadband rollout to meet the Coalition’s stated aim of completing the NBN “sooner, cheaper and more affordably for users”.
FTTN is a deployment style which would see fibre extended from Telstra’s telephone exchanges located around the nation to neighbourhood cabinets, instead of all the way to premises as under Labor’s plan (Fibre to the Home, or FTTH). The remaining distance would be covered by Telstra’s existing copper cable. When it took power in November 2007, the current Labor administration also had a FTTN-based policy, but it switched to a more comprehensive FTTH-based policy in April 2009 after a panel of experts rejected private sector bids to build the NBN and recommended the Government go it alone with a more ambitious rollout.
Last week, four months later, Turnbull finally responded to those questions, and reading through them, I found it very hard to fault most of his answers. If I examine most of them, Turnbull has responded convincingly and well.
Let’s go through a few examples. Delimiter’s first question asked Turnbull what international examples of FTTN-style deployments did the Shadow Communications Minister consider most pertinent to the Australian situation, and why. Turnbull’s answer to this question was extremely brief, but salient, citing the US and the UK, where major telcos AT&T and BT are indeed focusing on using FTTN-style deployments to upgrade their existing copper networks.
Turnbull is right in that these are solid examples relevant to the Australian situation. In the US, AT&T’s so-called “U-verse” fibre to the node build was scheduled to hit some 30 million homes by the end of 2012 (consisting of some 55 to 60 percent of the company’s addressable footprint). The platform provides speeds up to 24Mbps, although such speeds are generally much more guaranteed at various tiers, compared to the so-called “up to 24Mbps” speeds which Australia’s current ADSL2+ footprint offers. In the UK, BT is rolling out fibre to the node in a number of areas and plans to achieve 80Mbps download speeds and 20Mbps upload speeds this year, while in Germany, Deutsche Telekom is also rolling out fibre to the node to millions of homes.
These examples aren’t vendor hype on paper – they’re examples where real-world telcos, incumbents like Telstra, are deploying FTTN networks, as Telstra itself proposed back in 2005 under then-chief executive Sol Trujillo. The sheer truth of the matter is that if Telstra and the then-Howard Government had been able to agree on regulatory settings the best part of a decade ago, then Australia would very likely have a national fibre to the node network right now – and probably the overwhelming majority of residents and many businesses would be quite happy with it.
In other answers to different questions, Turnbull also demonstrated a strong, evidence-based approach. Asked about the fact that many believe a long-term shift to FTTH will be needed anyway, Turnbull pointed out that current technology allowed FTTN networks to be built with a long-term shift to FTTH anyway, meaning that you can have “the best of both worlds”.
Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has described Turnbull’s FTTN policy as a technical “dead end”, claiming that the technology used to deploy FTTN can’t be upgraded to support FTTH in future. But the truth is that Conroy’s wrong about this. AT&T in the US, for example, is using Alcatel-Lucent Intelligent Service Access Manager (ISAM) devices which the vendor explicitly notes on its website can support both FTTH and FTTN, including a “smooth evolution” from a copper-based network to a fibre-based one.
On other points Turnbull also demonstrated a strong, evidence-based approach. It is true, for example, that FTTN can be deployed faster and at lesser cost than FTTH. It is true that Telstra, for example, has publicly said it doesn’t see many obstacles to working with a Coalition Government on a different type of network deployment. It is true that lessons about FTTN and its sister technology, VDSL, can be garnered from Europe particularly, where the deployment style does appear to be gaining ascendancy over the FTTH style supported by Labor.
Overall, after reading through his answers with a calm head and following up the evidence that he referenced, I walked away with the belief that the Coalition’s NBN policy is workable, achievable, and supported by international examples. It would deliver a fundamental improvement to broadband service delivery in Australia that almost every Australian would welcome, and it would finally bring Australia’s telecommunications infrastructure in line with an upgrade path followed by many other countries globally. It’s a good policy, and very well-researched.
What I like about Turnbull’s policy is that it would focus on continuing to use much of the nation’s existing telecommunications networks, while kickstarting development in areas where better infrastructure is urgently needed. It’s not a revolutionary policy, but an evolutionary one, based on lessons both from within Australia and internationally. Of course, there are caveats; Turnbull hasn’t actually produced a formal policy document yet, and doubts remain about whether Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and other senior Coalition politicians are fully behind Turnbull’s vision, but I’m prepared to take Turnbull at face value on these issues for now, and accept that we’ll know more closer to the next Federal Election.
At this stage of this article, many readers are no doubt questioning whether I’ve turned to the dark side and have started to drink Turnbull’s kool-aid.
I can just imagine the comments that would be posted on Delimiter if I concluded the article at this point. “Bias!!!!” several of the more shrill readers would scream. “Renai is bias! He’s succumbed to Turnbull’s reality distortion field! He’s a Liberal stooge!” Others would merely accuse me of sacrificing my intellect at the altar of journalistic respectability and claim that I was trying to achieve some spurious notion of “balance” by alternately praising both Conroy and Turnbull, in a promiscuous attempt to keep both sides happy with me. But I digress; this article isn’t going to finish at this point; so read on as I feebly attempt to redeem myself in your jaded eyes.
The truth of the matter is that Turnbull’s NBN policy, as it stands, is the second-best telecommunications policy I’ve ever seen presented in Australia. It’s better than the threadbare vision which Kevin Rudd and Stephen Conroy took to the 2007 Federal Election. It’s better than the half-baked OPEL vision which Howard-era Communications Minister Helen Coonan was pitching before that point. It’s better than the deregulation-era policies which were around in the 1990’s, as it blends both market competition and government intervention together usefully (although they were needed, they weren’t comprehensive), and it’s obviously a damn sight better than the tripe which then-Shadow Communications Minister Tony Smith took to the 2010 Federal Election – you know, the policy launch Tony Abbott didn’t even both to turn up for and couldn’t even explain when asked about it.
Yes, friends, Turnbull’s NBN policy has evolved into a worthy, achievable, well-thought out telecommunications policy. But it’s not as good a policy as Stephen Conroy’s NBN vision – the best telecommunications policy which Australia has ever had.
It’s easy to count the reasons why. It doesn’t really matter that FTTN is a solid technology which will deliver better broadband to Australia. Labor’s vision uses fundamentally better technology than the Coalition’s – technology which will future-proof the nation for the next fifty years, instead of the next dozen. Technology that allows both upload and download speeds which better the Coalition’s model, and where that fibre technology is simply ridiculously expensive to deploy, wireless and satellite technology which is already providing huge service delivery improvements to the bush.
It doesn’t really matter that the Coalition’s FTTN rollout will “cost less”, because Labor has pretty exhaustively demonstrated that its FTTH vision will eventually pay for itself. It doesn’t really matter that the Coalition’s FTTN rollout will be delivered a handful of years sooner, because Labor’s vision will see much better broadband delivered over a much longer period. Don’t do it halfway – do it right the first time, and benefit for the next 50 years.
It doesn’t really matter that countries such as the US, the UK and Germany are delivering FTTN networks, because Australia shouldn’t want to be equal with those countries on any front. We should want to exceed them – and the NBN is one massive way in which we can do that as a nation. It doesn’t matter that it’s possible to re-work Telstra’s $11 billion contract with NBN Co to support a FTTN network build, and it doesn’t matter that that might not take that long. Because Labor has already negotiated extensive contracts with both Telstra and Optus; those contracts are in place right now and are delivering on their aims.
Do you get where I’m going here? The sheer fact of the matter is that Labor’s NBN vision uses better technology than the Coalition’s, it represents a better long-term vision for Australia’s telecommunications needs, it will be delivered in a time frame which on a long or even medium-term scale is pretty indistinguishable from the Coalition’s and it won’t cost more because it will pay for itself. Plus, it will vault Australia past our rivals in terms of our telecommunications capacity – and all the private and public sector benefits that entails – instead of merely bringing us up to speed.
Often in life we’re faced with choices. I like Carlton Draught beer, for example (on some nights I’ve liked it a little too much and ended up with a headache the next morning). But I prefer to drink Coopers Pale Ale – in my view it’s a better beer. Similarly, I usually prefer Thai food to Chinese food – there’s something about the Thai combination of spices which I love.
But these are matters of opinion; there isn’t really one right answer. Some people will prefer a certain option over another one, and it’s impossible to say that they’re wrong, just that you disagree. When it comes to government policy, this is often the case. Vast disagreements exist between different political views on the efficacy of different types of policies.
But when it comes to technology, it is usually always the case that there are better and worse options. Fixed broadband technology can almost always be empirically shown to have better latency and bandwidth than wireless broadband technology. Flash SSD drives can be shown to have better read speeds than traditional magnetic optical drives. LCD screens are just … better than the old CRT alternatives. As the march of technology progresss, old technology is replaced by new – sometimes, as in the case of national telecommunications networks, once every 100 years. Sometimes, as in the case of mobile phone handsets, every year like clockwork. If you can afford it, everyone who works in technology knows that you should go for the best technology available. And in the case of the NBN, Australia can definitely afford to roll out fibre around the nation.
Turnbull has convinced me personally – and no doubt many other Australians – that the Coalition has a solid, workable and achievable broadband policy. But it’s not the best policy out there. That policy belongs to the Australian Labor Party, and that’s the Coalition’s real battle right now – to convince the everyday joe on the street that what it’s offering is better than what the next guy is. That, after all, is what politics is all about. Not showing that you’re good enough — but that you’re better.