news Opposition Leader Tony Abbot’s statement that the Coalition’s NBN policy would deliver broadband speeds “at least five times faster than the current average” was only half-true, fact-checking website Politifact said yesterday, in an article which has been heavily disputed by Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
Politifact is a pioneering US-based website which has won awards for its approach of fact-checking major political statements. It uses a scale to rate politicians’ statements, ranging from “true” to “mostly true”, “half true”, “mostly false”, “false”. There are also other ratings such as “flip flop”. The most extreme rating is given to politicians who make ridiculous claims which cannot be supported by evidence, which Politifact rates as “Pants on Fire!”.
In Australia, the Politifact name has been licensed to a new site launched this year by former Sydney Morning Herald editor-in-chief and Sydney University professor in media and politics Peter Fray, along with a number of other journalist figures.
Late yesterday the site published an article fact-checking a claim made by Abbott in his Budget reply speech to the National Press Club in Canberra in May. At the time, Abbott said: “Within three years, the Coalition’s NBN will deliver broadband speeds at least five times faster than the current average.”
Citing the basis of Abbott’s claim as being average broadband connection speeds of 4.2Mbps in a report published by Akamai in April 2013, Politifact rated Abbott’s claim “half-true”, on the basis that the Coalition’s rival NBN policy would see basic download speeds of at least 25Mbps supplied to the Australian population, using a combination of fibre to the node, fibre to the premises, satellite and wireless broadband services.
However, the site also noted that there was a valid question about whether the 4.2Mbps figure was a fair average speed for the Coalition to cite, given that the author of the Akamai report highlighted that it was only one figure contained in the report — and that average peak connection speed would also be a useful measure. In addition, Politifact noted that the Coalition’s NBN policy did not deal with upload speeds, and that Abbott might have been “on firmer ground” if the Opposition Leader had stuck to the 25Mbps pledge, rather than discussing average speeds. “As it stands, we think his statement leaves out some important details,” Politifact wrote.
Turnbull has already issued a fiery statement disputing a number of Politifact’s core premises in its article. For starters, the Liberal MP rejected the claim by the author of the Akamai report that the Coalition could have used the average peak connection speed figure (23.4Mbps) in its calculations, rather than the average connection speed.
“If we had been comparing average peak connection speeds under our NBN plan with the status quo, that point may have been valid,” Turnbull wrote. “But the 25Mbps speed is not either an average speed or an average peak connection speed. It is the MINIMUM line speed that the network will be designed to deliver. In other words nobody will be in a position where they cannot access at least 25Mbps.”
“The whole point about the Coalition’s policy is that we should be addressing the ‘Digital Divide’ in Australia as a matter of national priority,” Turnbull added. “This means upgrading those 2 million households in Australia whose Internet connection is so poor, they can’t even access a YouTube video in Australia.”
“Or put another way, what would the public policy benefit be to the country if Telstra decided to upgrade its existing HFC network to offer speeds well in excess of 100 mbps – say to 300 mbps? In the absence of anything being done to improve the line speeds of those without broadband, Australia’s average peak connection speeds would nonetheless increase but the digital divide would be wider and that investment would have a much lower overall productivity impact than if it were invested in ensuring that everybody had access to very fast broadband.”
Turnbull also attacked the claim that the Coalition could not guarantee 25Mbps. Various technology commentators have long highlighted the variable nature of the speeds available under the Coalition’s key fibre to the node technology as limiting the technical promises which the Coalition would be able to make about the performance of the network. “This claim is simply false,” said Turnbull. “It would help if Politifact had actually read the Coalition policy.”
“If the general point is that the Coalition cannot guarantee every house will get 25mbps on each existing copper pair without any remediation, then they might have a point. But that is not our policy. We will not direct the NBN Co they must use one single technology nor have we said that there shall be no remediation or even replacement of some copper in the last few hundred metres to the home.”
“The single most important point about our policy is that we have set a speed mandate rather than a technology mandate. As we state in our policy (p.6): ‘Broadband policy should be about efficiently meeting community needs, not advocating for a particular technology. Networks should be upgraded in the most cost-effective way using the best-matched technology.'”
“But for Politifact to claim that FTTN is incapable of 25 mbps is to ignore what’s happening elsewhere in the world. BT is offering 80/20mbps services today and will improve those speeds when it deploys vectoring. Deutsche Telekom is deploying FTTN and will offer 100/40mbps services – currently the top speed tier offered over the fibre to the premise NBN. In short – FTTN is technically capable of delivery 25 mbps (and much higher speeds) depending on the length and the quality of the copper between the node and the home. The NBN will be required to ensure that every premise has access to at least that line speed and if this requires shortening the copper loop, remediating it or indeed replacing it with fibre that will be done.”
Turnbull also questioned Politifact’s claim that the Coalition has not mandated upload speeds through its NBN policy.
“If the point Politifact is making is that FTTN is incapable of high upload speeds, they are wrong – as the real world examples of BT and Deutsche Telekom show,” Turnbull said. “If the point is that we should have mandated upload speeds or have secret plans to throttle download speeds, they are wrong again. As Alcatel recently noted, the GPON network the NBN is building is not symmetrical. While it is technically capable of delivering more symmetrical services than vectored VDSL, the differences are not that great – and besides, “overall traffic patterns are asymmetrical and are becoming more so over time”.
“The point is that we will empower the NBN Co management to allocate upload capacity that is commensurate to market demand. The standard in commercial FTTN deployments is a ratio of around 4:1 of download:upload and we would expect that to be the case here which would mean that most customers on the FTTN portion of the network would have access to 10 mbps upload or more and none would have access to less than 5 or 6 mbps. Remember videoconferencing requires 2 mbps.”
However, not everyone supports Turnbull’s interpretation of the technical underpinnings of the Coalition’s rival NBN policy. Technology commentator Kieran Cummings — a long-time critic of the Coalition’s NBN policy — has published an extensive criticism of Turnbull’s comments on his blog.
Politifact has previously found similar issues with the Labor Federal Government not telling the whole truth with respect to the various NBN policies. In mid-May, for example, Politifact gave a “mostly false” rating to Labor’s claim that the Coalition’s National Broadband Network policy will see Australians charged $5,000 for access to fibre broadband infrastructure, and in early June it gave a “mostly true” rating to statement by Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull that connecting to Labor’s NBN infrastructure will not be “free”, as various Labor politicians have claimed.
Based on the evidence presented, I support Politifact’s view here. It is true that Akamai’s report (one of the most credible around, in terms of average broadband speeds) did find that Australia’s average connection speeds are 4.2Mbps. And it is true that the Coalition has guaranteed minimum connection speeds of 25Mbps under its NBN policy. Abbott isn’t just making stuff up here — there is a degree of truth to what he’s saying.
However, as Politifact has also noted, Abbott and Turnbull are very far indeed from telling the whole truth here. Their interpretation of the situation is very limited and designed to show the Coalition’s NBN policy in a favourable light. The only problem is, as I have written repeatedly, that the Coalition’s NBN policy is not as strong a policy as Labor’s existing, more visionary all-fibre NBN policy. Often the only way to make the Coalition’s NBN policy appear in a favourable light is to be selective with the facts, and that is precisely what is happening here.