news Labor politicians around the nation are continuing to claim that the Coalition’s rival National Broadband Network policy requires Australians to pay $5,000 or be left with current broadband speeds on the existing copper network, despite the allegation having been comprehensive debunked by fact-checking sites like Politifact.
The Coalition’s rival NBN policy, unveiled in mid-April this year, will see most of Australia covered by fibre to the node technology, where fibre is extended from telephone exchanges to neighbourhood ‘nodes’. The existing copper network will be used to deliver the last mile to home and business premises, but the rollout is expected to significantly boost broadband speeds and availability, with the Coalition pledging minimum speeds of 25Mbps by the end of its third year in office, if it wins the upcoming Federal Election.
Subject to certain conditions, one additional feature of the policy will see the Coalition offer Australians the choice to upgrade their connection to fibre to the premises as under Labor’s existing NBN policy. The Coalition believes it will be possible to offer this kind of service on a similar basis as it is offered in the UK, where wholesale telco OpenReach is offering so-called ‘fibre on demand’ extension services at a price depending on how far premises are from their nearby node.
According to OpenReach’s price list, costs for the fibre extension service include a £500 (AU$823) initial connection fee and ‘annual rental’ cost of £465 (AU$765), plus a specific charge ranging from £200 (AU$329) up to £3,500 (AU$5,762), depending on the distance premises are from local nodes.
Throughout May, this led a number of Australian Labor politicians, including then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard and then-Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, to claim that the cost of the Coalition’s FTTP on demand service will be $5,000, with the implication that unless Australians pay for this fibre extension cost, they will be getting broadband little better than that offered today on Telstra’s existing copper network.
However, the Coalition has strongly contested the claim, and in May, local fact-checking site Politifact agreed with Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull that the claim wasn’t true.
In one of its first articles since establishing its operations this year, Politifact Australia used a number of sources to judge the $5,000 claim, using one particular example given by Prime Minister Julia Gillard. It concluded the claim was “mostly false”, due to the fact that Gillard’s wording stated the cost was actually $5,000 per premise, and that it also implied that those who did not pay $5,000 would not be connected to the Coalition’s NBN broadband infrastructure at all. In fact, they will be.
Additionally, OpenReach’s site states: “Premises are on average around 500m away from an NGA Aggregation Node and will incur a charge of around a £1,000. Those that are closer will face a lesser charge and those further away a higher one. This is in addition to an installation fee of £500 for the service.”
The Coalition has set a speed minimum of 25Mbps for its FTTN network rollout. Consequently, the Coalition is assuming (although it believes it will ultimately be a matter for NBN Co to decide) that the maximum copper length in its FTTN network rollout will be between 750m ad 850 from local neighbourhood nodes. In OpenReach’s pricing schematic, this would translate to between £1,400 and £1,800 (AU$2,304 to AU$2,963) for the fibre extension cost, plus the additional £500 (AU$823) connection cost, making Labor’s statement that the cost of the Coalition’s FTTP on demand service will be, or will be on average, $5,000, inaccurate.
However, Labor politicians continue to make the claim.
In an interview with West Coast Radio published on 27 June, then-Communications Minister Stephn Conroy made the following claim: “Tony Abbott keeps referring to things done in England to give the public an idea of how fibre to the node would work; and they’ve said it will cost thousands of dollars,” Mr Conroy said. “Of course it all depends on how far away you live from the ‘node’. It works out to be about $5000 Australian on average.”
In addition, Labor Senator Helen Polley recently authorised the following advertisement to be placed in newspapers in Tasmania. It claims that under Labor’s NBN policy, connection to the NBN will be “free”, while under the Coalition policy, “You pay up to $5,000, or you’re left on the old, slow copper network.”
Polley’s advertisement is misleading in that it implies Australians who don’t pay up to $5,000 for the Coalition’s fibre extension option would not see any improvement in broadband speeds. However, this isn’t true; the fibre to the node rollout proposed by the Coalition would see minimum speeds boosted to 25Mbps. Most Australians who are able to get ADSL broadband can only access speeds much slower (usually below 16Mbps or so, even if they are close to their local telephone exchange) over the copper. In addition, the 25Mbps figure is only a minimum — the Coalition expects real-world speeds to be higher for many Australians.
Politifact has also fact-checked a statement by Turnbull that connecting to Labor’s NBN will not be “free”. Politifact rated Turnbull’s statement mostly true, noting that “regardless of who wins government, consumers will need to pay to contract a retail service provider” for the privilege of connecting to the NBN. “Turnbull says ‘connection to the NBN is not free’,” Politifact wrote. “On being told they need to pay an RSP to get online, many consumers would probably agree.”
Turnbull has complained to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission on the issue, alleging that the Australian Government, through its ministers’ statements about the NBN being “free”, had contravened the Competition and Consumer Act, which prohibits organisations from making misleading or deceptive conduct.
It pains me to say it, but the Coalition is completely right to feel like Labor is unfairly taking the electorate for a ride here. Many of the statements and advertisements being put out by Labor politicians at the moment drastically misrepresent the Coalition’s NBN policy and even Labor’s own NBN policy. Despite the fact that senior Labor politicians such as Stephen Conroy would clearly be aware of the nuances of both policies, they continue to make misstatements that mislead Australians about the issues.
Conroy’s statement in particular in late June about the “average” cost of FTTP on demand being $5,000 can clearly be labelled as a deliberate lie on the part of the then-Communications Minister. Conroy is one of the most educated and qualified individuals in Australia on the nuances of the NBN debate; and it is very clear that the then-Minister would have been aware that the $5,000 claim represents the upper limit of OpenReach’s FTTP on demand costs, not the “average”. In this sense, it is possible to establish both awareness of the truth and intent to deceive — the conditions for establishing a lie by a politician.
It is also disturbing that Conroy appears to have done nothing to combat the deliberately misleading advertisements which Labor is publishing around Australia with respect to the various policies. Polley’s ad isn’t the first time we’ve seen this kind of propaganda from Labor about the NBN; far from it. In fact, it’s my impression that it is likely, given the similarity of many of these ads, that Conroy’s office, when he was the Minister up until last week, probably collaborated in setting Labor’s central political messaging on this issue. Not only did the then-Minister appear to not do anything to stop these misleading statements being made in public; it appears likely that he may have contributed to the misleading dialogue going on.
Is the Coalition blameless here? Of course not. The Coalition has been out and out misleading Australians about the NBN project for the last several years almost continuously. I usually haven’t labelled most of those instances ‘lies’ per se, because it’s hard to prove whether there is definite knowledge of the truth and intent to deceive, but there is absolutely no doubt that figures such as Turnbull, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey, Nationals Leader Warren Truss and others have wilfully peddled a constant string of half-truths and misconceptions about the NBN over the past several years.
But that doesn’t excuse Labor’s work here. If the party wants to regain some of the respectability it has lost over the past several years (remembering especially the broken promises generally, corruption in the NSW Labor Party and divisive politics it has partaken of, then a good place to start would be to clean up its act in terms of how it communicates with the public on core policies such as the NBN. The Australian public isn’t stupid. It knows a whopper when it sees one.
Image credit: Labor advertisement