news A “devastating” leaked internal NBN analysis partially published over the past week “pulls apart” the Coalition’s Fibre to the Node plan for the National Broadband, the Opposition said this week, as pressure grows on Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull over the issue.
In a series of articles published late last week and early this week through the Sydney Morning Herald and ZDNet Australia, freelance journalist David Braue detailed the contents of an internal document produced by NBN Co for the Department of Communications during the Caretaker Period immediately prior to the Federal Election in September.
The document analyses the Coalition’s NBN policy in detail and raises significant concerns about its viability in a number of areas, highlighting numerous legislative, construction and technical challenges which NBN Co believes are likely to blow out the Coalition’s 2016 and 2019 delivery deadlines.
The NBN Co analysis details NBN Co’s belief that the Fibre to the Node technology preferred by the Coalition will require a significantly higher degree of skills to deploy than Labor’s preferred Fibre to the Premises model, that the associated IT systems are considered “high risk”, that NBN Co cannot guarantee FTTN can deliver the Coalition’s planned 50Mbps minimum speeds, amid other concerns.
Most informed commentators do not consider such obstacles insurmountable. Comparable FTTN rollouts have successfully been conducted in a number of other major countries, including the UK, Germany, France, the Unites States and more. The rollout approach has proven particularly successful in the UK, where incumbent British telco BT revealed in July that it had passed some 16 million premises with its FTTN implementation, delivering speeds up to 76Mbps, and with 1.7 million customers already connected.
In addition, most of the concerns outlined in Braue’s articles have previously been outlined by various commentators and technical experts in the telecommunications sector over the past half-decade that various NBN rollout technologies have been debated in Australia.
However, the document represents the first time NBN Co itself is known to have taken a position on the Coalition’s NBN policy, displaying for the first time how deeply the company which is tasked with implementing that policy is concerned that it will not be able to deliver on the Coalition’s agenda.
Speaking in Federal Parliament on Wednesday, Shadow Communications Minister Jason Clare said the report was “pretty devastating” for the Coalition’s plans.
“It pulls apart the government’s plan for fibre to the node and essentially says that it cannot be implemented in the time frame the government has set,” Clare said. “According to reports in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age, the coalition’s NBN plan is inadequate, poorly planned and unlikely to be completed on time.”
“The reports say that the revenue the NBN will make under the coalition’s plan will drop by up to 30 per cent. They also say it will compromise the provision of telehealth, distance education, internet TV and other business applications.”
“Of most concern, though, the reports say that the coalition’s promise to provide everyone in Australia with access to 25 megabits per second by 2016 is unlikely to be able to be implemented. Ziggy Switkowski said something similar when he gave evidence to the Senate committee last week. He described keeping this promise—the promise to all Australians to get access to 25 megabits per second by 2016—as ‘very, very demanding’. That is code or bureaucratic-speak for ‘not going to happen’.”
Speaking on the Today Show last Friday morning, Turnbull attempted to discredit the document. The Minister claimed (video available online) that the document had not, in fact, been prepared for the incoming Coalition Government as Braue had initially stated. Turnbull claimed that the document had actually been prepared “more than six months ago” by NBN Co’s previous management for the then-Labor administration.
However, Braue has since provided evidence in the form of limited screenshots of the leaked document that it was prepared during the “Caretaker Period” at the request of the Department of Communications and not six months ago as Turnbull claimed.
Turnbull’s office has not responded to a request for the Minister to retract the comment. In addition, the Department of Communications has also declined to release the Minister’s incoming ministerial brief either voluntarily or under Freedom of Information laws. The document may contain some of the same criticism levelled by NBN Co towards the Coalition’s NBN policy.
In Parliament, Clare said that although Labor had lost the election, it won the debate on broadband. “People did not vote for the government because of their broadband policy; in fact, I suspect many people voted for the government in spite of it.”
The Shadow Minister said the Coalition should take the same approach taken by Liberal Opposition Leader and then Prime Minister Robert Menzies back in 1949. Menzies opposed another mammoth infrastructure project — the Snowy Mountains Scheme — in opposition, before having a change of heart and supporting it in Government.
“The Prime Minister is no Robert Menzies, but the Minister for Communications could be,” said Clare. “He could have the same change of heart that Robert Menzies had. He gets it, he understands it. In his heart of hearts he knows how important this project is.”
“He knows that 25 megabits per second is not going to be enough, more than enough, for the average household. He knows that creating a digital divide between areas with fibre and those without, building new estates that will have fibre to the premises while old estates have fibre to the node, is bad policy, that we should not be creating a society of haves and have-nots. He knows enough to know better. It is not too late for the Minister for Communications to become another Menzies.”
Image credit: United States Geological Survey, public domain