“Policy vacuum”: iiNet slams politicians’ NBN ‘fail’



news Australia’s third-largest broadband player iiNet has opened a broadside on the nation’s political class over the “policy vacuum” the ISP says exists in telecommunications policy, agreeing with veteran analyst Paul Budde that further discussion is needed around the actual uses of upgraded broadband infrastructure and less discussion of entry level broadband speeds.

Over the past decade, Australia’s two major sides of politics have been unable to come to agreement over how Telstra’s copper telephone network, which most Australians use to access broadband services, should be upgraded.

Both sides of politics have had policies featuring upgrades such as Fibre to the Premises or Fibre to the Node for the copper network, but have been unable to have the policies implemented. A key related issue is that Australia’s politicians have not mandated the structural separation of the incumbent telco’s retail and wholesale arms, meaning it had little incentive to upgrade its network on its own.

In comparison, other countries such as the UK, Singapore and New Zealand are already substantially down the path of upgrading their national copper networks. This has meant Australia is rapidly falling behind global rival countries when it comes to the level of telecommunications infrastructure available in Australia.

Some commentators, such as Paul Budde, have consistently highlighted the fact that the debate in Australia is focused on short-term broadband measures such as entry-level speeds, rather than the long-term impact on the economy, healthcare, education, business, productivity and access to government services that is considered very likely to ensue from the ubiquitous availability of high-speed broadband.

Today iiNet, which has claimed a large share of the early retail customer base on Labor’s National Broadband Network project, published an extremely strongly worded submission to the Federal Senate Select Committee on the NBN (PDF).

In it, iiNet wrote that NBN Co’s Strategic Review published late last year, the Government’s planned cost/benefit analysis and the general public debate on the NBN were “all being conducted in a public policy vacuum”.

“Successive governments have struggled to communicate concrete reasons for an investment in NBN. Debate has continued to focus on download speeds for domestic entertainment,” wrote the ISP. “No ‘National Objectives’ are presented as the drivers for the construction of the NBN, as they might be for any other infrastructure project. The strategic review continues the failure to address any of these missing components. The cost benefit analysis has no specific benefits to analyse, only costs.”

“The Australian public, and it seems the Parliament, appears to be unsure why the NBN is being built and so discussions are still mired in the operational issues of costs, timetables and technology, rather than national benefits. iiNet believes there are very clear National Objectives that ought to be the focus of national debate and agreement, as they are in other, neighboring economies.”

“These National Objectives or goals should include a focus on: National productivity, job creation, export opportunities, regional development, industry development, improved competition and improved social outcomes. iiNet does not believe that downloading songs faster or being able to connect multiple televisions should be the drivers of national infrastructure projects.”

Senior figures in the current Coalition Government have been some of the harshest critics of Labor’s NBN project.

In December 2010, for example, then-Opposition Leader Tony Abbott questioned the fundamentals of the NBN policy. “The question is, should the taxpayer be investing $50 billion in that, when there are so many other competing needs – roads, railways, ports, health, education and the mobile phone system, which still drops out frequently?” Abbott asked at the time.

“It’s pretty obvious that the main usage for the NBN is going to be internet-based television, video entertainment and gaming,” the Liberal leader added. “We are not against using the internet for all these things, but do we really want to invest $50 billion worth of hard-earned taxpayers’ money in what is essentially a video entertainment system?”

In November last year, new NBN Co executive chairman Ziggy Switkowski questioned the need for ordinary households in Australia to have access to 100Mbps broadband speeds, telling a Senate Estimates session that a “whole lot of assumptions” needed to be pushed to their limits to demonstrate how such speeds would be used.

However, the executive has also admitted that some of the planned infrastructure under the Coalition’s Broadband Network proposal would need to be upgraded within as short a timeframe as five years.

In its submission this week, iiNet said “unsophisticated comments about downloading songs, movies and what number of TVs that can be connected, distracts from what should be informed discussion about economic and social benefits”. The ISP highlighted the necessity of stronger upload speeds from national telecommunications infrastructure.

“The performance of data uploading features strongly in a variety of case studies of iiNet small business customers,” the company wrote. “In all cases, upload performance is the key to their purchasing decision. Nowhere in the strategic review is there any consideration of upload performance to the small business sector of the economy, or at all. Any business utilizing broadband will confirm that upload performance is ‘mission critical’ and yet little attention has been given to this issue, which is strategically important to the Australian digital economy.”

“Almost all discussion has been centred on download speeds for domestic broadband users – the demand-side. This is why the arguments over the comparative download speeds of competing technologies has absolutely failed the Australian community. Without a supply-side review, focused on service creation and delivery, Australian consumers will have little reason to acquire high performance services.”

“Given that the Australian political leadership fails to promote this fundamental issue, it is likely that a residentially focused, download-centric strategy for trivial entertainment consumption will be the best that the Australian digital economy can hope for.”

Among a number of other issues, iiNet also took aim at the ‘Multi-Technology Mix’ approach which NBN Co’s Strategic Review favours, which will use a mix of FTTP, FTTN and HFC cable platforms to deliver on the Coalition’s broadband aims.

“The NBN was initially designed to provided a national, standardized, uniform interface to a single provider,” the ISP wrote. “More than 90 percent of all services were planned to be delivered over FTTH technology. This simplified design promised a beneficial reduction in the complexity and cost of operating on-line services over the NBN.”

”A multi-technology approach introduces the likelihood that HFC, VDSL and any other non-fibre based access services will require additional investment in business-to-business (B2B) interfaces, multiple points of interconnect (POIs) with multiple entities, rather than a single interface to a single, wholesale network provider. “The number of points of interconnect in the initial project was considered a barrier to the NBN. For sub-scale companies, iiNet believes that the multi-technology approach will only exacerbate that issue, which, it is reported, encouraged some owners to exit the industry.”

Earlier this week, referencing comments by Brian Levin, the key architect of the United States’ own national broadband plan, analyst Paul Budde said it was clear that the way Australia currently ran systems and services such as healthcare, education, energy, and government services needed to be changed because the associated processes were inefficient and lowered the national level of productivity. Most commentators agree that the rollout of the NBN has the potential to transform all of these sectors and significantly boost productivity.

“Most politicians talk about social and economic transformation, but in the case of Australia the current government fails to address what the NBN could do here: at least their communication or the lack of it, looks like they are stuck in yesterday’s logic,” said Budde.

What we’re seeing here, as I’ve previously written about Paul Budde’s perspective, is that even groups and commentators which have historically been open to the Coalition’s rival broadband policy have turned on the Coalition over its farcical ‘Multi-Technology Mix’ proposal, which features little overarching vision for the future development of Australia’s telecommunications industry and digital economy.

Even if it was articulated poorly, Labor’s all-fibre NBN policy did open the door for such a vision. The Coalition’s alternative doesn’t look much further into Australia’s future than five years away. The Australian public, and important stakeholders such as iiNet, are not happy that that vision is being scrapped.

I’m not the only commentator or stakeholders to have lost all faith in our political class when it comes to this issue — pretty much everyone involved in technology in Australia thinks the situation is a joke right now. And all this, despite the fact that three quarters of Australians have consistently demonstrated that they are in favour of an all-fibre National Broadband Network. How can our politicians so consistently get this idea and its implementation wrong? It’s what virtually everyone wants. Why aren’t the politicians listening?

Image credit: Office of Malcolm Turnbull


  1. Listening to the “SENATE Select Committee, National Broadband Network” currently going on in Perth, very intersting stuff.
    Thanks for keeping everyone up to date Renai!

    • Are there recordings or documents from today?

      I missed it, but just hearing iinet slam pols for not doing their jobs would be worth listening to.

      I know it just happened, so I imagine they need some time.

        • Here’s our sub – http://www.iinet.net.au/about/mediacentre/papers-and-presentations/290114-senate-enquiry-nbn-iiNet-comments.pdf

          If you don’t feel like reading it (it’s only a few pages), here’s a summary in three points :

          1. Clearly stated and quantified objectives for Australia’s digital economy need to be established and adopted. The national telecommunications infrastructure then takes its place as an enabler, rather than the ‘main game’.

          2. Standardisation and reduced complexity reduces costs for both suppliers and users of internet services. The design of future national infrastructure should aim to reduce complexity wherever possible.

          Reduced costs lower barriers to entry for innovators and smaller players, which increases competition and consumer choice. Reduced costs flow through to consumers by way of lower prices or increased value.

          3. Telecommunications is mission critical for most businesses. Improved broadband performance for businesses will aid the development of on-line services and applications. This can lead to improved productivity and increased business activity.

          These in turn create opportunities for further economic development and provide incentives for broadband take-up at the consumer level.

  2. They are not listening because the NBN as a project can never be delivered in a 3 year election cycle.
    Bipartisan is a dirty word for the Liberal Party.

    Turnbull did a good job keeping the debate on speed and numbers and away from the actual possibilities of FttH. Being in an area where the NBN is proceeding I am looking forward to setting up a server at home and having access to everything all the time.

    • “Bipartisan is a dirty word for the Liberal Party.”

      It wasn’t before the election, Tony made quite the show of being on a ‘Unity Ticket’ with a number of ALP policies.

      Since winning the election though, I’d have to agree with you, seems he really would do anything just to get the job.

  3. Well as long as the Liberal leadership can only think in terms of a ‘video entertainment system’ they’re not going to take it seriously. These neanderthals need educating as to the business value of a state of the art high speed communications network. iiNet are on the money with this and they and their peers need to sit down with Abbot and Turnbull and bring them up to speed. If the politicians think it will win them vote worthy approval from businesses they’ll be right behind it.

  4. To underscore how far off the mark the political layer is, when it comes to strategic thinking, it is interesting to note the committee’s site visit, today.

    Prior to the hearings, the committee visited a tech company promoting ‘blown fibre’ techniques.

    Maybe it was just a sales pitch, but if that’s the sort of thing that is occupying the committee and is this country’s NBN Focus, rather than economic development, then it’s literally ‘in the pits’ (Pun intended).

      • I’ve long been puzzled why “blown fiber’ wasn’t used in the original NBN design.

        I saw a demo of it years ago and thought that it was an amazing breakthrough.

        Run cheap plastic tube with snap-on plastic fittings and then blow one single fiber through it from the exchange. As easy and cheap as installing domestic drip irrigation, no fiber joins needed, and trivial to replace the fiber if it goes bad.

        Why wasn’t it used?
        There must be a down-side. What is it?

        • Blown fibre is quite old technology. At least 15 years old. Several telcos and city building backbones have used it before.

          Why its not used (mainetti brand):
          1. Low fixed capacity – once blown its often hard to upgrade it due to difficulty in outages.
          2. Hard to manage from a physical database point of view
          3. Requires machinery that many techs don’t want to carry
          4. Gets messy quickly if often used

          Mainetti was a big player late 90s. Duraduct is another more recent player. I saw some photos of the aerial deployment for blown fibre once in India. UGLY!

          To be fair it is still been used here. The airport link was Blown fibre in brisbane for the city council. UFB in New Zealand is rumoured to be using blown fibre as part of their deployment.

          Already fibre haulers will pressurise a conduit and ‘blow’ standard Single Mode Optical Fibre where pratical.

          Hope that helps

    • Hmm I wonder if this was to show them how the process is speeding up now (after the Syntheco pipe shoving snail pace)?

  5. I wish people were more frank in their opinions about politicians . .Turnbulls lame excuse for a broadband service is pitiful at best ! Labor wanted to deliver the best regardless of social status !! NBN was created to curb Telstra wanton greed .Liberals have smashed the NBN already ,Switkowski ruined Telstra ,Who would you to destroy NBN ,Ziggy ,he,s the man ,Got history !!

  6. The Coalition can’t come to definitive terms on their broadband policy because they can’t harmonize it with their eternal desire to suck Telstra and Murdoch’s dicks.

  7. Renai (or is it Rebecca? :P )

    I harp on about this, but please, please, please correct it.

    The LNP are opposed to a 93% FTTP network. THE LNP mate!

    EVERY Labor politician supports FTTP. ALL Greens members support FTTP. from what I have read, of the remainder of federal politicians, MOST of them support FTTP

    In other words, the Australian population are being failed – or ignored – by the LNP members of parliament. Since they control the Parliament, they can do whatever they like – as we can see. That’s the reality.

    I am disappointed that the ALP are pretty quiet on the NBN currently, but even if they were shouting from the top of the flagpole above Parliament House in Canberra, would the current media report it? I think not…

    Yes, the ALP made a mountain out of what was obviously a mole-hill, but they came to the correct decision eventually. Even the LNP realised that opposing the NBN was what lost them the election in 2010, and had to come up with a fig-leaf of a NBN policy for 2013.

    Now that they have a significant majority, they are happy to extend their middle finger to us voters and give every indication that they are going to screw this NBN for generations.

    A ubiquitous fibre-base standard interface network was a beautiful dream, and would have opened the country to a whole new world of wonderous things – as iiNet have said. Unfortunately, it could turn into our worst nightmare!

    • I think you’ll find Renai’s/iiNets point is that the politicians are looking at the thing from the wrong position, the pollies position is that FTTP/MTM is the “end goal”, where the real end goal should be using FTTP/MTM to achieve “National productivity, job creation, export opportunities, regional development, industry development, improved competition and improved social outcomes.”

      Effectively, the network it’s self is the end game for them, they don’t actually care about the outcomes.

    • Yes, the ALP oversight of the NBN rollout was lacking a few things, which may be par for the course on a vast groundbreaking national project, but constant iteration and magnification of those issues by Malcolm Turnbull is worse than unhelpful. In fact, it is often simply misleading.

      It’s interesting that the official reviews to date have mostly come up with what the Coalition were saying during the election campaign. This suggests they were either remarkably prescient or have salted the review process to ensure an outcome that can be said to justify their political stance, regardless of a more national-benefit approach.

      And it’s regrettable that this thread is several days old when its received, but Renai’s decided that we only get Delimiter output once a week on Fridays, so we can only do our best.

  8. What Goddy said… nailed it right there.

    We are where we are simply because our current political masters are very busy satisfying the whims of their masters….. and lo and behold, it isn’t us!

  9. Renai,

    > How can our politicians so consistently get this idea and its implementation wrong? It’s what virtually everyone wants. Why aren’t the politicians listening?

    Wrong question.

    The politicians are definitely listening, but not to the electorate or to informed commentators.

    A better question would be “Is it just stupidity or is it conspiracy?”

  10. 4K TV prices are dropping, 65″ for $5500, 55″ for $3500. In the end, pressure to get 4K TV content is going to run over the Libs game plan.

  11. Just an aside here, but one struck me about the photo being used.

    Malcolm “Wireless is the way of the future” sitting there all smug on his laptop… with a big blue bit of CAT5(/6/whatever) winding across his desk and plugged into it.

    :) Just thought it a bit funny.. but then.. I’m a nerd.

  12. I bin sayin’ it fer years.

    All the argument about NBN missed the point.

    NOBODY argued that we didn’t need national highways, or railways everywhere, or sealed roads, pervasive electricity and water/sewerage services.

    However John Q Public does NOT see/feel/understand the need for “communications infrastructure”.

    And that, sadly, is where we as an industry have failed.

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