news Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has hit out at critics of the Coalition’s broadband policy, describing them as “ignorant” and insisting that the project still constitutes a “National” Broadband Network, despite the fact that the new Government is taking a multi-technology approach to the broadband rollout described by one senior analyst as a “dog’s breakfast”.
The previous Labor Federal Government’s National Broadband Network project would have seen a uniform technology — Fibre to the Premises — deployed around Australia to 93 percent of premises. However, in December NBN Co’s Strategic Review recommended that it modify the approach to use a so-called “Multi-Technology Mix” approach, with technically inferior rival technologies such as Fibre to the Node and HFC cable to be used extensively in many areas.
The move has earned the Coalition strident criticism from some sectors of the technology sector and the public. Respected telecommunications analyst Paul Budde, for example, has heavily criticised the new model, describing the approach as “a dog’s breakfast” of different technologies, which could turn out to be a “logistical nightmare” to deliver in practice. Delimiter has ceased using the term “NBN” to refer to the Coalition’s approach, preferring the alternative label of “the Coalition’s Broadband Network” or CBN. And top-tier ISP iiNet has publicly lambasted the Government for what it said was a “policy vacuum” in the broadband space.
The policy shift has also had dramatic implications for the Tasmanian state election due to be held next month, with Tasmanian Liberal Leader acknowledging the policy could cost the party the election, and calling for Turnbull to reverse the Government’s position in the state.
Speaking at the release of the Department of Communications’ Broadband Availability and Quality report in Sydney today, Turnbull heavily criticised those attacking the Coalition’s policy. “Some people have said that our approach means the NBN is not a national broadband network. Let me be quite clear: People who say that just show how absolutely ignorant they are about how the Internet works,” the Minister said.
Turnbull pointed out that the Internet was so dubbed because it was a ‘network of networks.
“If you think about it, your signals from your device to someone else’s device travel over a variety of channels,” he said. “Wireless, HFC, copper, fibre, all of them. The fact is that an NBN completed with a mix of technologies will be the same national layer 2, wholesale bitstream network, a common carrier; it’ll have all the same characteristics as an all-fibre NBN, it’ll be a wholesale network, and be available to all retail service providers to use.”
Turnbull stated that a lot of the criticism of the Coalition’s plan underlined that the people criticising it, “mostly from the Labor Party, I’m afraid, either don’t understand the technologies at all or how the Internet works, or, more probably, they do understand how it works and they’re just trying to fool people.”
“That’s actually pretty sad,” he added.
With respect to the situation in Tasmania, Turnbull said Hodgman was “a passionate advocate for fibre to the premises in Tasmania” and had “definitely drunk the Fibre to the Premises kool-aid”. Turnbull said Hodgman had flown north to speak to him personally about the issue to get the best result for Tasmania.
“With great respect to the Premier,” Turnbull said, referring to Tasmanian Labor Premier Lara Giddings, who has accused Turnbull of misleading Tasmanians on the broadband issue, “she is totally ideological about this, and she wants to lecture you, and harangue you, and harangue me, and is not very persuasive”. In comparison, he said, Hodgman went into a lot of detail regarding the broadband policy with Turnbull, and recognised that “cost matters”. “I mean it’s no good saying do FTTP regardless of cost, because consumers have to pay for it, and it’s critical that the NBN be affordable,” he said.
The news comes as a new comprehensive study of public attitudes towards Labor’s National Broadband Network project published this month found the initiative still enjoys very high levels of widespread public support from ordinary Australians, despite what the study described as an “overwhelmingly negative” approach to the project by print media such as newspapers.
When asked ‘Do you have a positive or negative opinion of the National Broadband Network in general?’ respondents expressed an overwhelmingly positive opinion. 26.1 percent responded with “very positive”, 38.2 percent responded with “positive”, 14.8 percent responded with “neutral”, and only 12.6 percent and 8.3 percent responded with “negative” or “very negative”, respectively.
The analysis also considered whether political affiliation would produce any difference in attitudes to the NBN, by asking ‘Which party did you vote for in the 2010 election?’ Respondents who voted for the Liberal and/or National Parties at the 2010 election had a more negative opinion of the NBN than Australian Labor Party (ALP) voters, with ALP voters twice as likely as Liberal voters to hold very positive opinions on the NBN. However, NBN support amongst Liberal voters was still very strong, with 48 percent of that voting base supporting the project.
A number of other surveys conducted over the past 2-3 years have consistently shown strong support for the NBN project amongst Australians, and even Coalition voters.
Asked whether he accepted that the disapproval of the majority of Australians on the broadband issue would have an impact on the Liberal Party’s political fortunes, Turnbull pointed out that the Coalition had picked up seats in Tasmania during the 2013 Federal Election, and won the election overall.
“There’s no doubt that the Labor Party was successful in persuading a lot of people that if you didn’t have FTTP then you may as well be living in the middle ages. But that is just such nonsense,” he said. Turnbull added that he thought that with respect to the Coalition’s policy, “seeing will be believing”.
He added: “It’s interesting. If you talk to people that are not absolutely … that are not geeks or internet afficionados, technologists, and you say to them do you have an Internet connection at home, they’ll probably say yes. What technology is it? Most people won’t know. What is your peak speed? A lot of people won’t know that. The critical thing is getting a service that works.”
Tasmanian history repeating
The Tasmanian population is highly aware of broadband as an issue and has consistently raised its voice on the broadband topic as a unified group far louder than other states have. Broadband was also a critical issue in the state during the 2010 Federal Election. Tasmania has historically suffered from very poor levels of high-speed broadband compared with mainland areas, partially due to an unwillingness by rival telcos to invest because of high backhaul prices charged by Telstra across Bass Strait.
After the 2010 Federal Election, former Howard-era Minister Peter Reith produced a report on the Coalition’s election loss. The majority of the report does not mention broadband, but one section quotes extensively from a similar report produced by Sydney academic Julian Leeser into the Tasmanian leg of the election, which has been reported in brief.
“The failure to properly explain the Liberal Party’s broadband policy and the Labor Party’s effective scare campaign was a major cause of the party’s failure to win seats in Tasmania,” the report states. “This was the nearly universal review of people making submissions to the review and is borne out by research undertaken by the Liberal Party. In the view of many, the party’s policy amounted to a threat to come into people’s homes and rip the Internet out of the wall.”
The report added that broadband policy had a particularly strong effect on Tasmania for a number of reasons. For starters, the fibre network was already being rolled out in some towns, and Tasmania is also often behind the mainland in receiving new technology — so the early stage NBN rollout under Labor was seen as a boost to the state, as well as having flow-on effects in terms of jobs, for example.
In comparison, the Liberals’ policy was not as clear-cut as Labor’s. “One of the problems of the broadband policy was that nowhere in the policy document was there any carve-out for Tasmania or any explanation of what the Liberal Party would do with existing infrastructure,” wrote Leeser in the report. “Numerous senior Liberals in Tasmania had raised the issue of broadband in Tasmania with senior Federal Liberals in Canberra, but a carve-out for Tasmania was forgotten.”
Opinion/analysis to follow.
Image credit: NEXTDC