opinion Yesterday Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull had a big splash in the media, announcing what many described as a new Coalition National Broadband Network policy. But while it has its merits, we’re not so sure the policy has been fleshed out very far; So here’s five questions for the member for Wentworth to answer at his leisure.
1. How will the Coalition justify stopping the NBN halfway?
By 2013, when the next Federal Election is expected to be held, about 1.7 million premises in Australia will already have NBN fibre rolled out to their door. Mr Turnbull, yesterday you suggested that the Coalition would immediately halt the NBN rollout, and that a mix of technologies (fibre to the node, for example, but also the existing HFC networks and some fibre to the home) will be used instead of the current plan to rollout fibre to the home everywhere.
Do you not believe that this approach will cause public outrage in the community, with some suburbs literally having received fibre to their door and the suburb next door — or even the next street — having missed out? How will the Coalition deal with this expected anger and frustration at such a drastic change in policy from the Government? It is important to bear in mind that the speed difference could be as vast as 1Gbps under NBN fibre, compared with some regions which will remain on ADSL2+, with a maximum speed of 24Mbps. Latency will also vary drastically.
2. How will HFC be delivered to multi-dwelling units?
Currently, both Telstra and Optus run HFC cable down the street where I live. However, when I enquired about getting HFC connected to my apartment, I was informed that it was not possible, because my entire apartment block must be connected at once, and the owner of the block had not given consent.
This is a problem which has been ongoing for a decade now, since the HFC cable networks were initially rolled out. If the HFC cable networks are to remain a core part of an alternative NBN policy, how does the Coalition propose to deal with this situation?
3. How will you increase facilities-based competition?
Mr Turnbull, yesterday you stated that one of the key aims for telecommunications policy should be the stimulation of facilities-based competition in the market. We agree, and this is a weakness of the Government’s existing NBN policy.
However, over the past decade, the main arena for facilities-based competition in Australia’s fixed telecommunications market has been the installation of new ADSL infrastructure by companies like iiNet, Internode and TPG in Telstra’s telephone exchanges, providing an alternate way to access the national copper network. It has been the installation of such hardware which has stimulated the broadband speeds which we enjoy today.
The Coalition is proposing to use a mix of fibre to the node, HFC, fibre to the home and wireless to mix in with Telstra’s existing copper footprint. But given that the extension of fibre to the node stops ADSL infrastructure being rolled out at telephone exchanges, only Telstra and Optus can invest in their HFC networks, and national fibre to the home rollouts are cost-prohibitive for most telcos, how do you plan to stimulate facilities-based competition?
4. How long will a Coalition Government take to re-negotiate the Telstra NBN deal?
Mr Turnbull, yesterday you mentioned that a Coalition Government would enter fresh negotiations with Telstra to re-work the NBN policy.
However, it took the current Government more than 18 months to negotiate the current arrangements with Telstra. Given that a Coalition Government will also halt the NBN while the Productivity Commission conducts a cost/benefit inquiry into Australia’s future broadband needs, how long do you believe it will take to bed down the Coalition’s new broadband approach if it wins Government? In a three-year term, what outcomes can we expect to see from a new Coalition telecommunications policy?
5. What level of political support does your rival NBN policy enjoy?
Mr Turnbull, during the 2010 election, Labor’s NBN policy enjoyed top-level political support from Cabinet and the Prime Minister, and continues to do so, with Prime Minister Julia Gillard frequently mentioning the policy in public and conducting site visits for important NBN launches.
In comparison, the recent Reith and Leeser reports into the Liberal Party’s 2010 election performance stated that the lack of a solid NBN policy was a key factor in losing seats in areas such as Tasmania. In addition, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott was not present at the Coalition’s NBN policy launch in 2010, and appears to have given little attention to the portfolio since. Various public statements have indicated Abbott does not understand the telecommunications sector well.
If you were appointed Communications Minister in a Coalition Government, what confidence do you have that you would be able to get Cabinet-level support for the policy you outlined yesterday, and what level of support does your new policy enjoy today within the Opposition?
To sum up: Mr Turnbull, it’s hard to disagree with your high-level statements about stimulating competition in Australia’s telecommunications market and better utilising existing infrastructure. However, the Coalition is facing a Labor NBN policy which has been worked through in exhaustive detail over the past three and a half years. It is now mature and very solidly in place. If the Coalition wishes to put up a substantive rival policy … the Australian electorate, frankly, deserves a lot more detail.
Image credit: Office of Malcolm Turnbull