opinion Malcolm Turnbull’s knee-jerk rejection last week of proposed changes to local telco infrastructure planning laws starkly demonstrates how far the Coalition is right now from understanding the fundamental and underlying changes required to implement its own new telecommunications policy.
Last week Communications Minister Stephen Conroy issued what appeared to be a somewhat innocuous statement outlining a new swathe of proposed regulatory changes to support the National Broadband Network rollout. At face value, the changes appeared relatively harmless. Detailed reading of the legislation revealed they would give NBN Co greater freedom in a small number of areas relating to the practicalities of its gargantuan task of rolling out next-generation broadband infrastructure around the nation.
By elevating Federal legislation in the area above state and local authorities, the fledgling fibre monopoly would gain better access to install connections inside buildings containing more than one dwelling (such as apartment blocks), and it would also be able to more easily deploy overhead cabling through existing cabling poles where necessary.
Makes sense, you would think? But no, according to the Coalition. In a series of fiery interviews and statements, Conroy’s chief critic, Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull ripped the proposed legislative amendments apart.
The changes would let NBN Co “run over the top of and ignore local planning powers”, claimed the Liberal MP on radio station 2UE. Labor would start “stringing up more optic fibre cable” on telephone poles around the nation, “trampling on local communities, local democracy” and destroying the “environmental amenity and the heritage amenity” by fixing aerial cable everywhere.
Now those of us who have been following the NBN for some time may recall that we’ve heard a similar argument from the conservative side of the world before. In February this year, The Australian newspaper published what I described at the time as a remarkable pair of articles detailing what it said was a “backlash” by residents of NSW’s Southern Highlands to the planned NBN fibre rollout in the area. Intrinsic to the reported complaints about the NBN rollout was that it would somehow destroy local residents’ “way of life” — the heritage incumbent to their historic region, the beautiful landscape and their overall cultural existence.
Turnbull’s outrage last week at Conroy’s proposed regulatory changes seemed aim to stoke the same kind of fears about vengeful modernity intruding on the idyllic lifestyles of modern Australians.
As I took in his comments on the matter, I couldn’t help but picture the former Opposition Leader manfully facing down several giant bulldozers determined to demolish the historic sandstone Vaucluse House facility in his electorate of Wentworth and replace it with a chrome and steel monstrosity leaking oil all over the palatial surrounds and stringing up unsightly black fibre cables between the eucalyptus. “You shall not pass!” Turnbull would manfully pronounce, his outstretched hand regally barring modernity from trespassing where it was not welcome. “Our cultural heritage will remain intact for our grandchildren!”
A leader to his core, one of Turnbull’s main strengths is that he finds it difficult to refrain from energetically striding to the defence of any aspect of society which he feels needs support. But in this case his energy is misplaced.
A we’ve previously discussed, the notion that the NBN will somehow destroy any Australian’s “way of life” or cultural or environmental heritage is nothing more than a bad joke; the simple fact of the matter is that most of the optic fibre infrastructure won’t be visible to the naked eye, and where it will be visible, it will hardly be more intrusive than our current generation of electricity and copper cabling strung up between telegraph poles.
But let’s not go into that further; it’s a nonsensical argument which we’ve already put to bed.
Instead, let’s examine what I consider a much more interesting claim which Turnbull has tacked on to his outrage about Conroy’s purported plan to destroy Australia’s heritage: The Liberal MP’s sensational statement that the new legislation will roll back a working telco planning framework which the Coalition itself implemented during the Howard years in the late 1990’s. Quoth Turnbull:
“The Government is seeking to reverse important planning powers which were decentralised in the roll-out of HFC pay-TV cable in the mid-1990s by the then Communications Minister Richard Alston.”
And then on 2UE:
“… the reality is that in the past – you know, the telecom companies have had the power to run cables over private land. But when there was a big backlash – you may remember back in the late 1990s over the roll-out of the Pay TV cables. And so Richard Alston, who was the Liberal Party Communications Minister then, essentially decentralised those powers so that local communities had a say and local councils had a say ultimately as to how the cables could be rolled out.”
What Turnbull is in essence claiming here is that during the late 1990’s, when Telstra and Optus rolled out their existing HFC cable networks, the Howard Government set up regulations for the rollout of telecommunications infrastructure which actually worked — finding a balance between the desires of telcos to deliver universal high-speed services and the concerns of local communities, who didn’t want to see their skyline destroyed by unsightly black cables.
That this claim is as ludicrous as it is ill-informed should be patently clear to anyone who has ever tried to get HFC cable connected while living in an apartment block, or while conducting business from an office complex.
I have lived in a number of apartment blocks in inner Sydney, all of which have been passed by the HFC cable connections of either Telstra of Optus. Up until a few years ago, when competitive DSLAM rollouts made ADSL2+ more attractive, it had been my common practice to request that the HFC cable be connected so that I could enjoy the benefits of high-speed broadband.
Unfortunately, both Telstra and Optus have consistently refused to do so, on the basis that the entire apartment block was what is known as a ‘multi-dwelling unit’. In order to wire me up, I have been told over the years, the telcos would need to wire up the entire block — and this is not something for which the strata or single-owner landlord which administers the blocks have been willing to facilitate.
In short, the fibre runs past the building — but a lack of useful Government regulation has prohibited the telcos from getting enough rights to run it to the actual premises it should be serving. The changes to planning regulations which Conroy unveiled last week represent an important step in fixing this problem. In future, under the NBN, there will be no question about whether the fibre can be rolled out to multi-dwelling units; in fact, the process will be streamlined to an extent which has simply not been allowed previously under Australian law.
Now, knowing all this, we might still allocate the redoubtable Mr Turnbull some validity with respect to his points last week — given that the NBN rollout will undoubtedly be somewhat intrusive during its rollout — were it not for one single fact: When it comes to telecommunications infrastructure planning laws, there really is no difference between the policies which will in future be required from both the Government and the Opposition.
Turnbull appears to have completely overlooked the fact that it will need to enact very similar legislation to that which Conroy proposed last week, if in fact it wins Government and proceeds with its plan to upgrade Australia’s HFC cable networks and separate Telstra.
If Australia’s HFC cable networks are upgraded and expanded to serve more premises in their footprint area, a future Coalition Communications Minister will no doubt need to revise planning laws along the exact same lines which Conroy proposed last week, in order to facilitate the rollout to multi-dwelling units.
And, if smaller regional wholesalers are created, as the Coalition’s current policy suggests, those players will likely take advantage of some current cable strings on telegraph poles, used by electricity networks and other telcos, to deploy further infrastructure. This, after all, is only what Conroy proposed last week.
The fact that Turnbull does not realise this is extraordinary — but perhaps not unexpected.
One of the most significant aspects of Labor’s NBN policy, as some commentators have repeatedly pointed out, is that its focus is not solely the deployment of 100Mbps fibre broadband around Australia, as the general populace believes.
The fibre rollout is merely the populist vehicle through which a vast tranche of much wider industry reforms are taking place. Under the guise of the NBN policy, Labor is attempting to right a whole series of wrongs in the telco sector in general. The vertically integrated nature of Telstra. The need to upgrade the ageing copper network. Broadband blackspots. Regional services. Simplification of the regulatory environment.
The NBN is a ‘catch-all’ evolving policy. As Conroy’s bureaucrats realise that some new aspect of the telecommunications landscape needs tweaking, they bundle a hotfix into the NBN. This is exactly what has happened with last week’s regulatory changes with regard to planning laws. Team Labor saw a chance to fix the HFC planning nightmare created by Australia’s most luddite Communications Minister Richard Alston in the 1990’s, and is taking action.
There is really no way for Turnbull to know precisely what changes will be required in all of these different areas — it has taken the whole of the Gillard Government’s first term, and part of its second, to work through them all. There is a constant stream of new legislation and other regulatory instruments emanating from the Government at the moment as a result.
But it does seem somewhat ridiculous that the Shadow Communications Minister would reject a policy approach from Labor which seems so closely aligned with the Coalition’s own. Turnbull recently convinced his party to make amends for one of its major mistakes in the past — neglecting to separate Telstra — and move forward into a better future. But he will need to keep that momentum going if he wants to successfully implement his new vision. It is not enough to criticise others without applying that self-same blowtorch to oneself.