Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has described comments by parliamentary opponent Malcolm Turnbull on the issue of wireless broadband competing with the NBN as “tedious”, noting “virtually all experts” were in agreement that wireless and fixed broadband were complementary services, and highlighting what he called Turnbull’s “hypocrisy” on the matter.
Turnbull’s comments were sparked this week by a submission made by the National Broadband Network Company to the national competition regulator. In the submission, NBN Co acknowledged wireless broadband could compete with the predominantly fibre-based NBN, and noted limitations on Telstra’s ability to transfer customers onto wireless broadband were “integral to the viability” of NBN Co’s business case.
The Liberal MP reacted by stating that “everyone who has had even a cursory look at the NBN business case” had acknowledged the threat of wireless, and that Conroy himself should do the same. However, in a statement issued this afternoon, Conroy fired back.
“This debate is getting tedious,” he said. “Malcolm Turnbull’s latest comments are yet another backflip and further evidence that he cannot be trusted. Mr Turnbull is talking about a normal commercial transaction between NBN Co and Telstra and yet he continues to misrepresent NBNCo. Mr Turnbull will say anything in an attempt to keep this so-called “debate” alive.”
Conroy pointed out that Telstra chief executive David Thodey had described the limitation on its ability to promote wireless as an NBN alternatiev as “a very, very minor constraint”, adding the Government had “consistently acknowledged” wireless was an important complementary technology to the NBN fibre rollout.
“Virtually all experts are in furious agreement on the complementary nature of fixed and wireless technologies, including Dr Hugh Bradlow, the chief technology officer of Telstra, who was reported this week as saying it would be “a cold day in hell” before wireless networks will eclipse the capability of fixed networks,” said the Minister.
Conroy also highlighted limitation of wireless broadband, noting that its reliability was “greatly reduced” when a large number of subscribers were connected, especially if they were using bandwidth-hungry applications. “While wireless technology will continue to play a complementary role to fixed line services, Australians continue to rely on the lower cost, greater reliability and higher bandwidth offered by fixed line broadband,” he said.
The Labor Senator also accused Turnbull of “complete hypocrisy” on the issue, pointing out that on the 3rd of August this year, the Liberal MP had made the following statement to the Press Club in Canberra:
“[F]or most people wireless and fixed connections will be complementary, as they are now. And in any event, all traffic – wireless or not – will be handed to fibre as soon as possible.”
Conroy added that Turnbull had told ZDNet.com.au on August 11, in response to the question “are you now of the view that fibre and wireless sit side by side”:
“Of course they do, because the wireless base station – whether it’s a base station sitting on top of an office building or a telegraph pole or whether it’s a femtocell, that is going to have to be connected to some fixed-line network, and the fastest fixed-line network for the most capacity is obviously fibre… To what extent people are wireless-only customers is an open question. Some people will be, but for most people … my suspicion or my intuition is that most people will use both.”
We’re in murky waters here, and the truth likely lies somewhere in between Conroy and Turnbull’s positions. The power and adoption of wireless broadband is growing remarkably fast, but it also remains true that many people will use both, and that fixed broadband isn’t going away any time soon. It remains to be seen just what the mix between the two technologies will be.