news Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has issued a cold and lengthy rejoinder to a fiery speech by his opposite Stephen Conroy this afternoon, arguing the Labor Senator had failed to provide “hard evidence” regarding a number of claims about the Coalition’s rival telecommunications policy.
Communications Minister Conroy this afternoon gave a landmark speech at the National Press Club in Canberra this afternoon in which he systematically attacked the technologies at the heart of the Coalition’s telecommunications policy — describing technologies like HFC cable as leading to a “dead end” for Australia and being limited in able to provide for Australia’s broadband needs in future.
However, Turnbull said in a statement following the speech that although Conroy had “a whole department to provide him with the facts”, the Minister’s speech had been “reference free”. “My speeches on broadband provide references for technological claims,” Turnbull said.
For example, Conroy attacked Turnbull’s claims that fibre to the node (FTTN) technology could provide speeds of up to 80Mbps, using portions of Telstra’s existing copper network to do so in future. Both sides agree that fibre to the node technology is typically a much cheaper broadband standard than the fibre to the home (FTTH) scheme Labor’s National Broadband Network project is using. Conroy alleged that such speeds could not be obtained using Telstra’s copper network because it did not use dual copper pairs, and the length of the copper loop was too long.
“The proposition that it won’t work in Australia is an assertion made not only without evidence, but in defiance of the evidence,” said Turnbull.
As evidence for his claim, Turnbull himself linked to two articles available online; one published by analyst house Informa, and one constituting a media release issued by UK telco BT. Turnbull pointed out that he had met with BT in October. At the time, Turnbull said, BT had advised that its FTTN rollout using the VDSL standard would deliver 80Mbps download speeds and 20Mbps upload speeds in 2012.
However, Turnbull did not directly provide evidence to refute Conroy’s claim that such technology could not easily be applied to Australia’s copper network. In addition, Conroy is not the only person involved in Australia’s communications sector to have made the claim: Both Rod Tucker, an academic with the University of Melbourne, and NBN Co chief Mike Quigley, have publicly stated that the high FTTN speeds could not be easily applied in Australia.
Turnbull also said there were other unsubstantiated claims in Conroy’s speech. For example, Turnbull said Conroy had dismissed the potential to upgrade Australia’s cable networks, despite the fact that “in every other market” HFC cable was being used to deliver high-speed broadband — with Telstra and Optus already delivering NBN-like speeds over HFC cable in Australia.
“In his speech the Minister dismisses the technologies being used to deliver next-generation broadband in every other major economy in the world,” said Turnbull. “These technologies are satisfactory for broadband users, telecommunications companies and governments in the United States, Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark, South Korea, Japan and China. But they are not good enough for Senator Conroy.”
“Senator Conroy’s complaint that the Coalition’s complaint would use a mix of technologies misses the whole point. Every network is a mix of technologies – even the NBN will use separate FTTH, fixed wireless and satellite networks to reach households. A rational approach to network upgrade is to use the most cost-effective technologies in each location, and that is what is being done in almost every other comparable market.”
“Having misrepresented most of the technologies being used by other countries to deliver broadband, Senator Conroy concludes the only conceivable option is apparently Labor’s fibre-to-the-premises National Broadband Network – and hang the cost. When will Senator Conroy stop the personal abuse, engage with the facts, observe that his policy is out of step with that of every other advanced country in the world, and admit Labor’s NBN is unaffordable and an utter failure?”
In his statement, Turnbull also posed a list of nine other questions which he said the Government should answer regarding its NBN project — ranging from NBN Co’s progress in rolling out its network and signing up retail customers to its business plan and capital projections. The full list of questions is available in Turnbull’s full statement, available here in PDF format.
I’m sorry to be a little bit harsh on Turnbull here, but I am going to. Tough love. If you’ve been following Delimiter for long enough you’ll know that I will criticise and praise both sides of politics when they merit it. Without fear or favour.
Frankly, Turnbull’s statement today is hypocritical. Conroy made a fairly clear statement today about fibre to the node, and it’s a statement that has been made before, by Quigley and Tucker — both of whom I would consider fairly knowledgeable experts on the subject (although it is also true that they are both partisan towards the NBN). In fact, it’s an issue on which Turnbull has already agreed to meet with Quigley. I’d be very interested to know what came of that meeting, if it was held. I would trust Quigley’s view on this issue. There’s also a fair degree of information about this very issue on Whirlpool’s wiki page on the NBN.
Conroy stated that the up to 80Mbps fibre to the node speeds achievable overseas in countries like the UK couldn’t be easily achieved in Australia, due to the fact that our existing copper network does not feature double copper pairs to most customers, and the fact that the lengths of copper involved to Australian premises were too long.
Nowhere in the “references” that Turnbull supplied to back his own claims and refute Conroy’s was any direct evidence about Australia, despite the fact that Turnbull himself called out Conroy for a lack of evidence.
If you carefully read his statement today, you’ll find that it doesn’t do much to refute Conroy’s claims at all. The guts of it is about FTTN, but with that claim evaporating, much of the rest is simply rambling about what the rest of the world is doing or not doing, coupled with some general questions about NBN Co’s lack of progress in its rollout and its corporate planning.
Sure, I’d like to see the questions which Turnbull published today answered, but none of them go directly to the policy arguments which Conroy made this afternoon. They are more or less nitpicking within Conroy’s overall policy argument; and they come across as somewhat petty when targeted at a project like the NBN which has had everything weighed against it from the start, and yet has persevered on and answered all its critics constantly along the way.
Judging by this and the reaction of Delimiter readers and people on Twitter today, I’d say what we’re seeing right now is an example of a mature Minister in a portfolio he understands punching above his weight on questions of policy; and a much more capable politician like Turnbull being distracted and punching under his weight in a portfolio which he doesn’t yet completely understand. Normally Turnbull is wiser and more knowledgeable than Conroy on questions of policy and technology; but not today.
I also want to draw attention to one further thing: This is the second time in a week that Turnbull has made misleading statements about something to do with the NBN.
On Friday the Productivity Commission largely cleared NBN Co of anti-competitive behaviour in relation to rollouts in greenfield areas. However, this is what Turnbull said at the time: “The PC said NBN Co was using access to capital provided by taxpayers to tilt the playing field against private competitors, and warned projected returns on the project were so low they are in breach of ‘competitive neutrality’.”
As I wrote on Friday, as far as I could ascertain, Turnbull was incorrect with that statement, with the Commission in fact stating that NBN Co had not currently breached competitive neutrality.
Now, making these kinds of mistakes is out of character for Turnbull. Usually his arguments are very well researched and referenced; certainly more so than Conroy’s. Conroy, as he did today, tends to use easily available analyst reports from Australian firms — and even examples from the popular press — to make his case, while Turnbull tends to look overseas and to deeper research for inspiration, even going so far as to meet with experts in detail before forming policy views.
Turnbull’s approach is the better one; but right now I think Turnbull’s taking shortcuts, and letting himself down, as a result. Let’s hope he takes the Christmas period to regroup and gather his resources. I’d also like to see him oppose Conroy on areas other than the NBN. Labor has a bunch of weak points when it comes to telecommunications … draconian Internet monitoring and filtering schemes, secretive anti-piracy proposals, law enforcement cooperation which is perhaps too close. Any of this ring a bell?
It’s past time for Turnbull to pull his head out of international trips and other portfolios and get his head in the game with Conroy again, if he wants to make some mileage before the next election. At this stage I’m counting 2011 as a victory for Labor in the telecommunications portfolio. 2012 has yet to be decided.
Image credit: Office of Malcolm Turnbull