news Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has delivered a major speech in Malaysia in which he criticised the publication of “worst of the worst” photos of Telstra’s copper telecommunications network and argued that the National Broadband Network debate should be about real end user outcomes and not about technology per se.
In early May, Delimiter published a photo gallery of so-called “worst of the worst” photos of Telstra’s ageing copper telecommunications network, which provides telephony and broadband services to the majority of Australia. This aimed to provided a realistic view into the infrastructure which the nation relies on, in the context of the current debate about upgrading it — especially the Coalition’s interest in re-using the copper in a fibre to the node scenario, where fibre would not be deployed all the way to premises as under Labor’s NBN plan.
“Over the last year there has developed a narrow but extremely aggressive campaign by supporters of the NBN to frame the debate as being a contest between copper versus fibre,” Turnbull said in a speech to a broadband conference in Kuala Lumpur this week. “One Internet site recently posted photos of some egregiously run-down components of the old copper network and then asked me ‘is this infrastructure worth upgrading?'”
“Let me make two points about this,” he added. “Firstly, politicians are relieved when the damaging photos being sent to their office are of naked copper connections, as opposed to naked other things. But secondly, and more seriously, I would make this very important point: The longevity of the copper network should be decided by the market’s desire and willingness to still purchase internet services over that network – and not by arbitrary decisions made by politicians in Canberra or elsewhere on when to shut it down.”
“In so doing, we shouldn’t think of this debate as a purely technical one – that is, which technology is best at this very moment. Rather, we should think of this about two alternative upgrade paths where the endpoint will be very superfast broadband that exceeds the capacity of current networks. In a question of technologies, the answers tend to be simplistic and absolute. But in a question of alternative upgrade paths, the trade-offs are often complex and you need to take a hard headed approach.”
Turnbull said some people in Australia had become “obsessed” with pursuing the best “theoretical technical broadband solution”, rather than searching for the best practical solution to meet the “unique needs” of Australia’s broadband market.
For example, he said, throughout the Asia-Pacific region, most Fibre to the Home (FTTH)-style broadband rollouts had focused on areas which had a high incidence of multi-dwelling units such as apartment blocks, where the rollout of infrastructure would be utilised by high numbers of people. “In Australia, however, only 34 percent of premises are MDUs,” he said, citing McKinsey data.
In questions of technologies, answers tended to be “simplistic and absolute”, Turnbull said. But in questions of alternative upgrade paths, the trade-offs were often complex, and legislators needed to take a “hard-headed approach”. Because of these factors, he said, the Coalition’s telecommunications policy would see Australia’s infrastructure upgraded with a mix of technologies — whether that be fibre to the home, fibre to the node, next-generation mobile solutions or upgraded HFC cable. “They all have their part to play,” he said. “We need a complementary combination of solutions introduced incrementally, and tailored to local needs.”
Turnbull reiterated several key planks of Coalition telecommunications policy which he has previously outlined:
- Encouraging facilities-based competition, including reversing the shutdown of the HFC cable networks operated by Telstra and Optus and the NBN anti-cherry-picking legislation
- Providing “open and transparent subsidies” to enable broadband services in rural areas
- Focusing on a technology agnostic approach including FTTH, FTTN and potentially wholesale access to HFC networks.
“With this approach we are satisfied that we can complete the construction of a national broadband network faster, because a mix of technologies will upgrade services sooner than near universal FTTP, at less cost to the taxpayer and more affordably for end users, because the combination of a less expensive network and the return of competition will put downward pressure on prices,” TUrnbull said.
“In my judgement the scarcest resource is not bandwidth, or even technology, but rather technological imagination. And it is no accident that innovation is at its greatest in the markets with the most competition and the most freedom. Our opponents have accused us of wanting to destroy the NBN. Nothing could be further from the truth. Rather we are determined to set it free.”
I really like much of what Turnbull is saying here. The Liberal MP, as he so often does, has brought a level of analysis and understanding to the issue of the NBN which is sadly lacking in the way which almost every other politician (including, sometimes, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy) talks about the issue. Turnbull just ‘gets’ this space much more than anyone else commenting in the area, and I like that his voice is a strong one in the debate about Australia’s national telecommunications infrastructure.
Points such as focusing on facilities-based competition; keeping the HFC networks alive and providing wholesale access to them; deploying a mix of FTTH and FTTN to match Australia’s heterogeneous geography; keeping the debate on outcomes instead of technologies and so on: All of these are very valid points which should be considered in the overall NBN debate.
The only problem for Turnbull is that it is really too late for these points to be considered.
The right time for these points to have been raised was between the years from 2005, when Telstra first proposed building a national broadband network in the form of upgrading its copper network to FTTN with government financial assistance, and 2009, when the then-Rudd Labor Federal Government outlined its ambitious FTTH-based NBN project.
The Coalition had no less than four years to debate this issue at that point, and as I and others have repeatedly pointed out, a succession of Coalition Communications Ministers and Shadow Ministers failed to do so, from Howard-era Minister Helen Coonan to Turnbull’s predecessor in the portfolio, Tony Smith. The telco policy which the Coalition took to the 2010 Federal Election was pretty much a bad joke compared with the comprehensive NBN project, already well-advanced in the planning stages at that point.
At this stage, Labor’s NBN project is very well advanced and is delivering on a wide scale throughout Australia, with a large number of sensitive agreements, contracts and pieces of legislation worked out. If a Coalition Federal Government, following an election victory in 2013 or thereabouts, rolls back key planks of the NBN, such as the requirement on Telstra and Optus to shut down their HFC cable networks, switching to FTTN in some areas instead of FTTH, and separating Telstra through different methods than Labor has arranged, it will cause, at the very least, two to three years of chaos to Australia’s telecommunications sector.
It will likely take up to six months alone for the Productivity Commission to produce the much-vaunted cost/benefit analysis into the NBN, which Turnbull has consistently said would be the first action taken by a Coalition Government, if it took power. And most of the other aspects of telco policy which Turnbull has described in his speech — re-working agreements with Telstra and Optus, investigating wholesaling their HFC cable networks, plotting which areas of Australia would receive FTTN and FTTH — would take a similar or greater amount of time.
If Coalition telecommunications policy is as Turnbull has described it this week, it could take a Coalition Government its whole first electoral term — three years — merely to unwind much the current NBN project and set its new framework for the future. In fact, many observers will note, it took most of the Rudd Labor Government’s first term, from 2007 through 2010, to set up the NBN in the first place. Only now, mid-way through its second term, is the project delivering at something like full speed. The exact same timeframe will hamstring the Coalition’s approach, and it is entirely possible that we could still be debating Turnbull’s principles in 2016.
The speech which Turnbull gave this week was visionary. It was nuanced. It demonstrated a sharp and deep understanding of the dynamics of modern telecommunications policy.
But what Australia needs right now, when it comes to Federal Government broadband projects, is not principles. It needs powerful, strong and fast implementation. We’ve been talking about this issue for long enough, and the time for words is over. Now, in the telecommunications portfolio, is the time for action.
Image credit: Office of Malcolm Turnbull