news Labor’s flagship National Broadband Network project is here to stay in one form or another and won’t be discontinued as a whole, telecommunications analyst Paul Budde said this week, even if the Coalition was to take power in the next Federal Election.
When Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull was appointed to the role in September 2010, the ABC reported that Opposition Leader Tony Abbott had ordered the Member for Wentworth to “demolish” the NBN. At the time, Abbott said he believed the NBN would “turn out to be a white elephant on a massive scale … school halls on steroids”.
Despite denials from Turnbull several weeks later that he would seek to “wreck” the project, the comments were seized upon by various figures in the Labor Party. Prime Minister Julia Gillard, has repeatedly claimed that a Coalition government would “rip up the fibre out of the ground” if it won power. In general, many Australians believe that the Coalition remains stalwartly against the NBN on philosophical grounds and would cancel the project if it won government — at a cost, according to the recent Federal Budget, of at least $1.8 billion.
However, that’s not the case, according to one leading telecommunications analyst. Writing on his blog this week, Paul Budde noted that while changes would definitely be made to the NBN if the Coalition wins the next Federal Election, he stated that the Coalition “also agrees that in some way the NBN is here to stay.
In separate posts over the past few months, Budde used a speech given by Turnbull to the CommsDay conference in April 2012 as well as other communications made by the Liberal MP to make his argument that the Opposition would retain key features of the NBN.
“The Coalition’s policy is, as you know focussed on achieving a comparable outcome (ubiquitious very fast broadband) but achieving it sooner in terms of rollout, cheaper in terms of cost to taxpayers, and more affordably in terms of consumers,” said Turnbull in the speech. “All of that follows from taking a pragmatic and technological neautral approach. But above all, at the front of our priorities is reducing risks for taxpayers and risks for consumers.”
“Very important and very positive was his statement that the Coalition’s aim is to achieve a comparable outcome for the NBN, sooner and cheaper,” said Budde in a post several weeks ago. “This confirms BuddeComm’s earlier claim that some form of a National Broadband Network is here to stay.” And then in April: “There is a lot of chest-beating going on, but in reality the Coalition’s views have been moving closer to the NBN as it is currently being rolled out,” wrote Budde.
The key plank of Budde’s argument regarding the Coalition appears to be that several components of the Coalition’s gradually evolving NBN policy are the same as the Government’s. For instance, the analyst noted in April that there was currently “more or less” bipartisan support for the structural separation of Telstra and the need to service rural areas with wireless and satellite broadband solutions, as opposed to fixed-line telecommunications.
One of the key differences between the two sides of politics’ policies, according to Budde, was that Labor is focusing on fibre to the home solutions, while the Coalition is focusing on fibre to the node, which would see fibre rolled out to streetside cabinets. However, he said, a FTTN solution would eventually “also need to be upgraded to FTTH”.
Perhaps the main key difference between the pair, Budde wrote, was actually not in the area of infrastructure investment at all, but the question of how to incentivise activity taking place on top of that infrastructure.
” … regardless of what the parties agree and don’t agree on, any technology solution will need to be based on a clear vision of the future for Australia in relation to the digital economy, e-health, tele-education, M2M, digital media and so on; and on the role of ICT in all of this,” the analyst wrote. ” … it is very clear that the current NBN is not there simply to deliver fast internet access.”
“The problem we have about the suggestions, comments and criticism from the Coalition is that so far we have no idea what their vision is on these matters. Do they see the need for a transformation towards a digital economy, e-health, tele-education, energy efficiency, etc? Do they believe that ICT has a role to play in this process? And, if so, what does that role have to be? If they were to present a vision on this we could debate what would be the best way to technically enable this transformation.”
I also believe that the Coalition’s telecommunications policy has shifted ever closed to the Government’s, and that the NBN project is broadly here to stay.
As Budde mentioned, both parties agree on the need to structurally separate Telstra and upgrade most of Australia’s broadband infrastructure using fibre, either to the premise or to neighbourhood nodes, and both parties agree on the need to provide rural broadband with wireless and satellite links.
Perhaps the areas where the Coalition most radically diverges from the Government’s view on the NBN are the issues of how this should be carried out, and what should be done with existing infrastructure. Clearly the Coalition wants to continue to use existing infrastructure such as the HFC cable networks operated by Telstra and Optus, as well as some portions of Telstra’s copper network — and just as clearly, the Government wants to shut such platforms down. However, in both cases, the aim is to keep on providing better broadband to Australians — so at a high level the policies are not dissimilar.
One other area is really quite unclear with respect to the Coalition’s telecommunications policy. That is the issue of how its policy would be carried out. Will NBN Co continue to exist as a corporate entity, owning telecommunications infrastructure — potentially even Telstra’s entire copper network? How will the Coalition incentivise Telstra and Optus to further upgrade their HFC cable networks and convince Telstra to help with the upgrade of its copper network?
Will the Coalition continue with NBN Co’s plan to launch its own satellites, instead of leasing capacity from existing satellites? And how and by whom will fixed wireless broadband be rolled out in rural areas? These are all questions which Australians currently have with regard to the Coalition’s telecommunications policy.
Personally, I don’t see how the Coalition could possibly get away without some form of a company like NBN Co to manage all of these issues. And with — at the very least — hundreds of thousands of Australians already having access to the NBN by the time the next Federal Election rolls around, likely in 2013, it seems that a strategy of transitioning NBN Co itself to a new model is going to pretty necessary for a Coalition Government, rather than simply abolishing the company wholesale.
In any case, I think at this stage we need to start counting our blessings with regard to telecommunications policy in Australia. While there is still a great deal of uncertainty in the political climate, the truth is that on both sides of politics we have very capable and senior leaders in the telecommunications portfolio, with deep understanding of the sector and a commitment to improving it. Whatever happens at the next election, that can only bode well for the nation’s telecommunications development as a whole.