news Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey has inaccurately claimed that 4G mobile broadband has the potential to be “far superior” to the fibre technology which Labor’s National Broadband Network policy features, in a controversial interview in which he also claimed that it could cost Australians up to $1,000 to connect to the NBN.
The claims were made in a radio interview which Hockey gave with the ABC’s Statewide Mornings show on ABC 936 in a visit to Tasmania last week. The host, Leon Compton, asked Hockey a number of questions about the Coalition’s own approach to the NBN. In one segment of the interview, Hockey spoke extensively about the potential of wireless technologies to serve the nation’s future broadband needs.
“… there is a great deal of irony in the fact that when the Government did a deal with Telstra for the National Broadband Network, I understand part of that deal identified that Telstra was not allowed to sell its new 4G technology as a competitor to the NBN because 4G has the capacity to be far superior to the NBN,” said Hockey. “So what does the Government do? It says, well, you’re not allowed to market it, as a competitor.”
“And what – you know, I don’t know about you but I use an iPad. The iPad I carry around in the car, I don’t have a cable dragging behind the car. I use wireless technology and I think that’s the way that functionality is going.”
The idea that Australia’s broadband needs could be served in future by wireless technology — especially 4G mobile broadband is not a new one. It has been raised repeatedly by the Coalition over the past several years as an alternative to the fixed FTTH-style rollout which predominantly features in the NBN. The case for wireless as a future broadband replacement for fixed infrastructure has been strengthened by the huge growth in uptake of 3G and 4G mobile broadband services in Australia, with telcos like Telstra adding on more than a million new customers a year.
However, Hockey’s statement that 4G has the capacity to be far superior to the NBN is factually inaccurate. So far, real-world 4G networks such as the 4G component of Telstra’s Next G network, which is one of the leading 4G networks globally, have shown real-world download speeds so far limited to around 35Mbps, in testing by Delimiter and other media outlets.
The speed of 4G technology is rapidly advancing, but it is not believed that these 4G speeds will come close in the foreseeable future to the gigabit per second (1000Mbps) speeds which the NBN’s fibre to the home network will offer in the near future. In addition, the NBN’s gigabit speeds will suffer far less than 4G speeds from congestion as additional users are added to the network, and latency (responsiveness) is vastly improved on fibre networks — between 15ms and 25ms, compared to latency of around 85ms or higher on Telstra’s 4G network.
In addition, commentators such as Telstra CEO David Thodey have consistently stated that they expect Australians to buy both mobile and fixed broadband packages in future, as they serve differing needs; fixed broadband to supply homes with powerful connections to facilitate big downloads such as video, and mobile broadband when outside the home, for access to services which typically require lesser capacity. In addition, mobile towers typically also require their own fibre connections to funnel data back from wireless connections to the major fixed-line telecommunications networks.
In the interview, Hockey also claimed the cost of the NBN was exorbitant for consumers. “At the moment to connect from your home to the NBN and wire your home and go through the process can cost a thousand dollars, can cost a lot more, and people haven’t got that discretionary sum available,” he said. This claim is inaccurate. For the overwhelming majority of consumers, it will cost very little to connect to the NBN, with the infrastructure being laid to their premises and connected free of charge. Internal wiring costs to support fixed broadband are negligible.
Hockey also made a claim about a controversial issue affecting several communities in early stage rollout zones in Tasmania, highlighting the fact that communities such as Sorell would need to have their NBN termination units replaced, as they were part of the early stage rollout of the NBN and didn’t support the whole gigabit speeds which the NBN will offer.
“I understand that in Sorell where it has been laid out, the technology is obsolete at the moment – and I understand this came out in Senate estimates recently – because it was installed before the deal was done between the NBN and Telstra,” said Hockey “… Which means that the NBN in Sorell is certainly not going to be – it’s going to be at the back of the list, not at the front of the list, in relation to the NBN.”
However, again, Hockey is factually inaccurate in his claim that certain Tasmanian communities will be at the back of the list in terms of the NBN. These communities already have access to NBN infrastructure at speeds of up to 100Mbps, the same speeds as the rest of Australia will have when the NBN is rolled out there. The upgrade of these termination units in Tasmania — which will affect only 700 premises — will be finished by the end of the year. In fact, currently, Tasmania is far ahead of the rest of Australia when it comes to the NBN deployment, as the entire state was targeted as an early stage rollout zone for the NBN.
Hockey further claimed in the interview that with respect to the NBN infrastructure, “people aren’t taking it up”.
The Liberal MP is correct in that there is some evidence that NBN take-up rates in some areas in Tasmania have not been as strong as in some areas in the rest of Australia. However, in general, Australia-wide, NBN take-up rates have been very strong. In fact, in communities such as Willunga in South Australia and Kiama in New South Wales, the take-up rate in the short time the NBN has been active in those areas has been north of 30 percent. This rate is expected to accelerate as Telstra’s competing copper cable is shut down in areas where the NBN has been rolled out, forcing Australians to migrate onto the NBN fibre.
In addition, NBN Co recently revealed that where Australians had taken up the NBN, they had taken up much higher speed plans than previously anticipated.
If you look at NBN Co’s corporate plan published in December 2010 (PDF), the company has previously been predicting that in the early years of its fibre rollout, the majority (52%) of customers who signed up for its fibre services would have picked the entry level speed tier it’s offering — a 12Mbps service which is slower even than current theoretical ADSL2+ speeds. The remainder would be split largely between the next speed tranches of 25Mbps (17%) ad 50Mbps (23%), with only a small number (8%) taking the highest speed 100Mbps plans.
However, NBN Co CEO Mike Quigley told a Senate Committee last month, when it came to the actual uptake experienced by NBN Co in the real world so far, this graphic had been somewhat inverted. “Overall, 38 percent of active services on our fibre network have been on the fastest speed tier, which is 100Mbps down,” he said. “Only 16 percent of the active services on our fibre network are for the entry-level speed tier of 12Mbps.” For the month of April, Quigley said, the trend was “even stronger”, with almost half of new customers signing up for the highest speed tier of 100Mbps.
Ironically, Hockey claimed in the interview that Australians had not been told the truth about the NBN process. “I think people were misled about the benefits of the NBN. And if you look at the connection rates in Tasmania, that would be confirmed,” he said.
The Shadow Treasurer’s statements about the NBN represent only the latest time which a high-profile member of the Coalition has made a factually inaccurate claim about the project over the past several years.
In late May, for example, the Federal Leader of the Nationals, Warren Truss, made a major factually incorrect public statement with regards to the NBN, inaccurately stating that no resident in his electorate would be able to connect to the infrastructure until “at least the latter part of this decade”. In mid-May, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott misrepresented the cost of connecting to the NBN, in comments which the Government claimed represented a deliberate attempt to mislead the Australian public on the issue. Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull similarly made a number of factually incorrect statements on the NBN throughout March, and in January Abbott got quite a few facts about the NBN wrong in a radio interview.
To be honest, I am getting really tired of the Coalition misleading the Australian public about the NBN. Many Delimiter readers will know that I personally have my own reservations about the project, including the fact that it will wind back telecommunications infrastructure competition in Australia. However, increasingly, the constant flood of misinformation that the Coalition is projecting about the project is forcing journalists such as myself into a combative stance with the Coalition, just to ensure the truth is heard on the matter.
I simply cannot believe that our democracy allows senior politicians such as Joe Hockey to make factually inaccurate claims such as the idea that 4G mobile broadband has the potential to exceed the capacity of fibre, or that connecting to the NBN will cost Australians up to $1,000.
In order to ensure that there is some form of accountability within Australia’s political system, I feel that we need some sort of official fact-checking organisation to follow politicians around and check whether what they are saying is actually true. The press is supposed to fulfil this purpose, but I don’t feel as though it’s doing a very good job. By and large, the Coalition’s pure horseshit on the NBN is going unchecked.
Now, I don’t want to imply that all of what the Coalition is saying about the NBN is untrue. Quite a lot of it — especially analysis by Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull — is accurate, and often useful. The Coalition does often contribute in a positive way to the NBN debate. In addition, the Government is also guilty on occasion of misleading Australia when it comes to sensitive issues; take Communications Minister Stephen Conroy’s attempt to mislead the nation on the implementation of the Internet filter, for example, or the constant attempts by the Attorney-General’s Department to block public access to secret talks being held about Internet piracy.
However, what the Coalition is doing with respect to the NBN is a travesty. The statements which the Coalition is making are so blatantly false, that any rational individual hearing them has to call into question whether such inaccuracies are being told deliberately. It feels as though the case that they are is increasing every day.
Image credit: Office of Joe Hockey