news Telecommunications analyst Paul Budde has accused the harshest critics of Labor’s flagship National Broadband Network project as being similar to “climate change deniers” in their irrational opposition to the project, arguing that such critics are given undue prominence in the media, despite representing less than five percent of the population.
Over the past several years, Budde wrote today in a post on his blog, dozens of research papers and many articles in the press had been written about the NBN, But less than five percent of those participating in the NBN debate had argued that the NBN was a waste of money. “The five percent who are downright dismissive of the NBN are mostly politically motivated and are basing their opinion on the high cost involved,” he wrote, “and so they agree that we either should abandon the project or indeed look for the cheapest plumber in town.”
“The disappointing thing about this last category is that it is widely reported by the press, who are always interested in dirt-digging, mud-slinging and strong language, in the same way that they give the > 5% minority group of climate change deniers far more attention than they deserve. Politicians and their supporters are seriously over-represented within the above two groups of naysayers – particularly those on the more conservative side of politics.”
Budde argued that that five percent had revealed their “ignorance” of the project by not examining industry areas which were likely to be stimulated by the NBN’s underlying infrastructure – areas such as e-governnment, e-health, smart grids, the digital economy and so on, focusing only on “the broken record” that costs were too high for the project.
The comments by Budde – who has broadly taken a positive view of the NBN over the past several years as the project has progressed, although he has criticised some aspects of it – come as the level of misinformation about the project promulgated by senior politicians in the Opposition has continued to grow over the past several months.
For example, last week Federal Shadow Education Minister Christopher Pyne inaccurately claimed on national radio that the National Broadband Network has not connected any customers at speeds of 100Mbps, despite the fact that in fact, 44 percent of NBN customers connected so far to the project’s fibre infrastructure have taken up such speeds. Subsequently, Pyne declined to retract his comment, despite being presented with evidence of its falsity. Last week Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey repeated several times an inaccurate claim that the NBN’s funding could be treated as an expense in the Federal Budget, despite the fact that accounting standards require it to be treated as a capital investment.
Most of the other comments made by the Coalition about the NBN have only addressed surface-level issues and not the deeper industry productivity gains and new sector expansion capabilities that the NBN’s proponents claim will flow from the development of the network.
For example, in July this year, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott stated that Australia didn’t “need” the National Broadband Network project and the billions being invested in the initiative would be better spent on “our roads, our rail and our ports” under a Coalition Government. Abbott has previously (in December 2010) referred to the NBN as a “video entertainment system” and “interactive gambling” (January 2011). A columnist and Deakin University professor wrote in the Daily Telegraph in January 2011 that the project should be abandoned, and those interested in the Internet should “get off the internet and go outside and do things that connect with the absolute real world”.
The only senior Coalition figure to have substantially addressed the dynamics of the NBN project in public has been Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who has argued that the aims of the project – providing fast broadband to all Australians – were sound, but that those aims could be met faster and cheaper through using different technologies such as fibre to the node, instead of the primarily fibre to the home broadband rollout style being used by Labor. However, Turnbull has declined several times to answer fundamental questions about why the FTTN-style deployment would be better than Labor’s FTTH-style rollout.
Like Budde, the Federal Government has at times appeared frustrated by the quality of the debate around the NBN. In August this year, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy delivered a fiery tirade against the media for constantly repeating misconceptions about Labor’s National Broadband Network project, singling out the Financial Review newspaper for particular ridicule and recommending that those interested in accuracy read broadband forum Whirlpool.
Conroy’s comments came after the Financial Review recently published several highly disputed articles relating to the NBN.
In late June, for example, the newspaper published an article stating that there was “a real risk” that the NBN’s fibre infrastructure might be overtaken by technical breakthroughs in areas such as “wireless technology”. However, the notion that wireless could serve as a replacement for fibre or other fixed network technologies is heavily disputed by the global technology community and is a view outside current mainstream thinking on the issue.
The AFR also reported that take-up of the NBN in the areas where it is available so far has been “minuscule”. Unfortunately, this claim is also heavily disputed. In general, Australia-wide, NBN take-up rates have been 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.
Over the past several years, there have been a number of other misleading articles published by various local newspapers about the NBN. In December, the Australian Press Council expressed concern about the Daily Telegraph’s coverage of the Federal Government’s National Broadband Network project, backing a local critic’s complaint that three articles in a short period of time had contained “inaccurate or misleading assertions” about the NBN. Similarly, in March this year, another News Ltd publication, The Australian, published a correction to a story after it inaccurately alleged that a school in South Australia would have to pay $200,000 to connect to the NBN; in fact, the school will receive NBN access as part of the normal rollout.
All of this has come despite the fact that national polling continues to show that Australians overwhelmingly support the NBN. One recent poll found that more Coalition voters support the project than are against it.
It’s hard to disagree with Budde. I’ve been reporting on the NBN day in, day out since before the project in its first iteration was instigated back in November 2007, and over that time pretty much every possible criticism and doubt has been levelled at it in one form or another. Financial, technical, social, political; every single angle has been explored by hundreds of conservative commentators all convinced that the project is set to flop.
However, as with the climate change issue, the weight of evidence on the NBN’s side has grown pretty overwhelming. As every argument against the NBN has been raised, it has been knocked back, usually by third-party industry technical commentators, but sometimes by NBN Co itself. There are a few issues with respect to the NBN which are still contentious – such as its deals with Telstra and Optus, the speed of the rollout, the location of wireless towers and so on – but they are gradually being worked out as the rollout progresses, or have been laid down in stone and would be difficult to change at this point.
But despite this, we still continue to see misinformed, inaccurate and just plain irrelevant opinions and analysis about the project by commentators who don’t appear to understand its dynamics. These sorts of comments are coming from the Coalition, they’re coming from conservative commentators such as Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones, and they’re coming from other random ‘experts’.
To my mind, most of these comments are not worth taking seriously. For starters they are often just simply false, but beside that point, almost always, they don’t address the higher order issues which are also part of the NBN’s rationale. Things, as Budde points out, such as boosting productivity in the economy, fuelling the growth of next-generation digital businesses, generating e-health solutions, helping the deployment of smart grid technologies and so on.
These are all things, given the constant onward march of technology, which Australia will largely take for granted in a decade or so. But to get there, we’ll need much better infrastructure than we have right now. Despite that being a fact, it appears that many people just don’t understand these ideas; and so their comments about the NBN don’t add anything to the debate. When you disagree with the fundamental facts of a debate, it’s hard to have an intelligent conversation about it.
And these sorts of commentators do remind me of climate change deniers (in fact, perhaps not coincidentally, many of the major NBN critics are also climate change deniers). Just as with the NBN, the evidence is on the side of climate change existing and being a human-created phenomenon. But to climate change deniers, the fact that the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence points towards the existence of the issue doesn’t matter. Just like the NBN.