opinion Like mindless junkies scrabbling for their latest fix, the virulent community of pro-NBN extremists in Australia’s technology sector will do or say almost anything to prove the Coalition’s NBN policy to be completely worthless, despite the fact that it shares most of its fundamental principles with Labor’s own superior broadband vision.
Let me say this right up-front in this article, so that nobody can possibly get it wrong. Despite ongoing quibbles I have about Labor’s National Broadband Network policy (such as its anti-competitive shutdown of the HFC cable networks operated by Telstra and Optus), I have been a long-term supporter of the policy, and I believe it to be the best telecommunications policy which Australia has ever seen. It will deliver real benefits to every Australian, and I strongly prefer it over the Coalition’s policy. As I wrote shortly after the Coalition released its policy:
“Fundamentally, it’s a worse policy than Labor’s. Its critics are right; it betrays a tragic loss of long-term vision for Australia’s telecommunications infrastructure. Fibre to the node is a dead-end technology which will, in several decades, be already fading into memory. By investing in fibre to the node, the Coalition isn’t skating to where the puck is going to be, nor even where it is now. It is looking backwards, not forwards, and by doing so it is throwing away the opportunity for Australia’s economy to transition from digging things up out of the ground to a more sustainable knowledge-based export economy — you know, the kind of economy which countries such as Germany and Japan already have.
On almost any measure, Labor’s policy is a better one than the Coalition’s. It has technical, economic, financial and industry structure advantages, to say nothing of the end benefit to Australian residents and businesses. It’s a winner and I prefer it vastly over the Coalition’s much more modest vision.”
Over the past several years, I have written countless articles defending the NBN from its critics. I have defended the NBN against the right-wing dribblings of uninformed ranters such as Andrew Bolt, Alan Jones and Ray Hadley. I have written dozens of articles informing some of the nation’s most senior politicians that their statements about the NBN have been factually wrong. I have spent a great deal of time pointing out that even many of the NBN’s rollout delays are very much normal for an infrastructure project of this size. And I have done this in a media climate which has so often seemed determined to tear down the NBN at every cost. At times, it has seemed like only a handful of journalists, such as myself and ABC Technology + Games Editor Nick Ross, have even been willing to give NBN Co the time of day, with almost every other commentator raising their hand to righteously strike the NBN down.
At times the situation has verged on the farcical. It has seemed like no matter what NBN Co or the Government did or said about the project, there has been no way for it to make any headway in the minds of some of its critics, despite the fact that polls have consistently demonstrated a wave of overwhelming support for the project amongst the populace, and despite the fact that technical experts and other governments have almost universally praised the project as being visionary in global terms.
This is why I find it so ironic that, having been through that process for the past several years, I now find myself suddenly somewhat on the other side of the argument.
If you followed the launch of the Coalition’s NBN policy in early April to the extent that you actually read the associated policy documents, you will be aware that there are a large amount of similarities between the Coalition’s policy and Labor’s own — enough so that there have been murmurs from Liberal Party backbenchers that the position of Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull had come too close to Labor’s own; an issue which has dogged Turnbull in the past. The following table illustrates the situation perfectly:
In short, the Coalition has chosen a very similar mix of technologies to deploy its version of the NBN as Labor has. The most remote communities will still be served by NBN Co’s satellite access, regional communities will be served by fixed wireless infrastructure, and fibre will be deployed throughout Australia’s larger population areas. As with Labor’s policy, the mix has been chosen based on cost factors. It is simply not economical to reach many rural areas of Australia with fibre-based broadband; a fact universally acknowledged by both sides of politics.
Although there are minor differences here and there (such as the Coalition’s wish to maintain Telstra’s HFC cable network as an alternative to the NBN), there is only one real difference between the two policies, if you take them over the long term; that is, time frames of a decade or more. This is that the Coalition is proposing a different mix of fibre to be used for most of Australia. It is proposing that only 22 percent of Australian premises be covered by fibre all the way to the premises, with the remaining 71 percent to be covered by fibre to neighbourhood nodes, and Telstra’s copper cable to continue its duties for the remaining distance to premises. Labor’s NBN proposes a much higher percentage — 93 percent — of Australia to be covered by fibre all the way to the premises.
To many commentators and analysts with a long-term perspective on Australia’s telecommunications market, including myself, the release of the Coalition’s NBN policy in April represented a watershed moment. Finally — finally! — after a decade of bickering, both sides of politics had formally come to consensus on the major elements of national telecommunications policy. Labor already had a globally ambitious vision, and the Coalition had finally gotten on board with the major elements of that vision — using NBN Co as a vehicle, a mix of satellite, wireless and fibre to service Australia’s future needs, massive government investment to the tune of tens of billions of dollars in the space, and the continued focus on a competitive broadband market.
You can argue the specifics until the cows come home, but it remains true that there are substantial international precedents for both fibre models being proposed in Australia. Labor can take heart from the fact that Asian countries such as Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea have already deployed fibre to the premises nationally. And the Coalition has been able to successfully argue that fibre to the node infrastructure is common throughout Europe and the Americas.
However, unfortunately there remains a segment of the population which remains completely unwilling to accept that the Coalition’s proposal has any merit whatsoever.
You can see this trend starkly demonstrated in the discussion precipitated yesterday on Delimiter when veteran telecommunications analyst Paul Budde — a long-time supporter of Labor’s NBN policy — had the audacity to proclaim that Turnbull’s recent answers to key questions about the specifics of the Coalition’s NBN policy “make sense”.
Despite the high-level nature of Budde’s comments, the discussion immediately sank to the level which almost every NBN debate online gets into — the precise technical differences between the rival FTTN and FTTP technologies. Commenters became doggedly fixated on the specific detail of how possible it is to upgrade a FTTN network to a FTTP network down the track. Questioning the combatants in this fraught conversation only led to every more detailed discussions along these lines, and the dialogue eventually spun out of control into the realm of conspiracy theories about News Limited Rupert Murdoch having issued a wholesale edict to his newspapers to oppose the NBN.
Becoming somewhat frustrated with the one-sided nature of comments, I asked readers to respond to the following question: “If Labor’s NBN policy didn’t exist and Labor had no policy in this area, what would your opinion be of the Coalition’s NBN policy, as an independent policy standing on its own?”
Some readers initially noted that in the absence of a Labor NBN policy, they would support the Coalition’s policy, but again, almost immediately the same micro-complaints started to kick in. Some readers claimed the Coalition’s policy was a waste of time because it wouldn’t support the same upload speeds as Labor’s, which would in turn block a full societal shift to telecommuting. Others said the Coalition’s policy was invalid because a panel of experts had rejected a similar Labor policy in early 2009. Some said FTTN could have worked back then, but Telstra was too hostile to such a policy. Still others said there was no point considering the merits of the Coalition’s policy, because Labor’s policy did indeed exist. And others claimed that the Coalition’s policy was impractical because Telstra’s records with respect to its own network infrastructure, and the quality of its copper network was so “terrible” that a FTTN rollout would be impossible.
Another example of this trend was demonstrated this week in an extensive post by local IT pro Kieran Cummings (known online as Sortius), who runs his own popular blog as well as acting as a commentator on sites such as Independent Australia and Australians for Honest Politics. In an article entitled Engineering Your Way Out Of A Ditch, Cummings proceeded to tear apart Turnbull’s performance in an online NBN policy debate hosted on Monday by technology media outlet ZDNet between the Liberal MP and Communications Minister Stephen Conroy.
The issue I have with Cummings’ article is that it is completely one-sided. I listened to the debate (you can read a transcript here), as I have hundreds of other speeches and debates involving the two NBN spokesmen over the past several years. And I found it quite evenly balanced. Both Conroy and Turnbull were able to score points in it, reflecting the relative advantages of their parties’ differing policies. Conroy was obviously at home on the technical advantages of the Labor NBN, but Turnbull is also correct in that Labor hasn’t been as good as its promises on delivering the NBN infrastructure, leaving a space for the Coalition’s argument that its FTTN solution could be rolled out more quickly. And by the way, this isn’t a controversial claim: Even NBN Co chief executive Mike Quigley has acknowledged that FTTN infrastructure is significantly faster to deploy.
In short, there was nothing new from either side. We’ve heard all of this before; and in great detail indeed.
But if you read Cumming’s article, you don’t get a sense of the complexity and well-established nature of the debate. What you get is a series of nitpicks with respect to Turnbull’s specific claims about the technical capabilities of FTTN with respect to Telstra’s existing copper network, coupled with praise for Conroy’s “great restraint”, to the extent that the Communications Minister didn’t go completely over the top in damning Turnbull, who Cummings labelled as “a total arse” building a NBN policy on “lies”. The irony that it was only last week that Cummings was ranting about the shortcomings of Australia’s technology journalists in covering issues such as the NBN appears to have been lost on the commentator. You don’t achieve quality journalism by unashamedly backing one side.
The common theme between these two examples I’ve listed here (as well as virtually every other article at the moment discussing the NBN and the #fraudband discussion on social media) is very clear: Almost every discussion of the NBN in technical circles in Australia at the moment rapidly descends into an extremely detailed nitpick of the Coalition’s policy, leading to the conclusion that it isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on and should be flatly rejected as a viable option for Australia’s telecommunications future.
It’s what I have started to call the “FTTP or nothing” premise. The fundamental point being pushed here is that not only is the Coalition’s policy inferior to Labor’s NBN, but that it’s so bad that it’s not worth proceeding with. Only Labor’s NBN vision, according to many commentators, will be able to deliver Australia any benefit, when it comes to the upgrade of Australia’s national broadband infrastructure, and only Labor’s vision will be able to provide for Australia’s digital future.
The truth, of course, is that the Coalition’s rival NBN policy is indeed inferior to Labor’s — as I mentioned early, on almost every count. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a good policy. So many NBN commentators right now appear to believe to be casting the NBN debate as a black versus white dichotomy — Labor’s NBN is the Son of Heaven in Glory, while the Coalition’s NBN is the Great Satan Destroyer. Of course, the situation is much more complex than this. The truth is that both policies sit on a sliding scale of worthiness far above “bad”, and that both will deliver very worthwhile outcomes to Australia. Labor’s NBN policy is the best policy, but the Coalition’s policy is still pretty damn good: A fact which even the most rabid pro-NBN commentators will find it hard to deny when their premises are connected to broadband speeds of at least 25Mbps, and very likely 50Mbps, in half a decade’s time.
The irony in the current debate is a fact acknowledged by the venerable Budde last week, when he wrote:
“In all reality, if the Coalition were to have launched its $30 billion plan back in 2007 everybody would have been most enthusiastic, and the plan as it stands now would have received the same positive welcome that the government’s NBN plan received in 2009. There would also have been a good chance that if this plan had been presented at that time they actually could have won that election. So the will of the people – who at least partly voted for Labor because of their NBN plan – was clearly ahead of the political will of the Coalition.
Of course, just like there is today, there would have been strong political opposition from the other side, but, as is the case with the current NBN plan, the majority of people (some 70%) supports this type of investment, so at that time – looked at it in isolation – that plan would have received a similar level of support.”
The irony which brings me to my knees and burns my eyes when I consider the current NBN debate and the extent to which many pro-NBN commentators have closed their eyes to the Coalition’s policy, is that those doing so have appropriated wholesale the historical tactics of the anti-NBN camp, in trying to prove the Coalition’s policy worthless.
Long-term Delimiter readers will recall that back in February 2011, I wrote an article entitled Anti-NBN junkies need to go to rehab, in which I damned the ridiculous antics of the anti-NBN lobby in going to extreme lengths to show that Labor’s NBN project was a waste of time. As I wrote at the time:
” … like the junkies who can’t quite quit their self-harming addiction, the haters of the NBN project just refuse to give up the object of their fevered opposition, fumbling around in the dark continuously for their next fix; the perfect argument that might just prove once and for all that the project is a dud. After every fruitless shot fired, they reel back in ecstasy for 5 minutes, before lapsing into self-loathing.”
If this doesn’t describe the current critics of the Coalition’s NBN policy, I don’t know what does. So many commentators in this camp will never admit that there is anything remotely good about what the Coalition is proposing, no matter what evidence is presented to them, and no matter that much of the Coalition’s policy was copied straight from Labor’s own. They will use every argument, every skerrick of evidence, to prove the Coalition’s policy worthless; and if one of their arguments is proven wrong, they will fall back on other arguments, ad infinitum. They will never, ever, give up.
As for myself, I’ll continue, as always, to keep an open mind with regard to either side. The Government hasn’t yet successfully delivered any kind of broadband upgrade to my residence, and neither has the Coalition. I’ve been fumbling along for the past decade on my own (with the help of iiNet and the ACCC and the obstruction of Telstra). If and when someone upgrades the pipe leading to my door, I’ll consider that a win. Extrapolate that open-minded, rather practical principle to the entirety of the Australian population, and you can see where my views come from. It’s faster broadband for everyone that actually matters — not ideological nitpicking about who’s technically right and wrong.
Like most people, I prefer NBN’s policy to the Coalition’s. But unlike many pro-NBN commentators at the moment, I am not prepared to close my mind to views from one side of the argument, in a misguided attempt to prove one side conclusively right. We lessen the quality of the debate if we do not set rationality and intelligent thinking as the prime bedrock of all our discussions in this, and indeed every area, in life.