news Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has inaccurately claimed that the rollout of Labor’s National Broadband Network in Tasmania will take “80 years” to complete, in what Labor’s Regional Communications Minister Sharon Bird immediately labelled a deliberate attempt to deceive residents and businesses in the state.
On Friday last week, Abbott attended a public forum in the Tasmanian city of Launceston. Among other issues, the Opposition Leader was asked about the Coalition’s broadband policy. The issue is a key one in Tasmania. The state, which has historically suffered some of Australia’s poorest levels of broadband access and speeds, was the first in the nation to receive NBN infrastructure under a special agreement with the Federal Government, and Labor’s NBN rollout will be finished first in Tasmania.
In addition, a landmark report handed down in July 2011 into the Coalition’s loss in the 2010 Federal Election highlighted a failure to adequately respond to Labor’s National Broadband Network plan as a key reason for losing valuable votes in Tasmania.
However, responding to questions on the issue, according to a report published by Yahoo!, Abbott rejected suggestions that the Coalition’s more modest NBN plan, which will focus on the use of fibre to the node technology rather than the technically superior fibre to the home, would mean Tasmania would suffer a lack of competitive advantage.
“It will take 80 years before the whole of Tasmania has broadband rolled out under this government,” Abbott told the audience, adding that the Coalition’s version of the NBN could be rolled out faster and cheaper.
A media release issued by Regional Communications Minister Sharon Bird had the Abbott quote as follows: “Malcolm (Turnbull) reckons that at the current rate of rollout it will take 80 years before the whole of Tasmania has broadband rolled out under this Government.”
Abbott’s comments appear to be based on the fact that Labor’s NBN project is substantially behind schedule, owing both to issues such as delays in detailed negotiations to gain access to Telstra’s existing infrastructure and customer base, a well as extensive problems in the rollout of the infrastructure itself. NBN Co announced in July that it had only finished constructing its fibre network to some 207,500 premises at the end of June.
Although there are substantial differences between the two projects, as well as in the geographies of the two countries, British incumbent telco BT revealed last week that its fibre to the node network has passed more than 16 million premises since the network rollout was commenced in 2009, with more than 1.7 million customers having signed up for active connections to the infrastructure. The Coalition has regularly used the BT example to argue that Labor’s NBN vision is taking too long to deliver.
However, all infrastructure projects start off slow when it comes to their construction, as initial major contracts are signed and underlying project planning put in place. There is a growing body of evidence that NBN Co’s rollout speeds are currently dramatically increasing, compared with the slow speeds which the project has been experiencing over the past several years. The NBN project is currently on track to be completed around the 2021 timeframe.
In her media release, Bird strongly criticised Abbott for the comments, describing the “80 years” claim as “ridiculous”. “Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull continue to deliberately mislead the people of Tasmania about Labor’s National Broadband Network,” Bird’s statement said. “The only thing that might take 80 years is for Tony Abbott and his frontbench to come up with a policy which offers decent broadband for all Australians.
“Once again, Tony Abbott has shown he is prepared to say anything to make a political point, proving he is unfit to be Prime Minister. The facts are that the NBN rollout in Tasmania is on track to be completed by mid-2015, covering around 250,000 homes and businesses across fibre, fixed wireless and satellite technologies. Tasmania will be the first state in Australia to be fully connected to the NBN, giving it a competitive advantage over the rest of the country. The NBN is already available to over 36,000 homes and businesses in Tasmania. Construction on the NBN’s fibre network has commenced for another 94,500 premises.”
Bird pointed out that Tasmanians in areas such as Midway Point, Scottsdale, Smithton, Triabunna, Deloraine, Sorell, St Helens, George Town, Kingston, Hobart and Launceston could already connect to the NBN, with construction also having commenced in areas including Somerset, Weymouth, Beechford, East Devonport, Deloraine and Ross. The NBN fixed wireless service is also available to rural communities surrounding Sorell, Round Hill, Cygnet, Weymouth, Richmond, Lulworth, Herringback, Mole Creek, Huonville, Mount Hicks, Natone, Mount Direction, Deloraine, Westbury, Yolla, Ridgley, Snug, Deviot and George Town.
“There is a clear choice in Tasmania at the next election when it comes to broadband. Labor’s NBN is delivering a world class communications system that is serving Tasmania’s broadband needs now and into the future.” Bird said. “The Coalition’s second-rate alternative keeps last century’s copper, which will hold Tasmania back.”
The NBN debate has over the past several years seen politicians from both major sides of politics make false and misleading statements about the project, leading to a situation where academics have commented that the debate is full of “false statements”.
Bird is certainly right — even under the worst possible estimates, there is just no way that it’s going to take 80 years to roll out the NBN to Tasmania. Even if the whole NBN project runs ten years late, which is extremely unlikely, that would only place the project’s completion data at around 2030. Abbott (and Turnbull, although I haven’t seen the Member for Wentworth make this particular claim publicly) can bluster all they want about “80 years”, but the fact is that the NBN is a massive infrastructure project, and these types of infrastructure projects take time to get off the ground, before ramping up to speed gradually, as the NBN currently is.
However, it’s also true that Labor and NBN Co themselves did open the door for the Coalition on this one. There really hasn’t been a huge amount of NBN construction work undertaken in Tasmania since the initial first tranche of early fibre rollouts in the state back in 2010 and 2011. Things are getting up to speed now, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some Taswegians have gotten tired of NBN Co’s slow rollout speed by now.
There is also the fact that the Coalition has promised to consider taking fibre to the node services to some areas which, under Labor’s plan, would only receive wireless services under the NBN. On paper, this promise doesn’t stack up — as Bird mentions in a separate media release, the Coalition’s NBN policy promises the same amount of wireless and satellite use as Labor’s. However, the prospect may be tantalising for some of those remote Tasmanian communities currently slated to receive wireless NBN services. FTTN is a flawed and technically inferior technology rollout style compared with fibre to the premises. But it’s likely to be a damn sight better than the NBN’s wireless offering, and that is a fact that, no doubt, some Tasmanians have already taken note of.
As in 2010, Tasmania will be a very interesting battleground for both sides of politics in the upcoming Federal Election, especially when it comes to the NBN. Why? Because the state’s broadband is crap, and has been so for a long time. Plus, its economy is ripe for the kind of modernisation which faster broadband infrastructure can bring; a fact which its own politicians have long been very aware of.