news The creation of a fast-growing petition and the publication of a landmark article by the ABC on the issue are among growing signs that a powerful level of dissent about the Coalition’s unpopular fibre to the node-based National Broadband Network policy will come to dog the incoming Abbott government on an ongoing basis.
The Coalition’s election victory on Saturday, and the likely imminent ascension of Liberal MP Malcolm Turnbull to the position of Communications Minister, will have immediate and drastic consequences for Labor’s NBN project, which the Rudd and Gillard administrations have pursued as one of the Federal Government’s major projects in its current form since mid-2009, and which the Australian electorate has overwhelmingly supported since that time.
Turnbull has consistently stated that the Coalition plans to “complete” Labor’s NBN vision more rapidly and more cheaply than Labor itself could. However, the Coalition’s NBN alternative is largely based on radically different technology than Labor’s vision, and will deliver vastly reduced broadband service delivery outcomes to many Australians.
Under Labor’s NBN policy, some 93 percent of Australian premises were to have received fibre directly to the premise, delivering maximum download speeds of up to 1Gbps and maximum upload speeds of 400Mbps. The remainder of the population will be served by a combination of satellite and wireless broadband, delivering speeds of up to 25Mbps.
The Coalition’s policy will see fibre to the premises deployed to a significantly lesser proportion of the population — 22 percent — with 71 percent covered by fibre to the node technology, where fibre is extended to neighbourhood ‘nodes’ and the remainder of the distance to premises covered by Telstra’s existing copper network. The Coalition’s policy will also continue to use the HFC cable network operated by Telstra and will also target the remaining 7 percent of premises with satellite and wireless.
According to the Coalition’s media release issued in April upon the policy’s launch, the Coalition’s policy is based on the core pledge that the group will deliver download speeds of between 25Mbps and 100Mbps by the end of 2016 — effectively the end of its first term in power — and 50Mbps to 100Mbps by the end of 2019, effectively the end of its second term. According to the Coalition’s statement, the 25Mbps to 100Mbps pledge applies to “all premises”, while the higher pledge by 2019 applies to “90 percent of fixed line users”. The Coalition has not specified certain upload speeds for its network.
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott this week described the Coalition’s NBN policy as “absolutely bulletproof”, despite the fact that the Coalition has refused to formally cost the plan, and despite it containing a number of controversial assumptions which have been significantly questioned.
Telecommunications industry experts have consistently stated that they believe Labor’s NBN policy to be highly technically superior to the Coalition’s more modest vision, and having the potential to deliver Australia superior long-term outcomes in terms of service delivery and boosting Australia’s economy through productivity gains.
In addition, questions have been raised about the extent to whether it’s possible to deploy the FTTN technology the Coalition is focused on in Australia. There are also questions as to whether Telstra, which owns the copper network which would need to be used as part of the FTTN rollout, will consent to modify its existing $11 billion arrangement with the Labor Federal Government and NBN Co.
In the wake of the Coalition’s election victory, there are already signs that the Australian population is not willing to meekly accept the dramatic watering down of Labor’s NBN vision.
A petition placed on popular website Change.org on the issue following the election, demanding the Coalition reconsider the FTTN technology and focus on the superior FTTP option, has already garnered in excess of 83,000 signatures, with tens of thousands more Australians putting their names to the issue every day.
“As currently proposed,” the petition states, “the Coalition’s FTTN solution relies on the existing copper lines to supply individual premises access to the National Broadband Network (NBN) over the last mile or so. However, copper wiring solutions are rapidly approaching a century of implementation, with its inception dating back to the 1920’s. As such, its technological limits as well as associated weaknesses are rapidly developing … I and many Australians urge you to reconsider your proposal of a FTTN NBN in favour of a superior FTTH NBN. As your policy currently stands it is merely patch-work; a short term solution to a long term problem.”
Dozens of comments have been placed on the Change.org petition supporting its argument. In addition, the petition is only one of many such petitions placed on the site over the past year which demand the Coalition support Labor’s NBN project. The petition’s author Nick Paine has pledged to forward the petition to Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, as well as Turnbull.
Another indication of the likely ongoing strength of support which Labor’s NBN policy will continue to enjoy came on Monday in an extensive article published by Lateline presenter Emma Alberici, who hosted a debate on the NBN issue during the election between Turnbull and then-Communications Minister Anthony Albanese.
The widely respected journalist and commentator argued strongly that the Coalition was “brushing off” the need for faster broadband speeds with its technically inferior policy.
“The World Wide Web was all but ignored when it was unveiled by the British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee in 1991. Those who did react were sceptical that the web would ever entangle more than a few academics across the world and few could imagine that anyone would ever read their news on a computer,” wrote Alberici.
“Mr Turnbull is adamant that it’s “very unlikely” Australians will need 1 gigabit of download speeds. That’s what they said about the World Wide Web.”
The article attracted 412 comments, the vast majority of which were hostile to the Coalition’s NBN plan and supported Labor’s, although many commenters also acknowledged Labor had done a poor job of implementing its policy.
The ongoing support for Labor’s NBN policy — despite the fact that Labor lost the election on Saturday — is consistent with the policy’s high levels of support in the electorate over time. For example, an informal online poll taken by the ABC after the Coalition’s rival policy was unveiled in April showed voters had quickly rejected the policy, with 78 percent of some 5,700 readers noting that they didn’t support it. A subsequent poll showed the Coalition’s NBN policy had boosted support amongst some Coalition voters, but confirmed that Australians en-masse still overwhelmingly supported Labor’s version of the policy.
Well, well. Looks like the Australian electorate isn’t going to just take this one lying down.
From here, it’s relatively clear what is going to happen. Given that the Australian electorate has always been staunchly behind the NBN, it is very likely that Turnbull, and the Coalition in general, are going to face an ongoing and high level of antagonism from the public as they attempt to radically modify Labor’s NBN project into a FTTN-based alternative. And the only thing which will dull this criticism is extremely fast delivery of the Coalition’s FTTN infrastructure. The more delayed the Coalition’s own rollout becomes, the more frustrated the Australian population will become with the situation.
Turnbull, in particular, has just one chance to get this right. If the incoming Communications Minister is not able to kick the Coalition’s FTTN project into gear and get it deliverying very quickly, he is rapidly going to become public enemy #1; the politician who not only tore down Labor’s NBN vision, but also proved incapable of delivering on his own vision. Because the public angst on this issue is just not going to go away.
There’s a certain fitness to this situation. What it illustrates is that the Australian public is not stupid. It understands that eventually, Telstra’s copper network needs to be wholly replaced, and what it wants to see is the Government fix that situation as soon as possible, with the best technology that money can buy. I think most Australians would have preferred to see the Coalition keep Labor’s FTTP model, but promise to speed up its delivery by better managing NBN Co, and potentially getting Telstra involved in constructing the NBN fibre. By taking the FTTN route, the Coalition has taken a risky and unpopular path. Now, it has no choice but to deliver on it.
The situation is also a little like what happened when Labor took its mandatory Internet filtering policy to the 2007 Federal Election. Like FTTN, the filter was based on a model which the majority of Australians disagreed with, and used technology which many suspected would not be adequate for its task. Eventually that unpopular policy was struck down. It will be interesting to see if Turnbull’s FTTN model can escape the same fate.
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