news Australia’s premiere digital rights lobbying group Electronic Frontiers Australia has called for the Government to allow public input into the upcoming strategic review of the future of the National Broadband Network, as pressure intensifies upon Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull to support the previous Labor administration’s all-fibre NBN policy.
New Minister for Communications, Malcolm Turnbull, MP, yesterday held a media conference in which he announced the new NBN Co interim Statement of Expectations which will guide the company’s operations in the short term. In the conference Turnbull reiterated that the government will institute a strategic review of the NBN, to be conducted by the company itself and delivered within 60 days after a new board is appointed for NBN Co.
The review is detailed in the Coalition’s NBN policy document (PDF), and is to set to estimate the cost and time to complete the NBN under its current model, as well as evaluating how other models could potentially reduce that cost and time to complete the rollout. Yesterday Turnbull said he had made it clear to NBN Co’s staff that he was “not interested in being given information that people may think will conform to my particular political agenda, whatever they may imagine that to be”.
“The goal of the strategic review, as you know, is to ascertain what it will really cost in dollars, what it will really take in years and months, to complete the project on the current specifications. And then, to assess, what options there are to reduce that cost and time, by using different techniques, different technologies,” the Minister added.
“As you know, as everyone knows, we’ve canvassed an example of that in our policy document, but let me say again, as I said to NBN staff today, I am, and the Government is, thoroughly open-minded, we are not dogmatic about technology; technology is not an ideological issue. We are completely agnostic about it. What we want to do is get the best result for taxpayers as soon as possible.”
Turnbull’s comments have been interpreted by some, including influential telecommunications analyst Paul Budde, as having opened the door for the Coalition Government to walk away from its predominantly fibre to the node-based NBN policy and to support Labor’s fibre to the premises model instead, as long as NBN Co can demonstrate that it can cut costs during the process.
In a statement issued today, Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA) called on Turnbull to include the public in the upcoming NBN review.
“EFA believes that the NBN is Australia’s most important forward-looking infrastructure project,” the organisation said. “It has the potential to dramatically improve the Australian way of life in all sectors of the economy and society, and is an important step in achieving equality between regional and urban areas.”
“Recently there has been much public debate over the relative merits and costs of a Fibre to the Premises (FTTP) versus Fibre to the Node (FTTN) version of the NBN. IT professionals tend to prefer FTTP. Nick Paine, a private citizen and self-described Liberal voter, has received over 260,000 signatures for his petition “The Liberal Party of Australia: Reconsider your plan for a ‘FTTN’ NBN in favour of a superior ‘FTTH’ NBN”. Social media interest continues as each announcement is forthcoming, including this most recent one. EFA believes that this all speaks to a broader issue: Australians want to have their say.”
EFA said it agreed that the new government had every right to conduct audits and reviews of NBN Co, and that there were questions of fiscal responsibility, project management, and technology that deserve greater scrutiny. We approve, too, of the new interim statement of expectations call for transparency. It noted the third last paragraph of the Statement of Expectations letter (PDF) sent by the Government to NBN Co, which states:
“You will be aware that Government policy provides for increased scrutiny and transparency of NBN Co and its activities. As a first step in improving transparency we ask that you publish weekly information on your website indicating the number of premises passed, those premise that are passed but cannot receive a service (.e.g service class 0) and those premises with an active service for each element of the network. Your advice is also sought on longer term arrangements for improving the transparency of the NBN Co operations.”
In its own statement, EFA said this statement was “commendable”, and asked that the Government set itself the same high standard.
“EFA takes Mr Turnbull at his word that the government is technology agnostic, that the government wishes to bring the public into its confidence, and that every public infrastructure project has to be carefully and honestly analysed so that governments, and citizens, can weigh up the costs and benefits.”
“EFA argues that the best course of action is to let Australians have their say, fully and frankly, as part of a transparent strategic review that mirrors the openness of a Parliamentary Inquiry. Interest groups, institutions, corporations, and citizens should all be able to have their say. In short: don’t just inform us, ask us.”
EFA said the the review should include: Full disclosure public discussion documents clearly comparing and contrasting all NBN options, with a specific emphasis on future expansion of Internet needs with respect to urban and regional equality; A period of public consultation long enough and accessible enough to provide meaningful responses; The review committee making concrete recommendations on the basis of all responses, transparently indicating which suggestions have been taken up and which have not, and the reasons for doing so.
It is common for parliamentary reviews to take significant amounts of public input into account when making recommendations to the government of the day.
For example, during recent reviews into government surveillance plans and price hiking on technology products and services, feedback from the public was instrumental in pushing certain policies (such as outlawing so-called ‘geo-blocking’ of online goods and services) as well as blocking certain policies (such as the previous Labor Government’s failed data retention initiative). However, self-conducted reviews of government business enterprises such as NBN Co are less common.