A decade of neglect: Why Tasmania deserves a FTTP rollout


full opinion/analysis by Renai LeMay
10 October 2013
Image: Jens Buche, royalty free

Malcolm Turnbull never specifically promised Tasmanians that the all-fibre NBN rollout in the state would be completed as originally planned. But if there is any one state in Australia that deserves to have a universal Fibre to the Premises National Broadband Network, it’s the Apple Isle, which has been a perpetual broadband backwater for the past decade and more.

If you live on mainland Australia, the ongoing controversy surrounding the Coalition’s plans for modifying the rollout of Labor’s flagship National Broadband Network in Tasmania may seem more than a little strange. After all, when in Opposition, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull never actually promised Tasmanians that a Coalition Government would complete a Fibre to the Premises-based (FTTP) rollout, as many in the state have claimed over the past few months.

The crux of the claim revolves around comments Turnbull made during the height of the election campaign in mid-August. At the time, a number of Tasmanian groups and the Australian Labor Party had called on the Coalition to clarify the extent to which Labor’s FTTP rollout would take place in the state, given that the Coalition’s ‘Economic Growth Plan for Tasmania’ policy document had appeared to muddy the Coalition’s commitments in the state.

Turnbull’s answer to this issue, if you examine it closely, and as he delivered it on several occasions, was very clear. It is encapsulated well in this brief statement made via the Member for Wentworth’s website on 16 August, in response to a somewhat sensationalist article published in the Launceston Examiner that day. Turnbull said:

“As stated to TasICT in May: ‘We intend to honour existing contracts – the alternative would be to breach them and that is a course we would not countenance’. This is not just a commitment to honour contracts where construction is under way – but all contracts which have been entered into. The statement in the ‘Economic Growth Plan for Tasmania’ that the NBN rollout will be completed by 2019 under the Coalition refers to the mainland rollout and is not specific to Tasmania.”

Reading between the lines, what Turnbull is saying here is two thing. Firstly, the then-Shadow Minister was committing himself only to honouring contracts which NBN Co had already signed with contractors in Tasmania such as Visionstream, which is largely deploying the NBN in the state. The reason for this caution should be apparent to anyone who’s observed several changes of Government in Australia. Opposition parties obviously need to ensure the stability of projects already undertaken under the previous administration, for public interest reasons as well as legal and financial reasons, to say nothing of the reputational damage that would ensue to all concerned from cancelling major deals wholesale.

However, Turnbull also re-committed a Coalition Government to its already stated policy aims, encapsulated in its April 2013 NBN policy document. In short, to deliver most Australians broadband speeds of 25Mbps by the end of 2016 — and most of those broadband speeds of 50Mbps by the end of 2019. This is what Turnbull was promising Tasmania — not a specific technology such as FTTP.

The way this has played out in practice, in Turnbull’s early instructions to NBN Co, has been very consistent with this statement.

Several weeks ago, Turnbull and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann ordered NBN Co (PDF) to continue deploying fibre where build instructions had already been issued to delivery partners, but to hold fire on new orders while NBN Co conducts a strategic review of its operations; a review which will more than likely recommend some watering down of Labor’s staunchly all-fibre vision. In addition, the two ministers reminded NBN Co of the Coalition’s 2016 policy commitments.

It may appears that this move could constitute a breach of NBN Co’s contracts with partners like Visionstream. But in practice, it’s very well expected that those contracts contain clauses for precisely this kind of situation. Australia’s construction giants are well aware of the vagaries of working with government, and will doubtless have insured themself well against precisely this kind of eventuality. After all, Visionstream only won its deal with NBN Co in March 2012; at the height of the then-Abbott Opposition’s popularity. It seems unlikely the contractor would not have planned for a change in Government a year and a half later; and it seems even less likely that NBN Co’s extremely large team of lawyers would have let the company get itself into a contractual mess it couldn’t extricate itself from.

Then, too, this is precisely what Labor predicted the Coalition would do in Government.

In August, then-Communications Minister Anthony Albanese went on a virtual rampage over Turnbull’s Tasmanian comments. In one particularly strongly worded statement published on 23 August, Albanese noted that the Hobart Mercury had reported that Turnbull had given an assurance that the Coalition intended to fully complete the fibre rollout in Tasmania.

“This is not what his policy states and is not the basis on which it has been costed,” said Albanese at the time. “The Coalition policy is very clear. There is no unqualified commitment to “honouring” contracts. It states: “the Coalition reserves the right to review and seek to vary any of those contracts in the light of the Coalition’s broadband policy.” In the background paper the Coalition policy states that they will vary contracts so that they are deliverable in ways that align with Coalition policy.”

And in an interview with the ABC’s Hobart-based radio host Leon Compton, Albanese made the likely situation even clearer. “The Coalition’s policy is very clear, that it will stop wherever contracts haven’t been issued.”

The truth is that Turnbull’s comments regarding the Coalition’s NBN plans for Tasmania have always been interpreted by pundits, lobbyists and even politicians as promising more than the Earl of Wentworth ever did.

TasICT chief executive Dean Winter misinterpreted Turnbull’s comments in August when he intimated Turnbull had confirmed that NBN Co had contracts to deploy FTTP across Tasmania, and so did Tasmanian Liberal Senator David Bushby, when he said that if the contracts were in place, then the FTTP NBN would be deployed across Tasmania. And, although we suspect lobby group Digital Tasmania is aware of the nuanced implications of what Turnbull specifically promised Tasmania (in short, nothing different than the rest of Australia), the group still continues to pressure the Coalition to stick to its word on the issue.

The nub of the matter, of course, is that despite what Turnbull actually said during the election campaign, Digital Tasmania and the others are right: Under no circumstances should NBN Co stop deploying FTTP broadband in the state. It should go the whole hog, and there are a number of reasons why.

Firstly, it should be obvious to anyone who has any history in Australia’s telecommunications industry that when it comes to broadband, Tasmania has had a shocker over the past decade.

One of the principle underlying factors which influences the price of retail broadband in Australia is the cost of data transit across national boundaries, which in Australia usually means getting data across the Pacific Ocean to the US or north to countries such as Singapore, both through undersea submarine cables. Over time, the growing number of undersea fibre links has cut that cost down, providing competition to Telstra’s previous monopoly in the area.

But in Tasmania, it wasn’t until July 2009 that the state was able to get a competitive cable across Bass Strait, piggybacking off the Basslink electricity cable. Ironically, Tasmania’s giant hydroelectric power generators were used as a subsidiary option to help power the mainland’s electricity grid, but it took a while before both sides could get organised for the mainland to help supply Tasmania’s telecommunications needs.

Until that cable was built, competitive telecommunications access in Tasmania really didn’t substantially exist, due to the unwillingness of companies like iiNet, TPG, Optus and others to deploy their own gear in the state and pay Telstra’s exorbitant costs to get Tasmanian’s data traffic back across Bass Strait. Melbourne ISP Netspace gave it a solid go — but didn’t ultimately change the game much.

What this meant for Tasmanians is that until late 2009, there wasn’t much telecommunications competition in the state at all; most people used Telstra for most things, and Telstra is not precisely known for upgrading its ADSL infrastructure in telephone exchanges until rivals do so; or cutting prices until it’s forced to.

The same goes for mobile broadband. It wasn’t until May 2011 that Australia’s supposedly number two telco Optus got serious about Tasmania. At the time, it had just 30 or so mobile base stations in the state; a number which it planned to triple. Forget Vodafone: The network rollout announced by Optus at the time saw over 45 towns get access to a mobile provider other than Telstra for the first time in their history.

“With this significant expansion, we will be the only mobile carrier capable of challenging the incumbent’s network reach in Tasmania,” said Optus Networks managing director Gunther Ottendorfer at the time. No kidding. And it took a long time for Tasmanians to get access to anything near the same level of competition as can readily be found on the mainland.

It was partially these market conditions which led then-Tasmanian Labor Premier David Bartlett to get highly engaged with the Labor Federal Government’s early attempts to build the NBN through a private/public sector partnership. Tasmania put in a bid for that process, and Bartlett made a persuasive argument to then-Communications Minister Stephen Conroy that no matter how the process came out, Tasmania should be first in line for better broadband. The initial, $4.7 billion NBN plan Labor took to the 2007 Federal Election failed; but it failed well for Tasmania, which received Conroy’s promise of early stage rollout priority for the much larger, $43 billion FTTP rollout which the Labor Senator and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd unveiled in April 2009.

Another factor is the state’s chaotic economy, which is largely based on tourism as well as exported products, but desperately needs propping up through the development of new sectors, such as the lucrative information technology field. Bartlett himself is a former IT consultant, and was well aware even back in 2008 that the deployment of better broadband in his state would very likely mean the rapid growth of its technology sector. Tasmania, after all, is a great source of cheap labor — all that was needed to capitalise on that would be better connectivity to the mainland.

As a side note, a fantastic example of that potential was illustrated in March this year, when mobile telco Vodafone revealed that it would double its call centre workforce in Tasmania to 1,500 and examine the case for bringing jobs back from overseas — all with a little government assistance. Today, if you call Vodafone’s customer support line, it’s more than likely that you’re actually speaking to someone in Tasmania.

At first the Tasmanian rollout went well, with a cluster of small towns — Smithton, Scottsdale and Midway Point — receiving fibre to their premises, in a rollout which was hailed as a milestone example for how the NBN deployment would go ahead in mainland Australia. And there is no doubt that the rollout in Tasmania is still progressing slowly, despite Turnbull’s claims to the contrary.

However, it’s also true that the troubles besetting NBN Co nationally — problems with asbestos, problems with contractors and even problems with its own maps — have also thrown the Tasmanian NBN rollout out of whack. There is an element of truth to Turnbull’s sensationalist claims this week — even if it hasn’t stopped completely, the Tasmanian NBN rollout has slowed down dramatically, and that’s not what residents of the state were promised. In badmouthing Visionstream’s performance in Tasmania, Turnbull may be both attempting to hold the contractor to account, while also scoring political points by pointing out the previous Labor administration’s failings.

The difficulty with the Tasmanian situation for a Liberal Communications Minister such as Turnbull is that the arguments which led Labor to put Tasmania first in terms of an NBN rollout still exist and are still incredibly strong. Although the State Government is considering a third fibre-optic submarine cable across Bass Strait, the state of broadband competition in the Apple Isle is still poor compared to the rest of Australia, due to the still powerful monoplistic presence of Telstra. Then too, Tasmania’s economy still need boosting, and the development of a strong IT sector is one of the most obvious ways to do that.

Turnbull must also consider the fact that Tasmania, fundamentally, is just not that large. In any of Australia’s main population centres — ranging from massive cities such as Sydney or Melbourne to smaller regions such as Newcastle or Wollongong, to name a few, the use of differentiated technologies to provide superfast broadband, as the Coalition’s NBN policy provides for, would not be as huge an issue as it will be in Tasmania.

In a state which only has a little over 500,000 residents in total, and where the state capital has just 216,000, it will be highly apparent which streets are the “haves” in terms of FTTP broadband, as Labor liked to put it during the election campaign, and which will be the “have nots” and receive inferior fibre to the node options. The situation will be even more exacerbated in the rest of Tasmania. In short, Tasmania’s not the sort of place where a Coalition Government can easily get away with a “compromise” NBN solution, as it will be able to in other major population centres, which already have better levels of broadband.

Then too, the Tasmanian population is already highly aware of broadband as an issue and has consistently raised its voice on the NBN topic as a unified group far louder than other states have.

After the 2010 Federal Election, former Howard-era Minister Peter Reith produced a report on the Coalition’s election loss. The majority of the report does not mention the NBN, but one section quotes extensively from a similar report produced last year by Sydney academic Julian Leeser into the Tasmanian leg of the election, which has been reported in brief.

“The failure to properly explain the Liberal Party’s broadband policy and the Labor Party’s effective scare campaign was a major cause of the party’s failure to win seats in Tasmania,” the report states. “This was the nearly universal review of people making submissions to the review and is borne out by research undertaken by the Liberal Party. In the view of many, the party’s policy amounted to a threat to come into people’s homes and rip the Internet out of the wall.”

The report added that the NBN policy had a particularly strong effect on Tasmania for a number of reasons. For starters, the fibre network was already being rolled out in some towns, and Tasmania is also often behind the mainland in receiving new technology — so the early stage NBN rollout was seen as a boost to the state, as well as having flow-on effects in terms of jobs, for example.

In comparison, the Liberals’ policy was not as clear-cut as Labor’s.

“One of the problems of the broadband policy was that nowhere in the policy document was there any carve-out for Tasmania or any explanation of what the Liberal Party would do with existing infrastructure,” wrote Leeser in the report. “Numerous senior Liberals in Tasmania had raised the issue of broadband in Tasmania with senior Federal Liberals in Canberra, but a carve-out for Tasmania was forgotten.”

“The broadband policy was written at the last minute without a set of Tasmanian eyes cast over it. The party needs to make a clear and unambiguous statement about its intentions on broadband infrastructure in Tasmania in the future.”

If you examine the past several months about how the Coalition’s NBN policy will be interpreted in Tasmania, it’s not hard to come to the conclusion that the Liberal and National Parties should have remembered that last paragraph in particular during their election campaign in the state. However, you could also argue that Turnbull significantly enhanced the Coalition’s standing in Tasmania in August, as he appeared to allow residents of the state to believe that a commitment to honouring NBN Co’s existing contracts entailed a full FTTP rollout in Tasmania — which it most certainly does not.

Taking all of this into consideration, it seems relatively clear that there would be significant benefits to Turnbull treating Tasmania differently than the rest of Australia when it comes to judging how the NBN should best be deployed in the state.

If you compare Tasmania to the rest of the country, after all, it is inherently different. It has fewer natural economic advantages, being neither a mining nor farming powerhouse, neither a financial center nor a major seat of government. Its telecommunications infrastructure has languished behind the rest of Australia for a decade now, as has its level of retail telecommunications competition; yet it desperately needs that infrastructure in order to stimulate its economy. And its population is highly aware of that fact and politically active regarding the NBN.

It’s for these reasons that politicians and the general public have always viewed Tasmania as being a special case for the NBN rollout. Tasmania was always slated to get the NBN first; it was always involved at a deeper level than other states in the project, and its politicians, on both sides of the fence, have always been more enthusiastic about the initiative than politicians on the mainland — even to the extent that some Coalition politicians in Tasmania have agitated for the NBN to be rolled out faster and more widely in the state, going against the dominant narrative of their national party colleagues.

They say in Government that ideally, every policy should have both a public interest aim as well as delivering a political bonus to the Minister of the day. That opportunity certainly exists here for the Coalition, which has sometimes struggled in Tasmania, but could do much to lock its future fortunes in with the state’s residents if it supported a decent NBN rollout.

For all these reasons, it would make sense for the Coalition Federal Government to continue putting Tasmania first when it comes to the NBN; and in many ways, that means guaranteeing a mostly FTTP-based NBN rollout for the state. It’s what Tasmania needs; it’s what it, more than any other state, has always been promised; and most importantly, it’s what long-suffering Tasmanians deserve.


  1. Sorry, but a state that kicks out government so comprehensively as Tasmania did to vote in an opposition also votes in the policies that the opposition spouted. That is NOT FTTP.

    • That’s a very black white and unfair perspective. People overwhelming swung to Liberal across Australia for a whole host of reasons, with broadband being far from the most important issue on most voter’s minds.You’re also overlooking the fact that people in general were understandably confused about the technicalities surrounding both NBN policies, and it certainly didn’t help when Rudd came back and Conroy resigned, leaving it all up to Alabanese to articulate the differences in policies for the few short weeks leading into the election.

      The coalition did everything they could to deceive Tasmanian residents into thinking their NBN was not only better, but that people would get it sooner and “more affordably”. Turnbull stated that contracts would be honoured and a lot of people fell for it. I’m not about to blame them, as unless you follow the tech world closely in Australia, trying to understand the NBN (without being confused or fooled by incorrect claims along the way) would be difficult.

      Its easy for any of us with technical knowledge to say that the only way to ensure FTTP was to have voted Labor (which is exactly what I did) but can you really blame everyone else for not supporting the Labor party with the state it was in, & being led by Kevin Rudd? Although my no.1 vote went to Labor, it sickened me that I was in any way supporting that man or rewarding Labor’s behaviour . It was simple a case of “NBN” and supporting the lesser of two evils. But I’m a geek, there’s no way regular people would put broadband before everything else.

      The point is that to suggest the election was a clear cut vote for “no FTTP in Tassie thanks!” is simply rubbish.

    • hey smee,

      I have to agree with Simon here — you can’t merely reduce the election to this one issue, it was a lot more complex than that. I think it’s clear that the massive groundswell of FTTP NBN activism following the election represents more than enough evidence that Australia did vote the Coalition in, but that we didn’t agree with all of its policies.

      • Simon – Renai, I watched the same program on 7.30 and it does hurt to see people in truble like that. They are not the only ones, there are many many disadvantaged areas of Australia that will also miss out on the NBN because of the liberal’s policy. Lets face it, in the historyof this country when have the LNP ever done anything for the disadvantaged in our society except in the very very few occasions where it has been politically expedient. Especially in the areas of big capital expenditure such as the Snowy.

        We would still be living in the dark ages had it been left to the Libs. In fact the ALP shouldhave taken a leaf from Chifleys book and made it damn near impossible to roll back the NBN.

        Tasmania does deserve the NBN, so does the rest of the country. One would have thought if it had been so important to Tasmania then there would have been a massive campaign for it. There wasn’t.

        Sure there were many factors and politicians from both sides can be despicable. However Tasmania will ALWAYS be worse off under the libs than labor. That has been shown time and time again.

        Sorry if this sounds like a political rant guys but it is heartbreaking to see that our greatest hope for equity in internet communications has been thrown away. if we don’t get this right our children and grandchildren will pay for it.

        The NBN was made a huge part of the election. We get the government we deserve and we pay the price collectively as a society, that includes Tasmania

        • “Sorry if this sounds like a political rant guys but it is heartbreaking to see that our greatest hope for equity in internet communications has been thrown away.”

          No need to apologise for that. On that we couldn’t agree more. It’s hard not to be depressed about after years of following its progress. I know it might sound selfish asking for Tassie to be treated as a special case too, particularly as I’m a great believer in the advantages that will only come from a ubiquitous FTTP network. However for the reasons outlined above by Renai, I believe our state truly does deserve this investment from the government (if we are to have any chance of a healthy economy). I don’t believe for a second that it will actually happen, but it should :)

        • “Lets face it, in the history of this country when have the LNP ever done anything for the disadvantaged in our society except in the very very few occasions where it has been politically expedient.”

          hey mate,

          apologies, but this isn’t really true and is quite a partisan comment. The whole history of democracy is one of a struggle between two ideologies — capitalism and socialism — and we have a complete mix of those two systems at the moment, with the free market serving most of most people’s needs and welfare institutions such as the dole, public healthcare, public education and so on helping out where needed.

          We can’t have one side without the other — if we did, we’d end up tilted too far one way (such as the US with capitalism) or the other (such as Russia/Cuba and so on with socialism) and would get an unbalanced system.

          The NBN is a perfect example — it features an underlying, socialistic government investment in wholesale infrastructure. However, it’s delivered through the free market — retail ISPs.

          You can’t just write off one side completely and imply that it means nothing. To take one very obvious example, if the John Howard-era Coalition hadn’t deregulated the telecommunications sector back in 1997, we would all still be using Telstra for virtually all our telco services, even now. It wasn’t Labor that did that — it was the Coalition.

          • @Renai

            You are wrong about aligning Russia and Cuba to degrade socialism.
            Russia is a Capitalist nation with same problems as the US poor public services and wealth equality.

            Cuba arguably isn’t socialist either but is anarchy is controlled like a dictatorship. also with horrendous wealth distribution towards leaders mates.

            Germany, France, UK and Australia are arguably the largest Socialist leaning nations and no surprise came out 2008 GFC the strongest due to broad socialistic policies distributing wealth creating broad economic pillars.

  2. Awesome piece Renai. Can’t tell you how appreciative I am that you took the time to explore this topic. Obviously I couldn’t agree more that Tasmania deserves and actually _needs_ FTTP in order to prosper. And you’re right that nowhere has had a worse run than us with access to affordable broadband over the years. Ubiquitous FTTP would be a cure for our economic fragility, and the relative isolation from the mainland.

    If people want Tasmania to being adding any real value to Australia’s economy in the future, then focussing on Tasmania as a fibre-driven technology haven is the sensible answer.

    • No worries, the development of Tasmania in broadband is something that I’ve been passionate about for a long time, despite the fact that I’ve never actually been there; an issue I hope to rectify at some point ;)

      And despite all the politics, the fact remains that nothing has really changed in the past few years … Tasmania needs FTTP, and as soon as possible. I saw a program on the ABC’s 7:30 last night about the poor availability of jobs for young people in Tasmania, and the fact that there is little future for some. I wanted to scream at the TV: “DEPLOY THE NBN!” It’s so obvious that it would result in so many more opportunities … but it’s hard to convince people of this.

      • spot on. Its such a wasted opportunity and the NBN is a ridiculously obvious answer to multiple problems the state faces.

  3. Renai and guys.
    There was a program on (shock horror) Today Tonight and the Project on Literacy in Aust Mon 21/10. Actually shocking for a supposedly Developed Nation
    “Literacy” handicapped/challenged figures reported . Tas 50%, NSW and Eastern Oz generally approx 40%.
    This limits the society and economy in so many ways. NBN Take ups show a correllation. Literacy challenged – No computer, No internet, Major issues if at all reading News and forming THEIR OWN considered opinions or beliefs, more likely to be influenced by Radio or TV personalities such as Jones, Hadlee etc. Generally ashamed and hiding their disability.

    The ubiquitous GPON and 4 Port NTU if allied with a Government thin client service on port 4 could address this with a well designed and promoted program from the privacy of their home, that would not be feasible with the alternate Network or any SINGLE Data Stream solution

  4. I visited Tasmania for the first time in 2011 when my brother was dying. He lived in Georgetown, population of 3.500 and they have FTTP; my sister-in-law took up the connection as soon as it was available mainly for her son who was in Year 10. The speed made his study ability so much better because of the extra speed and could have 10 to 20 different sites open at once and NOT suffer any speed degradation while searching. I can Skype them, with video, and it is just like actually being there (save for my pathetic 1mbps uplink) whereas a phone call is just not the same.
    Google were looking at building a Datacentre in Tasmania with two of the major reasons. One being hydro power (Google like to appear to be energy green) which is a renewable energy and two was Tasmania having that all important lifeblood of datacentres (apart from electricity), BANDWIDTH, especially the ones made of tiny of glass cables.
    FTTP throughout Tasmania would help the employment situation but more importantly would make Tasmania part of Australia. At present it is an island that I found during my 2011 visit hard to get into in an emergency, all flights booked out for 5 days in advance, the ferry also booked out for 4 days (even the “luxurious” lumpy armchairs that sit above the engine room weren’t available). I couldn’t believe that Tasmania was basically cut off from its’ big northern island for close to a week. While FTTP won’t provide a physical method to leave the island, it will provide a means to have better contact with the “outside world”.
    An ABC program earlier last year or maybe even 2012 that was about broadband to the remote/rural areas of the bush. It mentioned a hospital that could admit a critically injured person in the middle of the night, take high resolution images of the injury and through the magic of high speed broadband could have a specialist in a major hospital, in this case London, view the image and make a diagnosis. Then again through the magic of high speed broadband this same specialist could remotely operate on this critically injured patient and potentially save their life. I know this assumes the hospital had the appropriate equipment to enable to operation but it vividly demonstrates how an NBN connection could allow this to occur.
    Places like Tasmania and bush hospitals that can’t afford to have these high level and experienced medical specialists available on site 24/7 could have something almost as good with a proper NBN. This same program mentioned that high resolution scans cannot be sent from bush hospitals to major city hospitals because their present broadband connections were insufficient for the high res scans. We spend hundreds of millions maybe even billions of dollars on scaremongering about the “dangerous” boat people and building concentration camps to imprison them in but we can’t seem to invest in a present technology to build a better future for all Australians and make this country a smaller and closer knit community. Politicians are so damn short sighted that it really is very scary.

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