news Australia’s third-largest broadband player iiNet has opened a broadside on the nation’s political class over the “policy vacuum” the ISP says exists in telecommunications policy, agreeing with veteran analyst Paul Budde that further discussion is needed around the actual uses of upgraded broadband infrastructure and less discussion of entry level broadband speeds.
Over the past decade, Australia’s two major sides of politics have been unable to come to agreement over how Telstra’s copper telephone network, which most Australians use to access broadband services, should be upgraded.
Both sides of politics have had policies featuring upgrades such as Fibre to the Premises or Fibre to the Node for the copper network, but have been unable to have the policies implemented. A key related issue is that Australia’s politicians have not mandated the structural separation of the incumbent telco’s retail and wholesale arms, meaning it had little incentive to upgrade its network on its own.
In comparison, other countries such as the UK, Singapore and New Zealand are already substantially down the path of upgrading their national copper networks. This has meant Australia is rapidly falling behind global rival countries when it comes to the level of telecommunications infrastructure available in Australia.
Some commentators, such as Paul Budde, have consistently highlighted the fact that the debate in Australia is focused on short-term broadband measures such as entry-level speeds, rather than the long-term impact on the economy, healthcare, education, business, productivity and access to government services that is considered very likely to ensue from the ubiquitous availability of high-speed broadband.
Today iiNet, which has claimed a large share of the early retail customer base on Labor’s National Broadband Network project, published an extremely strongly worded submission to the Federal Senate Select Committee on the NBN (PDF).
In it, iiNet wrote that NBN Co’s Strategic Review published late last year, the Government’s planned cost/benefit analysis and the general public debate on the NBN were “all being conducted in a public policy vacuum”.
“Successive governments have struggled to communicate concrete reasons for an investment in NBN. Debate has continued to focus on download speeds for domestic entertainment,” wrote the ISP. “No ‘National Objectives’ are presented as the drivers for the construction of the NBN, as they might be for any other infrastructure project. The strategic review continues the failure to address any of these missing components. The cost benefit analysis has no specific benefits to analyse, only costs.”
“The Australian public, and it seems the Parliament, appears to be unsure why the NBN is being built and so discussions are still mired in the operational issues of costs, timetables and technology, rather than national benefits. iiNet believes there are very clear National Objectives that ought to be the focus of national debate and agreement, as they are in other, neighboring economies.”
“These National Objectives or goals should include a focus on: National productivity, job creation, export opportunities, regional development, industry development, improved competition and improved social outcomes. iiNet does not believe that downloading songs faster or being able to connect multiple televisions should be the drivers of national infrastructure projects.”
Senior figures in the current Coalition Government have been some of the harshest critics of Labor’s NBN project.
In December 2010, for example, then-Opposition Leader Tony Abbott questioned the fundamentals of the NBN policy. “The question is, should the taxpayer be investing $50 billion in that, when there are so many other competing needs – roads, railways, ports, health, education and the mobile phone system, which still drops out frequently?” Abbott asked at the time.
“It’s pretty obvious that the main usage for the NBN is going to be internet-based television, video entertainment and gaming,” the Liberal leader added. “We are not against using the internet for all these things, but do we really want to invest $50 billion worth of hard-earned taxpayers’ money in what is essentially a video entertainment system?”
In November last year, new NBN Co executive chairman Ziggy Switkowski questioned the need for ordinary households in Australia to have access to 100Mbps broadband speeds, telling a Senate Estimates session that a “whole lot of assumptions” needed to be pushed to their limits to demonstrate how such speeds would be used.
However, the executive has also admitted that some of the planned infrastructure under the Coalition’s Broadband Network proposal would need to be upgraded within as short a timeframe as five years.
In its submission this week, iiNet said “unsophisticated comments about downloading songs, movies and what number of TVs that can be connected, distracts from what should be informed discussion about economic and social benefits”. The ISP highlighted the necessity of stronger upload speeds from national telecommunications infrastructure.
“The performance of data uploading features strongly in a variety of case studies of iiNet small business customers,” the company wrote. “In all cases, upload performance is the key to their purchasing decision. Nowhere in the strategic review is there any consideration of upload performance to the small business sector of the economy, or at all. Any business utilizing broadband will confirm that upload performance is ‘mission critical’ and yet little attention has been given to this issue, which is strategically important to the Australian digital economy.”
“Almost all discussion has been centred on download speeds for domestic broadband users – the demand-side. This is why the arguments over the comparative download speeds of competing technologies has absolutely failed the Australian community. Without a supply-side review, focused on service creation and delivery, Australian consumers will have little reason to acquire high performance services.”
“Given that the Australian political leadership fails to promote this fundamental issue, it is likely that a residentially focused, download-centric strategy for trivial entertainment consumption will be the best that the Australian digital economy can hope for.”
Among a number of other issues, iiNet also took aim at the ‘Multi-Technology Mix’ approach which NBN Co’s Strategic Review favours, which will use a mix of FTTP, FTTN and HFC cable platforms to deliver on the Coalition’s broadband aims.
“The NBN was initially designed to provided a national, standardized, uniform interface to a single provider,” the ISP wrote. “More than 90 percent of all services were planned to be delivered over FTTH technology. This simplified design promised a beneficial reduction in the complexity and cost of operating on-line services over the NBN.”
”A multi-technology approach introduces the likelihood that HFC, VDSL and any other non-fibre based access services will require additional investment in business-to-business (B2B) interfaces, multiple points of interconnect (POIs) with multiple entities, rather than a single interface to a single, wholesale network provider. “The number of points of interconnect in the initial project was considered a barrier to the NBN. For sub-scale companies, iiNet believes that the multi-technology approach will only exacerbate that issue, which, it is reported, encouraged some owners to exit the industry.”
Earlier this week, referencing comments by Brian Levin, the key architect of the United States’ own national broadband plan, analyst Paul Budde said it was clear that the way Australia currently ran systems and services such as healthcare, education, energy, and government services needed to be changed because the associated processes were inefficient and lowered the national level of productivity. Most commentators agree that the rollout of the NBN has the potential to transform all of these sectors and significantly boost productivity.
“Most politicians talk about social and economic transformation, but in the case of Australia the current government fails to address what the NBN could do here: at least their communication or the lack of it, looks like they are stuck in yesterday’s logic,” said Budde.
What we’re seeing here, as I’ve previously written about Paul Budde’s perspective, is that even groups and commentators which have historically been open to the Coalition’s rival broadband policy have turned on the Coalition over its farcical ‘Multi-Technology Mix’ proposal, which features little overarching vision for the future development of Australia’s telecommunications industry and digital economy.
Even if it was articulated poorly, Labor’s all-fibre NBN policy did open the door for such a vision. The Coalition’s alternative doesn’t look much further into Australia’s future than five years away. The Australian public, and important stakeholders such as iiNet, are not happy that that vision is being scrapped.
I’m not the only commentator or stakeholders to have lost all faith in our political class when it comes to this issue — pretty much everyone involved in technology in Australia thinks the situation is a joke right now. And all this, despite the fact that three quarters of Australians have consistently demonstrated that they are in favour of an all-fibre National Broadband Network. How can our politicians so consistently get this idea and its implementation wrong? It’s what virtually everyone wants. Why aren’t the politicians listening?
Image credit: Office of Malcolm Turnbull