news Malcolm Turnbull has accused users of social networking site Twitter of misrepresenting his position on the Coalition’s broadband policy during a stoush with a small business operator unable to get broadband in a rural area, with the Communications Minister claiming the episode could be a case study “of the volatile and sometimes distorting character of social media”.
On Thursday and Friday, Turnbull had a heated discussion on Twitter with Julia Keady, a senior marketing and social media consultant who runs the XFactor Consulting Group based in Victoria. Keady had bought a house in the rural Victorian town of Ocean Grove, which has a population of about 11,000, but had been unable to get any form of fixed-lined broadband, despite having checked for the availability of ADSL ahead of time.
In response, Turnbull posed various questions to Keady, such as why the consultant had bought a house in an area where broadband was not available if connectivity was important to her, as well as technical details such as how far the premise was away from the local telecommunications pillar in the street.
The debate between the pair sparked something of a small storm on Twitter, with dozens of other users of the site chiming in admonishing Turnbull for his flippant response to the issue, and arguing that rural Australia deserved the same level of telecommunications access as metropolitan Australia. Many users criticised the Coalition’s Broadband Network (CBN) policy, which largely uses technically inferior technology to Labor’s highly popular previous all-fibre National Broadband Network (NBN) policy.
This week’s episode on Twitter was not the first time that Turnbull has faced heavy public criticism over the Coalition’s broadband plan. An attempt by Turnbull in January to leverage a visit to Facebook’s headquarters in the US to communicate with Australians about the future of the digital economy via social media also backfired, with the Communications Minister’s official Facebook filling up at the time with hundreds of comments slamming the Coalition’s inferior broadband policy.
In a new blog post on his own site today, Turnbull claimed there was “misrepresentation” going on with reference to his broadband approach. “I was accused of urging people to move house to get broadband, of being indifferent to regional communities, of discriminating against people on low incomes in regional areas. And not just on Twitter,” he said.
“Harry Tucker, a technology reporter for news.com.au, wrote a story headlined ‘Malcolm Turnbull suggests resident move house for decent broadband’. Of course I had said no such thing – the statement attributed to me by Mr Tucker was a complete invention and calculated to mislead readers. He clearly had not the slightest interest in reporting the facts – is this the new meta-journalism? Or just a good case of the craziness and outrage of much of social media bleeding into the mainstream media?”
“Perhaps this could be seen as a case study not just of the volatile and sometimes distorting character of social media, but equally of the ultra-politicised broadband debate we have in Australia, where people prefer to make accusations and leap to conclusions than actually listen with an open mind and then judge whether whomever they are interacting with has something valid or interesting or helpful to say?”
Under Labor’s previous NBN policy, some 93 percent of Australian premises were to have received fibre directly to the premise. However, NBN Co’s Strategic Review published in December last year changed the paradigm, with the company recommending (and the Coalition supporting) a vision in which up to a third of Australian premises will be served by the HFC cable networks of Telstra and Optus, and Fibre to the Node and Fibre to the Basement used in other areas not already covered by Labor’s FTTP approach. Satellite and wireless is to be used to cover some rural and regional areas under both plans.
The Coalition’s plan has been roundly criticised by much of Australia’s technology sector due to the technically inferior nature of the technology being proposed, compared with Labor’s vision. Before Christmas, for instance, respected telecommunications analyst Paul Budde heavily criticised the new model, describing its “Multi-Technology Mix” approach as “a dog’s breakfast” of different technologies, which could turn out to be a “logistical nightmare” to deliver in practice.
Today, Turnbull went on to outline what he stated were the “facts” of the debate, such as the point that the Coalition is prioritising its own broadband rollout to target the least well-served areas, that NBN Co’s recently published Strategic Review (PDF) estimates that the change to the new ‘Multi-Technology Mix’ policy meant that the least-served areas would be upgraded at least two years sooner than they would under Labor’s previous plan, and the claim that the CBN plan would see broadband prices at a much more affordable level than under Labor’s plan.
“If you were a person living in an area with poor broadband and were on lower income than average the consequence of Labor’s approach is that you would wait longer to get better broadband and when you got it, it would be much less affordable,” said Turnbull. “A lose – lose you might say – not to speak of the additional cost to the taxpayer.”
“Some people have said to me they don’t care how long it takes or much it costs – they want to get fibre to the premises. That rather reckless attitude might suit someone who had pretty good broadband now and a high income, but if you have no broadband now and don’t have a high income you wouldn’t be so blase. The Coalition’s approach means the NBN can be completed sooner (about four years sooner), cheaper ($32 billion less) and consequently much more affordably.”
In general, the Australian public has not reacted well to the Coalition’s plans to modify the NBN policy. The Twitter stoush over the past week is just the latest example of the public voicing its displeasure with Turnbull personally over the issue.
In mid-February Shadow Minister for Communications Jason Clare presented to Federal Parliament the signatures of 272,000 Australians who want the new Coalition Government to build Labor’s all-fibre version of the National Broadband Network instead of the technically inferior version which the Coalition is proposing.
The news came as a new comprehensive study of public attitudes towards Labor’s National Broadband Network project published this year found the initiative still enjoyed very high levels of widespread public support from ordinary Australians, despite what the study described as an “overwhelmingly negative” approach to the project by print media such as newspapers.
In November, supporters of Labor’s all-fibre vision for the National Broadband Network project organised a national day of action on the issue, which saw thousands of Australians physically present Members of Parliament with copies of the petition. Supporters also raised tens of thousands of dollars for a pro-NBN advertising campaign in Turnbull’s local newspaper. A number of other surveys conducted over the past 2-3 years have consistently shown strong support for the NBN project amongst Australians, and even Coalition voters.
I’ve already largely covered what I think of the debate between Keady and Turnbull, so I’ll leave that aside here and focus on the specific ‘facts’ of the broadband debate which Turnbull published today.
Firstly and most importantly, the Minister’s statement that the new Coalition Government is committed to “completing the NBN” is demonstrably false. Labor’s NBN policy focused on delivering fibre to 93 percent of Australian premises. The CBN policy has abandoned this national goal and will deliver FTTP to just 26 percent of premises, with the remainder to be served by technically inferior technologies. NBN Co executive chairman Ziggy Switkowski, appointed by Turnbull last year, has acknowledged some of those technologies will need upgrading after only five years.
Turnbull’s implication that Labor’s NBN policy was planned with certain political electorates in mind has been thoroughly debunked already. There is some truth to the Minister’s statement that Labor did not explicitly conduct a national survey to target the NBN rollout at the areas with the poorest existing broadband, but Labor’s NBN policy did explicitly target some areas such as Gungahlin in the ACT and Tasmania as a whole which had notoriously poor levels of broadband. In addition, Labor’s policy was explicitly targeting rural areas as a priority, based on an agreement with key independents reached after the 2010 Federal Election.
The Minister’s claim that the change to a ‘Multi-Technology’ mix approach to NBN Co’s rollout means the least-served areas will get upgraded at least two years sooner than under Labor’s plan is hard to verify given the complexity of the rollout. However, using the same information from NBN Co’s Strategic Review, it is clear that if the Coalition maintained Labor’s FTTP policy but made it more efficient, that the all-fibre policy could be delivered by the end of calendar year 2023 — just three years later than the Coalition’s MTM policy — and with an internal rate of return only several percentage points less. Both options would not “cost” the Government anything in the long term — rather, they would make a modest return on capital invested.
Effectively, NBN Co’s Strategic Review shows that NBN Co could deliver a vastly technically superior all-fibre broadband network to Australia only three years later, and at only a slight return on investment discount, compared with the Coalition’s technically inferior MTM mix option. The FTTP option would also not need upgrading in future, being viewed as largely future-proof over the next 20-50 years, while elements of the Coalition’s policy will need upgrading in a much shorter time frame.
Turnbull also claimed that the biggest barrier to entry to broadband access was income, pointing out that households in the bottom 20 percent of incomes were ten times more likely not to have access to the Internet than those in the top 20 percent.
The issue of NBN retail pricing is a complex one. However, current NBN retail prices are directly comparable to current ADSL broadband pricing, and there is little indication that the cheapest NBN plans taken up by those on low incomes would be substantially different from the current cheapest ADSL plans under either scenario. NBN Co had also committed to locking in some of its key wholesale prices for five years, as well as limiting future increases to be less than the rate of inflation for 30 years. There are some additional variable elements to the company’s pricing, but there is also quite a lot of stability.
The Coalition is also currently grappling with the desire of rival telcos such as TPG and Telstra to install their own Fibre to the Basement rollouts throughout Australia. NBN Co has stated that this move, if allowed, has the potential to have a “severe impact” on its finances. It would not take place under Labor’s FTTP vision.
I want to say one thing in conclusion.
It is simply incredible to me that Malcolm Turnbull, who has been singlehandedly responsible for politicising the entire NBN landscape, would blithely refer to “the ultra-politicised broadband debate we have in Australia”. It is also incredible to me that Malcolm Turnbull, who has constantly taken a highly selective approach to what facts he focused on in the NBN debate, would accuse others of not “reporting the facts” when it comes to this debate.
The Minister’s aura of hurt woundedness at the savagery shown on social media over the past several days in the NBN debate is also incredible, when you consider the savagery with which Turnbull personally attacked respected NBN figures such as Mike Quigley, the poisoned relationship which the MP developed with NBN Co’s previous board, and the regular blastings which Turnbull has doled out to those few segments of the media which have questioned the Coalition’s broadband policy.
Turnbull’s right: Australia’s current NBN debate is often irrational, misleading, devoid of context and sometimes just downright offensive and too personal. However, I would point out that these characteristics were introduced into the debate by Turnbull himself, in the years he spent as Shadow Communications Minister. Prior to his ascension to the role, the Coalition was often just largely absent from the debate as a whole.
All the evidence conclusively shows that, despite its failings and problems, Australians have been predominantly in favour of Labor’s FTTP-based NBN policy since it was first introduced in April 2009. I don’t know why Turnbull would be surprised that the nation has taken up the same antagonistic approach to the Coalition’s attempt to radically water down that NBN policy as Turnbull himself took up to tear down the NBN to start with. You reap what you sow.
Image credit: Screenshot of ABC News, NBN Co