news Greens Senator Scott Ludlam has given a fiery speech to Parliament this week damning the Coalition’s version of the National Broadband Network as instigated by Malcolm Turnbull, labelling it as a “whole mess of garbage” and as being held together with “gaffer tape and plastic bags”.
Ludlam outlined his views on the Coalition’s version of the NBN — which integrates the legacy copper and HFC cable networks owned by Telstra and Optus into Labor’s previous Fibre to the Premises version of the NBN — in a speech in the Senate this week associated with Labor’s move to enforce radical transparency on the NBN company.
Ludlam, the Greens Co-Deputy Leader and Communications Spokesperson, said the Coalition announced its NBN policy at “one of the bizarrest press conferences that I have ever seen”, with a proposal for “a cobbled together, half-baked national broadband network that was going to cost $29.5 billion”.
“Instead of futureproofing the country with an end-to-end fibre network we would use a bit of copper, a bit of HFC, some satellites, some wireless towers—we would have this mongrel network big parts of which would be obsolete on the day they are built and will need to be torn up and replaced with the kind of end-to-end fibre network that this parliament legislated for,” said Ludlam.
The Greens Senator pointed out that the cost of the Coalition’s vision had increased from $29.5 billion to $41 billion, and then to $56 billion. “How on Earth did we get here?” he asked.
Ludlam said Australia was now “stuck with an obsolete copper network that you have to scrape the garbage out of when you discover it has been taped together with gaffer tape and plastic bags”.
“We are stuck with a reliance on Telstra, who know where the bodies are buried, and are pretty happy to offload their network, which different spokespeople at different times have said is no longer fit for purpose, back to the taxpayer,” he added.
“The network rollout is way behind schedule. The fibre to the node network is way behind schedule. The satellites are apparently at or approaching capacity. Australians are getting a telecommunications network that will be slower, more expensive and delivered later than an all-fibre build. What act of genius put this together? Who dismantled something that was going to work?”
Ludlam acknowledged Labor’s NBN vision had been delayed.
“It was delayed by asbestos in the pits, it was delayed by a subcontracting pyramid that was six layers deep in some places, and it was delayed by the inherent complexity of doing something as complex as this—decommissioning a network that is decades old in some parts of the country and not particularly well maintained, and replacing it with an entirely new technology. Yes it was running behind schedule,” he said.
“But instead of coming in and cleaning out the messy subcontracting arrangements that had been put in place and throwing strong parliamentary oversight over the build, the coalition demolished it and now we are left with the mess that we are in today.”
Ludlam also addressed the issue of privatisation of the NBN company, which has recently been recommended in Infrastructure Australia’s 15 year vision for the future of Australian infrastructure.
“Now we read … that apparently there are moves to privatise this shambles, apart from the fact that you wonder where on earth you will find a buyer for a half-a-billion-dollar cobbled together mishmash of a network such as the one you are trying to build,” he said.
Ludlam said that the NBN was like road freeways, water distribution pipes or electricity networks — Australia should not have overlapping infrastructure in these areas, or with respect to the NBN, as a result of “trying to set up some arbitrary form of competition at the wholesale layer”.
“You want the wholesale NBN network in public hands, where the bosses can be brought into Estimates committees and cannot hide behind commercial confidentiality, where budgets are tabled, where questions can be asked and answers can be provided, and you want that at the wholesale natural monopoly layer. You want NBN Co to stay in that box and to do one thing and do it well,” he said.
“Then you want to let competition rip at the retail layer.”
Ludlam said it would not be easy to sell off the NBN company in any case.
“What kind of network is it that this government even proposes to sell? It is a huge loss-making entity at the moment because it is barely even a quarter built, because the rollout is a shambles.”
The Greens Senator said he did not lay blame for the fate of the NBN at the hands of its current management, appointed under the Coalition Government. “This is no disrespect to the people who have been dealt these cards, to Mr Morrow and his team,” he said. “I genuinely wish them well but they have been set up to fail. The least we can do is not make things worse.”
“As we have our debates about what kind of telecommunications network is fit for purpose, we see Mr Turnbull, Minister Fifield, Mr Wyatt and other spokespeople talking about agility, talking about innovation, talking about a future focus, talking, heaven forbid, about diversifying our economy away from bulk exports of depleting low-value commodities.”
“What better way to underpin these other vitally important parts of our economy than with world-class telecommunications? My home town of Perth is in Beijing’s time zone, which stretches all the way to eastern Europe. What better way to connect with the rest of the planet than with world-class telecommunications, and what we have been served up is expected to be blindfolded to the basic data underpinning the projections of this network and how fast they think they can get it built—and it is a network that will be obsolete on the day that it gets switched on.”
“We have to be able to do better than this.”
Stirring speech from Ludlam with respect to the NBN. I recommend you watch it through, as it outlines the Greens Senator’s views on the NBN pretty comprehensively.
We haven’t seen Ludlam in the NBN debate very much recently — I suspect his new portfolios in areas such as foreign affairs are keeping him busy and away from what is, after all, a very long-running debate over the NBN. However, I would expect to see a great deal more commentary from Ludlam if the Government tries to move forward with privatising all or part of the NBN, as it appears from both the Greens’ past NBN amendments as well as Ludlam’s own comments that this is a particular point on which the Greens hold a very strong view.
The NBN, ultimately, will always be Labor’s policy. But sometimes what is forgotten in the mix is that support from the Greens was instrumental in getting it across the line, especially in the Senate, and that the Greens also placed a number of legislative controls on the network, especially the conditions under which it could be sold. Ludlam — who has been the Greens’ Communications Spokesperson throughout the whole period — will not be keen to see all of this unwound.