The Politics    Tuesday, November 3, 2015

High in fibre

By Michael Lucy

High in fibre
Source
The NBN saga has gone on for too long

Internet access in Australia is not good. Speeds are low, compared to those in other developed countries, and demand is always increasing. The main reason for the poor quality is clear enough: it’s a very big country with a widely dispersed population. Abstractions like cyberspace and the cloud can’t altogether conquer geography: the drab substrate of online existence is an uncountable number of overheating metal and plastic boxes, connected to one another by optic fibre (if you’re lucky) or copper wire (if you’re in most of Australia).

Twelve years and five prime ministers ago (or six, depending on how many times you count Kevin Rudd), the government first started talking about the desirability of a “national broadband network”. Progress has been slow and subject to unpredictable dropouts as the prevailing winds of government have changed. The projected cost is always rising, and the projected date of completion always receding.

Telstra was planning to build an optic-fibre network of its own (something like the current fibre-to-the-node proposals) in 2005, but dropped the idea after the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission said they would have to share it with other telecommunications companies. In 2007, a separate consortium of telecom companies proposed to build an FTTN network, but again the ACCC shut it down over access concerns.

When Rudd became PM in 2007, he called for proposals from people interested in building a national optic-fibre network (estimated cost $15 billion), separate from the existing copper wire network. None of the proposals cut the mustard, so in 2009 the government decided to do the job itself, or rather to create a company (NBN Co) to do it. The company’s CEO was a man named Mike Quigley.

The change from Rudd to Julia Gillard in the PM’s chair didn’t change much – initial rollout in trial areas began in mid 2010 – though after the 2010 election the priority of rural and regional customers was increased in order to shore up the support from independents that Gillard’s minority government required. Another change after that election was the appointment of Malcolm Turnbull as shadow communications minister, with instructions from Tony Abbott to “demolish” the NBN. (Abbott and the Liberals generally had criticised the NBN since its inception an impractical and expensive piece of post-GFC Keynesian stimulus. As Turnbull once tweeted: “the nbn is a white elephant, broadband is the future but its wireless”.)

Rollout of fibre-to-the-premises (i.e. optic fibre running to individual buildings) proceeded until the 2013 election, with periodic announcements of cost blowouts. In April of that year, Turnbull released a proposal to replace FTTP with a mixture of fibre, existing copper wire and cable-television infrastructure (estimated cost $30 billion). After September’s election he became communications minister, and proceeded to make some changes. Most of NBN Co’s board was asked to leave, and a new CEO was appointed to replace Mike Quigley, of whom Turnbull (and others) had been highly critical. The mixed-technology proposal was put into practice, though a review put the cost estimate at more like $41 billion.

In August this year, NBN Co revealed that the latest projections say the final cost will be somewhere between $46 and $56 billion. Over the weekend, Quigley, tired of being blamed for spiralling costs and delays, spoke out. He made a detailed argument that the Coalition’s changes to the FTTP plan, intended to reduce costs, have in fact made them skyrocket.

The prime minister has yet to reply to Quigley’s claims. (I won’t claim to be an expert on infrastructure costing, but his argument is at least superficially plausible and deserves a response.) Regardless of what that response is, if any, it’s unlikely that the government will change course again – that in itself would likely cause more expense and delays. A finished NBN, however imperfect, is more use than a perpetual work in progress.

 

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Michael Lucy

Michael Lucy is a writer based in Melbourne.

@MmichaelLlucy

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