Fletcher won’t blink
The game of chicken between the NBN and the telcos continues
Less than a month into the job, communications minister and former Optus executive Paul Fletcher has got in early to rule out any sale of the $51 billion NBN to Telstra, as has been backed up today by ACCC chair Rod Sims. It is not a new policy position from the government, as the NBN legislation prevents a sale of the wholesale network to a retailer. Like everything to do with the nation’s biggest infrastructure project, there are multibillion-dollar implications for taxpayers. By making his position clear, Fletcher has already distinguished himself from his predecessor, Mitch Fifield, who said as little as possible about the beleaguered NBN in his three years as minister.
Fletcher’s intervention comes after Telstra spun off its infrastructure arm in the expectation that – one day – it may merge with a privatised NBN. Effectively the minister is flagging that that company, InfraCo, may not be sufficiently separate from Telstra given it has the same shareholders. In a substantial interview with the Nine newspapers, Fletcher has also spelled out that any privatisation is a long way off, even though the rollout of the NBN is supposed to be complete next year, and that the network’s pricing structure will be left to management to determine.
As the rollout nears completion, the NBN continues to get bad press, with ABC TV’s 7.30 suggesting this week that premises were being flipped from fixed-line connections such as fibre to the curb to fixed wireless (via radio towers) to get them done more quickly and cheaply. NBN rejects that assertion, saying that the proportion of households receiving NBN via fixed wireless – predominantly on large blocks on the fringe of regional cities or towns – has not changed since the Labor years, at around 4 per cent of the total.
Nevertheless, in today’s Australian Financial Review, Chanticleer columnist Tony Boyd writes [$] that Fletcher is “in the invidious position of having inherited a policy time bomb created by one of his predecessors, Malcolm Turnbull. Turnbull’s multi-technology mix lumbered the country with a spaghetti of multiple broadband technologies that cannot be upgraded in a uniform fashion.”
On ABC Radio Sydney today, when host James Valentine voiced the common complaint of Australians who go overseas and find that other countries have substantially faster broadband already, Fletcher defended the mixed-technology NBN, and said: “Around the world, companies like Deutsche Telekom, British Telecom and others are using very much the approach that NBN is using, with a mix of fibre to the premises, fibre to the curb, fibre to the basement, fibre to the node.” Highly selective, to say the least.
Fletcher is in an invidious position. Despite industry lobbying – and with Telstra right in the middle of laying off almost 10,000 workers as profits come under pressure, including from the NBN – Fletcher insists that the government will not intervene to lower wholesale prices on the network, for good reason. First, if the NBN revenue falls too low, the whole project would need to be brought onto the government’s books, blowing up the budget. Second, lower revenue means a lower sale price if or when the network is privatised, which can only happen after a Productivity Commission inquiry and a parliamentary inquiry – which could take five years. Third, there is belated recognition that, as Australia slides down the international broadband-speed rankings, the NBN is going to have to be upgraded. The NBN is going to need every cent of its forecast revenue of $6 billion a year to fund that upgrade.
“We recognise that a sensible balance needs to be reached between protecting our national interest in the face of ever-evolving security challenges and upholding the public’s right to know … [The parliament’s intelligence and security committee will hold an inquiry into] how law enforcement and intelligence powers interact with protections for journalists and press freedom, to ensure that we strike the right balance.”
“The very idea that we can stop climate change is barking mad. Climate change is inevitable, as geology has always shown … These are the views of New Zealand lecturer of geology David Shelley … The central theme of Shelley’s analysis is that sea levels are rising and have been for thousands of years and will fall during the next ice age, which is expected about now, give or take a thousand years.”
“The principle that all Australians should not be divided on the basis of their race or skin colour is a cornerstone of our freedoms and the rule of law. This clear principle – that race has no place in the Australian Constitution – is being undermined by a bipartisan campaign to divide Australians in our nation’s founding document by establishing a special body to represent indigenous Australia to be a ‘voice’ to parliament on issues relevant to indigenous Australians.”
“Films about artists are a tricky business. For one thing, there’s the matter of measuring up to the Promethean standard of one’s subject, should they happen to be based on actual people. And if they’re not real, there’s the difficulty of simulating work of sufficient quality to convince the viewer of their fictional character’s genius.”
“The voice to parliament is not an original idea. It is as old as the calls for treaties. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have always wanted an enhanced role in decision-making in Australia’s democracy. Having a role in democracy, though, does not mean that the bureaucracy should be the conduit of that participation.”
“The Cetacean Death Star slipped its moorings in the Japanese port of Shimonoseki this week and headed to sea again. Nisshin Maru, given the Star Wars nickname by anti-whaling activists, is back at work. This time the world’s last factory whaling ship sails in the name of commerce, not “research”. It will process the bulk of the 383-whale quota Japan awarded itself, having dropped the fig leaf of scientific inquiry and quit the International Whaling Commission to recommence commercial whaling.”
Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is also the author of three books, including a recently updated unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?
Less than a month into the job, communications minister and former Optus executive Paul Fletcher has got in early to rule out any sale of the $51 billion NBN to Telstra, as has been backed up today by ACCC chair Rod Sims. It is not a new policy position from the government, as the NBN legislation prevents a sale of the wholesale network to a retailer. Like everything to do with the nation’s biggest infrastructure project, there are multibillion-dollar implications for taxpayers. By making his position clear, Fletcher has already distinguished himself from his predecessor, Mitch Fifield, who said as little as possible about the...