The Politics    Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Copper-dead road

By Paddy Manning

Communications Minister Paul Fletcher

Communications Minister Paul Fletcher

The Coalition has seen the light on fibre-to-the-home

Setting aside the politics for a moment, today’s announcement of a $4.5 billion upgrade to the NBN is good news for Australian internet users – i.e. everyone – and good news for the economy, because the investment will create 25,000 jobs, most of them over the next two years. The Morrison government should be commended for recognising, at last, that the copper-based fibre-to-the-node network, rolled out by the Coalition from 2013 onwards, is already unfit for purpose – although you will not hear them admit as much. At the National Press Club today, Communications Minister Paul Fletcher was sheepish when host Sabra Lane cited a line from an article in tech journal ZDNet arguing the announcement was seven years too late: “What a decade of useless and wasteful argument that was,” the line read. Fletcher demurred: “I certainly agree that we’ve had lots of pretty sterile political arguments. What our government is much more interested [in] is delivering a network that meets the needs of Australians. Today we’re announcing a step change in that.” This may be as close as we’ll get to an admission of error from anyone on the government side.

To be fair, it’s not exactly Fletcher’s fault that the Coalition abandoned Labor’s fibre-to-the-home network rollout under then prime minister Tony Abbott and communications minister Malcolm Turnbull. Still, Fletcher was very much toeing the party line when he attacked Labor’s “deeply flawed” design strategy for the NBN. Labor’s plan, said Fletcher, was that fibre-optic cable would be “connected to every home whether the customer had any interest in broadband at all, let alone the ultra-fast speeds that need fibre. Our approach consistently has been different – more careful with capital – and we’re maintaining that, in this next phase, by saying we’ll only build the fibre lead-in if the customer orders a service.” 

That’s ex post facto rationalisation: every home with fibre-to-the-node will need to be upgraded sooner or later. The whole point of Labor’s attempt to build a future-proof network based on fibre-to-the-premises was that it anticipated that even if everybody did not need ultra-fast broadband just yet, almost everyone soon would, and the most efficient way to do the rollout was to do it right the first time. The Coalition can claim to have finished the NBN more quickly than Labor expected to, and that has proved fortuitous. And Fletcher is right to trumpet, as he did in today’s speech, that the network “faced and passed a test” this year with record internet use during the pandemic.    

But Fletcher is wrong to call Labor’s approach “wildly profligate”, because the cost of the Coalition’s NBN just jumped another $6 billion (plus it will need yet more upgrading), and when it is eventually sold off it will probably sell for less because a network using a hotchpotch of different technologies is more expensive to run. Shadow communications minister Michelle Rowland pulled no punches:    

Today’s announcement about the NBN is the most extraordinary, wasteful, humiliating backflip in public policy in a generation. For over seven years, the Liberals have been telling us that Labor’s vision of an NBN – that our delivery of a fibre-based model to Australians in order to meet their needs as consumers, as businesses, as students – was not achievable. Today, we have an announcement from this government that they are now going to invest billions more to fibre up their second-rate NBN. This absolutely cuts down any credibility this government may have had left on this issue. This absolutely exposes this minister, this embattled minister Paul Fletcher, as completely lacking in any knowledge of technology, economics or what Australian consumers need. This government promised that its second-rate NBN would be delivered by 2016. That it would cost $29 billion, that it would be higher quality than what Labor would deliver. They have been proven wrong on every single count. A $25 billion blowout and counting.” 

Ahead of the release of NBN Co’s latest corporate plan this afternoon, TelSoc vice president Laurie Patton, the former chief executive of Internet Australia and a trenchant critic of the Coalition’s mixed-technology network, did not exactly congratulate Fletcher on today’s announcement, crowing: “NBN Co is now saying they can roll out fibre for less than half the per-premises cost they’ve claimed in every financial report since 2013. We’ve wasted billions of dollars on a dud technology that has left a third of the country behind in a digitally enabled world. And don’t let anyone tell you this is just an upgrade. Most of the FTTN technology out in the field will be redundant and will have to be junked.”

Fletcher is lucky that media interest in the dry and technical NBN debate is fitful at best. There were more questions from the gallery on other subjects in Fletcher’s portfolio today, all of them important: why had so little been done on press freedom in the 16 months since the raids on the ABC and Annika Smethurst’s home, and why was a possible jail sentence still hanging over the head of ABC journalist Dan Oakes? Why wouldn’t Fletcher, under the doctrine of ministerial responsibility within a Westminster system, take responsibility for the unethical conduct identified by the auditor-general, Grant Hehir, surrounding the $30 million purchase – at 22 times the going rate – of land needed for the Western Sydney airport, from Liberal Party donor the Leppington Pastoral Company? Fletcher gave non-answers on both issues, was thanked for appearing, and walked off stage.    

“This may just be the start of a brand of politics I don’t want to be a part of.”

Jessica Price-Purnell, former chair of the NSW Nationals Women’s Council, explains why she quit the party.

“I cannot see any way out of that dilemma that doesn’t involve, frankly speaking, more money in defence to produce a larger defence force [that is] able to meet both of those objectives.”

Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and a former deputy secretary of the defence department, says that the ADF will need a bigger budget to meet growing expectations that it will help out during natural disasters.

The truth about hospital transmission
Confidential documents show hospitals remain a key area of coronavirus transmission, while doctors and nurses in Melbourne complain that they’re still not getting access to proper protective equipment. Today, Osman Faruqi on how health-worker infections are contributing to Victoria’s second wave.

The value of the investment sought in 50 locally owned renewable-energy power stations under the “Local Power Plan” launched by Helen Haines, the independent member for Indi.

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AGL Energy confirms that it has dumped a rescue plan for Alcoa’s aluminium smelter in Portland, Victoria, raising fears that the plant – with a 500-strong workforce – could close as early as next year.

The list

“Rudd defeated Howard on a wave of popular enthusiasm for climate action. Labor’s government and, ultimately, Turnbull’s leadership were defeated by the newly organised fossil-fuel interests, which found political representatives in the Liberal and National parties, and propagandists in News Corp’s media outlets. If things look spookily stable since Morrison won the unwinnable 2019 election, it’s perhaps because those interests are happy the way things are. The more interesting observation is this: Australian politics is undergoing a painful realignment around the cleavages of climate politics.”

“Let’s colour COVID-19 lockdown by numbers!”

“I would argue that the destruction of the Juukan Gorge caves constitutes a cultural property crime. It is interesting – given the wanton destruction of our heritage – to consider that this might be a radical view.”

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor at The Monthly and the author of Inside the Greens and Body Count.

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