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.
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Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Body Count: How Climate Change Is Killing Us, Inside the Greens and Born To Rule: The Unauthorised Biography of Malcolm Turnbull.
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...
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