‘Fast. Affordable. Sooner.’ That was the catchcry of Mr Abbott and Mr Turnbull prior to the last federal election, when they made all sorts of pie-in-the-sky promises on the National Broadband Network.
Two years on from their comical policy launch, where Mr Abbott astutely pointed out that he was ‘no tech-head’ and not so astutely claimed that his communications spokesman had ‘invented the internet’, they have gone very quiet on their original promises. The three-word slogan, ‘Fast. Affordable. Sooner.’ has barely been mentioned since the election. In fact, I think it has gone into witness protection. And it should be no surprise that the Abbott government has run a hundred miles from their ridiculous slogan. Because, rather than delivering on the slogan, they have failed on all three elements. Let us go through them one by one.
‘Fast’—I find it interesting that the Abbott government would even make promises based on broadband speeds when they clearly do not understand the importance of it. Before the election, we heard ridiculous statements from this government about broadband speeds, with Mr Abbott saying ’25 megs is going to be more than enough for the average household’, and Mr Turnbull saying he could not imagine what people would do with 100 megabits per second. Rewind 20 years to when the typical connection was a 56K dialup, and I am sure most people would have struggled to imagine what they would have done with a one megabit connection, yet it would be hard for any household or business today to get away with less.
As new applications are developed every day, Australians’ demand for broadband speed doubles roughly every 18 months. This time last year, 28 per cent of NBN subscribers were already ordering plans with speeds of 50 megabits per second or more. The benefit of fibre to the premises is that speeds can continue to be increased according to available technology, without digging up and replacing the infrastructure.
Fibre to the premises can already deliver speeds of one gigabit per second, and there is the potential one day for speeds over fibre to be measured in terabits; that is—for those on the other side that do not really understand this—millions of megabits. This means an FTTP network is the network for the next 100 years, not just the next 10. But, by the time the Abbott government’s second-rate NBN is rolled out, it will already be redundant. Many would argue that their second rate NBN was redundant before it even began.
While, under Labor’s plan, Australia would have been a world leader in broadband connection, we now risk falling behind other countries which are recognising the need for fibre-to-the-premises. Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea and New Zealand are all making substantial progress on developing either public or private fibre-to-the-premises networks, delivering speeds of up to one gigabit per second.
The rapidly growing digital economy represents a huge economic opportunity for Australia, but not if we cannot keep up with the rest of the world on high-speed broadband. If you will not take my word for it, listen to those in the tech sector who understand where broadband technology is headed globally—people like Simon Hackett, a director of NBN Co, appointed by Mr Turnbull himself. In March this year, Mr Hackett said:
FTTN sucks … If I could wave a wand, it’s the bit I’d erase.
And recently we heard from Malcolm Rodrigues, the founder of Singaporean broadband provider MyRepublic, who described the Abbott government’s network in terms that I cannot repeat because the language would be unparliamentary. Let us just say he referred to the network as a four-letter synonym for excrement. I can repeat a subsequent quote in the same speech from Mr Rodrigues, where he said:
I don’t know what [the government] is doing on the other policy fronts but on this they’ve completely stuffed it.
More and more Australians will leave the country looking for jobs and you’ll continue to be a resource based economy.
The hope of building IT jobs and a digital economy will kind of be more difficult to achieve.
Many, many people in the ICT industry are similarly scathing of the government’s second-rate NBN. In the judgment of the industry that actually understands this technology and its capability, the Abbott government’s second-rate fibre-to-the-node network ‘sucks and they’ve stuffed it’.
The second word they talk about is ‘affordable’. Prior to the last election, we had Mr Turnbull continuing to perpetuate the ludicrous myth that the real cost of Labor’s NBN was $90 billion. Mr Turnbull has failed to this day to explain the methodology for this outrageous claim. He has still yet to reveal whether he threw darts at a dartboard, read tea leaves, conducted a séance or sacrificed a goat to come up with his overinflated $90 billion figure. Whatever the case, his parliamentary secretary, Mr Fletcher, was forced to concede the lower figure of $56 billion—still a grossly overinflated figure with no credibility, but a concession of $34 billion nonetheless.
Prior to the election, NBN Co came up with the more realistic cost for the fibre-to-the-premises network of $37 billion. However, there was the potential for that cost to come down. We know from documents leaked to The Age last year that a fibre-to-the-premises rollout in Melton in Victoria had been delivered 50 per cent cheaper and 61 per cent faster than in comparable suburbs. While the coalition tried to claim they could deliver their second-rate network for $29.5 billion, we now see the cost blowing out to $42 billion.
Regardless of the arguments over the capital costs, they are not the full picture when it comes to estimating the cost of the network. A network with slower speeds would return lower revenue and we still do not know what the full costs will be of maintaining Telstra’s ageing copper network. Prior to the election, this government loved to harp on about waste and mismanagement, but there is nothing more wasteful than building a network that is expensive to maintain, has low commercial returns and does not meet Australia’s needs in the 21st century.
The third word in their three-word slogan was ‘sooner’. Prior to the federal election, Mr Abbott and Mr Turnbull promised that the NBN would be fully rolled out by the end of 2016. By contrast, the 2015-16 budget papers forecast that 3.1 million homes and businesses would have the NBN in place or under construction by September 2016. The truth is that the NBN rollout under this government has ground to a halt. And the very thing that was meant to speed it up—the government’s second-rate multi-technology mix—is the culprit.
The government has wasted so much time switching from FTTP to MTM, that in response to a question I asked in the last round of budget estimates, NBN executives admitted that there was not one commercially available fibre-to-the-node connection anywhere in Australia—not one. In other words, after almost two years in government, the second-rate network was yet to even start to be delivered. During the same month, June this year, Mr Turnbull was celebrating the NBN reaching its millionth home or business connection. What he failed to mention was that, of those one million premises, a paltry 2,000 were connected under the government’s FTTN trial, with the remainder being rolled out under the former Labor government’s NBN plans. So what was Mr Turnbull actually boasting about? The 998,000 homes and businesses connected to Labor’s NBN or the 2,000 premises connected to his second-rate network?
The Abbott government also trumpets the fact that they are starting a recruitment drive to hire another 4,500 NBN workers. While this is welcome news, especially in my home state of Tasmania where 200 of these workers will be recruited, it is very cold comfort for the hundreds of NBN subcontractors in Tasmania who have already lost their jobs because of this government’s bungling of the project. This includes 100 Q-Fibre and 60 Visionstream workers who have been sacked in just the last few months.
The other recent announcement the government has been doing a song and dance about is the plan to launch two satellites on 1 October to support the NBN’s satellite service to 200,000 premises. Mr Turnbull is engaging here in a rather large bit of historical revisionism. In breathtaking hypocrisy, Mr Turnbull recently claimed that Labor underestimated the capacity needed for the satellite service, yet in 2012 he said:
There is enough capacity on private satellites already in orbit or scheduled for launch for the NBN to deliver broadband to the 200,000 or so premises in remote Australia without building its own.
So if Mr Turnbull had had his way in 2012 there would be no satellite launch and the satellite service would be overstretched. But we welcome the government’s acceptance of the need for this important infrastructure and look forward to the launch of the satellites that Labor commissioned in 2012. It is a spectacular backflip from Mr Turnbull, but a welcome one nonetheless.
At least the satellite service is going ahead, even if the rest of the rollout has slowed to a crawl. The Abbott government talked a big game on the NBN, yet the rollout has slowed, the costs have blown out, and they are not delivering the NBN the Australia’s digital economy needs. It is no wonder the government has gone so quiet on their three-word slogan ‘Fast. Affordable. Sooner.’ From what we can see of their progress to date, the slogan ‘Slow. Expensive. Late.’ That would be far more accurate.