I rise to speak about the ongoing farce which is this government’s rollout of the National Broadband Network. As you know, Labor had plans to deliver an NBN rollout through which most Australians—about 93 per cent—would receive a fibre-to-the-premises connection delivering speeds of up to one gigabit per second. Before the last election the government was quite open that their multi-technology mix approach would not deliver anywhere close to these speeds. But they promised Australians that they would deliver this network for a substantially lower cost, that they would connect Australians far sooner and that the much slower speeds of 25 to 50 megabits per second would be sufficient for the average household or business—wrong, wrong and wrong!
First to the cost argument: over the past few months we have had a series of damaging leaks from nbn co which have seriously undermined the government’s narrative on the comparative cost of Labor’s NBN and their second-rate alternative. We already know that the cost of the government’s multi-technology mix rollout has almost doubled from their original estimate, blowing out by up to $26 billion. But the leaks reveal what Labor has said all along would occur—the cost of alternative technologies which deliver faster speeds continues to fall. A leaked internal nbn co briefing revealed that the cost of fibre to the distribution-point is close to the cost of fibre to the node. This technology delivers optic fibre to the driveway of homes, delivering speeds 10 times that of the government’s second rate copper based network. The company admitted to a Senate hearing that they had taken to the nbn board the idea of ditching fibre to the node in favour of more advanced fibre based technologies.
As for the pace of the rollout, before the last election the government promised that the NBN would be delivered to Australian households by the end of this year. So how is that going? The multi-technology mix—or ‘Malcolm Turnbull’s Mess’ as we know it—has been a disaster. The timetable for the rollout has blown out to 2020—four years later than the government promised. In fact, it took them more than two years to deliver the first fibre-to-the-node connection. The latest leak from nbn co, published in the Australian Financial Review, shows that they are behind schedule in all of the 40 fibre-to-the-node areas currently being built—every single one. Twenty-nine of these areas have been delayed by more than 35 days and some have been delayed by 80 days. By contrast, the government has made substantial progress by continuing the rollout of Labor’s fibre-to-the-premises, fixed wireless and satellite network.
The government made a huge song and dance last year about delivering the NBN to one million premises, when the overwhelming majority of those connections were delivered according to Labor’s NBN rollout plans. Any gains the government has made in the cost and speed of its rollout in switching to the multi-technology mix have been marginal at best and at worst non-existent. This is how Professor Rod Tucker, a broadband technology expert from the University of Melbourne, explained it in an article in The Conversation last year:
The Coalition sold the Australian public a product that was supposed to be fast, one-third the cost and arrive sooner than what Labor was offering us. Instead the Coalition’s NBN will be so slow that it is obsolete by the time it’s in place, it will cost about the same as Labor’s fibre-to-the-premises NBN, and it won’t arrive on our doorsteps much sooner.
By my reckoning, we didn’t get a good deal.
But what about the argument that we do not need gigabit speeds? We were told before the election, by Mr Abbott, that 25 megabits per second should be ‘more than enough for the average household’. And the Vertigan report said that the average household in 2023 would only need 15 megabits per second. This is utter rubbish. We know that the Vertigan panel’s cost-benefit analysis was written by Mr Turnbull’s hand-picked mates to suit Mr Turnbull’s political narrative. If Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong, South Africa, the UK, France, Spain, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Switzerland, UAE, Brazil, Indonesia, New Zealand and Venezuela all thought that 25 megabits per second was enough, then why are they bothering to roll out fibre to the premises to millions of homes? Why do they want to deliver broadband speeds to their citizens from 100 megabits per second up to 1,000?
Prior to the last election, Mr Turnbull cited US telecommunications company AT&T as an example of the benefits of fibre to the node. Since then, AT&T has abandoned fibre to the node and switched to deploying fibre to the premises, delivering speeds of one gigabit per second. AT&T have realised that 25 megabits per second will not be adequate for most people. In fact, they have described gigabit speeds as ‘the new normal’.
Society is changing, and it is driving demand for broadband speed ever upward. A research report by Telsyte, commissioned by nbn co, found that the number of internet connected devices that households would be using would triple from nine in 2015 to 29 in 2020. It is not just the number of devices that is increasing, but the bandwidth required by each device. An application such as 4K TV will need 25 megabits per second on its own, so how will a household with a 25-megabit per second connection use 4K TV when there are other devices connected? Schools and hospitals will need high bandwidth to serve multiple users, particularly with the increasing need for applications such as virtual classrooms and telemedicine. Why should Australia settle for the social benefits of accessing these applications, when we could also have the economic benefits of delivering them?
The Turnbull government waxes lyrical about innovation and having a diversified economy. But how can we have innovation without the platform to deliver it? How can we have a truly diversified economy if we are not competitive in the digital economy? We need fast broadband, not just to access the applications of the future. If Australia is going to remain globally competitive, if we are going to continue to grow the economy and jobs, then we need to be delivering the applications of the future.
In my home state of Tasmania, successful ICT companies are already contributing millions to the local economy, setting up businesses that are becoming globally competitive. They could have gone to Silicon Valley, where they would also have access to fast broadband, but they decided to base themselves in Tasmania because of the lifestyle. Had it not been for fast broadband, they would likely have packed their bags and taken their earnings elsewhere.
The government’s failure to roll out a broadband network that delivers internationally competitive speeds is squandering Australia’s competitiveness in the digital economy. According to the latest Akamai state of the internet report Australia’s global ranking on average broadband speeds has plummeted from thirtieth when those opposite came to government to sixtieth now. But among those experts who understand broadband technology and its applications there is almost universal agreement that fibre to the node is outdated. Lifehacker Australia published an article online in which they summarised the views of academics with expertise in broadband technology who gave evidence to the Senate Select Committee on the NBN. Mr David Glance, Director of the Centre for Software Practice at the University of Western Australia, said, ‘Continuing with a fibre to the node approach no longer makes any sense.’ Dr Mark Gregory, Senior Lecturer at the School of Engineering at RMIT, referred to fibre to the node as ‘obsolete technology’ and said the government should accept the weight of international evidence and move back to fibre to the premises. And Professor Rod Tucker, whom I mentioned earlier, said, ‘Australia’s fibre to the node network will be obsolete by the time it is rolled out and will not be able to deliver the speeds that will be needed in the future.’ Every way you look at it, FTTN is a bad idea.
I invite those opposite to reflect on what Australia’s economic history would have been had we built a Sydney Harbour Bridge with only one lane. What if the Snowy Mountains hydro scheme had been constructed with just one dam instead of 16? When it comes to big infrastructure projects in Australia, we have a history of planning for the capacity we need not at the time we build it but in decades or even centuries to come. This is called future-proofing. Fibre to the premises is technology that could well last us for the next 100 years. As for fibre to the node, by the time it is fully rolled out across Australia the technology will be redundant.
The Turnbull government’s narrative when it comes to the virtues of their second-rate broadband network is unravelling more and more every day. It is not cheaper, it is not quicker to roll out and it is definitely last century’s technology. But those opposite persist with the fibre to the node rollout for purely political reasons.