The Liberal/National Coalition has finally announced its official National Broadband Network (NBN) policy, confirming its preference for fibre to the premises and claiming it can deliver this faster than the current Labor plan, without actually making good on earlier threats to dismantle NBN Co entirely. What are the key elements of the Coalition plan, and what aspects remain undiscussed and vague? This is Lifehacker's comprehensive guide.
Fibre optic picture from Shutterstock
As we've pointed out many times before, the debate over broadband in Australia is often hopelessly politicised. Supporters of the NBN in its current form treat any criticism of its frequently messy implementation as coming from hopeless luddites; those opposed to it argue it's a waste of money without recognising that there are massive problems with our current system.
Political point scoring does nothing to contribute to an informed debate about how we might actually improve broadband speeds and availability in Australia's relatively unique circumstances (large land area, dispersed population, relatively high areas of wealth, near-monopoly control of existing networks by a privately-owned company.) At Lifehacker, we're much more concerned with the technology than the rusted-on policies of either side, but we can't ignore that aspect entirely; this stuff doesn't happen in a vacuum. So while we're not, for example, going to give much mind to the Coalition's entirely self-serving attempts to compare Kevin Rudd's original NBN plan to its current version (Labor itself repudiated that approach and it's not a relevant comparison six years later), a little politics inevitably enters the debate.
The new Coalition policy, while more detailed than any previous pronouncements, still lacks much of the detail the existing NBN implementation plan offers. To some extent, that's to be expected; opposition parties don't have the same pool of resources or access to the same range of data. But with those caveats noted, here are some key issues to bear in mind and some questions that remain unanswered.
In utterly basic form, the Coalition is claiming that by concentrating on fibre-to-the-node rather than fibre to every individual home (fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP), while letting individual home owners pay for FTTP if they wish); by utilising existing cable and copper networks where these are sufficiently speedy; and by picking out individual areas where speed provision is worst for the first rollouts, it will be able to deliver faster speeds to the majority of Australians and to do so by 2016. If such a policy was adopted, what are the consequences and issues we need to consider?
Previous Anti-NBN Arguments Are Now History
Much of the previous anti-NBN rhetoric has centred on four arguments:
- We haven't seen any solid business case for the need for higher speeds. (Insert comments about how we shouldn't fund people watching YouTube videos.)
- Any such needs would be more effectively met by private enterprise than by a government-owned infrastructure company. (Insert comment about need to protect all those battlers who chose to purchase Telstra shares, and ignore the periods when those shares were under water during various stages of privatisation.)
- The growing use and speeds of wireless networks mean we should concentrate on those rather than fibre. (Insert ignorant rubbish from Alan Jones.)
- The amount of money being spent is simply too high, and we can't afford it. (Insert comments about waste and the GFC and try not to mention Australia's economic performance by global standards.)
Under the circumstances, it's worth stressing this point quite strongly: the new Coalition policy effectively accepts that all those arguments truly don't amount to anything. A proposal which promises a set minimum speed higher than most of us can currently achieve, which maintains NBN Co as the implementation vehicle, which relies on wired rather than wireless technologies, and which uses government funding in the tens of billions, effectively throws all those points in the trash can. (The point about wireless was always rubbish in terms of backhaul as well, but as the policy explicitly suggests fibre to the node, that's a point which has been entirely conceded as well.)
I'm not so naive as to assume that this will be acknowledged by everyone who has previously mounted those arguments. Many of them, especially those of a determinedly right-wing slant, will immediately start arguing that this is a sensible NBN plan and that Labor's is rubbish by comparison. If those commentators truly believed everything they'd said before, then the Coalition plan would be dismissed on the same grounds, as it has the same basic features. But consistency is rarely a feature of this debate, whether that's in the Twitterverse or on talkback radio. We need to move on.
That said, lest I be accused of fighting with straw man arguments, let me point out that opposition leader Tony Abbot has argued in the past that the NBN should have been cancelled entirely to pay for damage from the Queensland floods. A $30 billion NBN might be cheaper to implement than the current Labor version, but if that criticism was valid, it's hard to see how it wouldn't equally apply to the Coalition version at (on each party's numbers) just $7 billion less.
How Do We Identify Areas Of Need?
The Coalition has long favoured the argument that we should concentrate provision of faster broadband in the areas where it's needed most urgently. Seems reasonable on face value. What hardly ever gets discussed is the issue of how you identify those areas. It isn't as simple as saying that country areas are worse off than cities. It's undeniably the case that remote areas have lesser broadband provision, but it's also the case that those areas will be serviced by satellite or wireless rather than fibre, and that element of the NBN plan is unchanged in the Coalition vision.
What gets messy are the individual suburbs, where one street address might have HFC cable, the place round the corner only has ADSL, and someone two streets down only has the option of a badly designed pair gain line which is unlikely to be replaced in the near future. Try ringing Telstra today and asking what your broadband options and speeds are at a given address. It won't be a speedy conversation, and the information you receive will often be wrong. And the Telstra experience counts; in many areas you still only have the option of a Telstra line, even if you buy it through another provider.
More than a year ago, opposition MP Paul Fletcher was saying that any approach to the NBN would include a comprehensive audit of speeds available at every Australian address. The Coalition policy states that this data would be collated within 90 days, but gives no indication of how it would be achieved, or how much this data collation would cost. This will be an essential requirement if we're going to actually address the "areas of greatest need", and it deserves much greater detail than we've seen to date.
How Will Cost Blowouts Be Controlled?
NBN Co has been widely criticised for recent delays in its rollout projections, and that has been seized on by the Coalition to argue that the final cost of the NBN will be much higher than current projections. Yet — and we have to make this point again — the Coalition plan does not call for the elimination of NBN Co or a fundamental change in its structure. What processes does it propose to ensure this won't happen with its revised plans, especially since the targets are even more ambitious and require an even higher level of price regulation? Assuming you don't take it as an article of faith that this will happen simply due to a change of government, the detail is a little thin.
Large infrastructure projects often end up costing more than projected. That's not desirable, but the notion that this happens only under one political party seems ridiculously naive.
What Speeds Are We Talking?
The Coalition document talks optimistically of future improvements, but only commits to a guaranteed broadband speed of 25Mbps for downloads. While higher than current average speeds, that falls well below the 100MBps which the current NBN promises to anyone on fibre connections who wants to pay for that speed. Bear in mind both speeds represent a best-case scenario, and most users, as now, will get less most of the time. (The Coalition notes that average download speeds for Australians are 5Mbps, but that's an average figure; many of these people will be on lines theoretically capable of higher speeds.)
Perhaps more tellingly, the Coalition document doesn't mention upload speeds anywhere. That's not altogether surprising: if the connection to the premises is an existing copper line, then upload speeds will always be an extremely poor cousin. That in turn makes the Coalition NBN markedly less effective for data sharing applications such as telehealth. It's this aspect more than anything that justifies describing the policy as "cheaper but less effective". Even assuming you accept that the cost won't change one cent from current projections (an amazingly naive view), it can't be treated as an equivalent when the upload speed isn't even specified.
What Happens With Multi-Dwelling Units?
One big issue with the current NBN is that if the body corporate for a given set of apartments (or "multi-dwelling units" in broadband speak) declines the FTTP installation, there's nothing that can be done without fundamentally violating property rights. This aspect would not actually change under the Coalition arrangements. What would change is that the copper network would be maintained into premises that didn't make that choice, but that absolutely doesn't guarantee better broadband. I'm speaking from personal experience here: I live in a block of units with appalling copper connections. If we don't switch to fibre, I can't see any major improvement coming.
The Coalition policy says it will actively seek "private sector involvement", but doesn't explain how this will help. If a body corporate doesn't want a low-cost to-premises connection from the current NBN Co, why would paying a private company help?
What Will Paying Per-Premises Cost?
A core element of the Coalition NBN plan, and one which shadow communications minister Malcolm Turnbull foreshadowed earlier this year, was the notion that individual homes or businesses could pay for a fibre-to-the-premises connection if they wish. That notion fits neatly into the Coalition's favouring a 'user pays' approach in many economic areas. Whatever you think of that approach, we don't know what it will cost.
The policy says that NBN Co may pay 50 per cent of FTTP rollouts where business or home owners want to pay the other 50 per cent. On current NBN costings, that would cost at least $2000 per premise. It's also worth noting that this figure assumes an entire area is being serviced — if you're the only home in your street that wants FTTP, the figure will obviously be much higher. (In reality, it seems unlikely you'll get that option — this is only going to work on industrial estates or unusually wealthy suburbs).
To restate: It's good to see a Coalition policy, even if it is light on detail in many areas. It moves the potential debate out of "too much money yaargh" territory and into actual questions of implementation, and that's the discussion we need to have if we want to make the NBN a consideration when we vote in the Federal election in September. But as it stands, there are many questions still to be answered. What do you like and dislike about the policy? Tell us in the comments.
Bonus point I didn't originally mention: another factor that the Coalition plan doesn't address is whether we'll still have to pay line rental given the continued presence of copper, as Brendan Brooks points out on Twitter:
there was no mention of the replacement/inclusive of phone services in the Coalition plan, presumably consumers to also pay line rental #NBN
— Brendan Brooks (@HyperBrendan) April 9, 2013