Trench warfare can’t fix Turnbull’s NBN

The below piece was published by Business Spectator on April 12, 2013.

The great irony of Malcolm Turnbull’s attempt yesterday to salvage a remnant of credibility following the disastrous release of his party’s broadband-lite manifesto is that he is guilty of the very crime he has levelled at every critic (and they are numerous): apparently, said critics have rusted themselves on to old arguments supporting the benefits of a national, ubiquitous and scalable open access network to reverse decades of entrenched inequity in broadband accessibility.

In contrast, the ‘Coalition’s Plan for Fast Broadband’ (as opposed to ‘slow’ broadband?  At least they realised they can’t pass it off as ‘high-speed’) is represented as a piece of nimble thinking reflecting technological and economic evidence – so startling, yet so obvious – that one struggles to comprehend how economies such as Singapore and South Korea got it so wrong.

As a humble backbencher with a policy interest in this area who has faced off against the Shadow Minister on the floor of the House of Representatives at every step of this debate, let me tell you – I’ve heard it all before.  And because it’s the same old arguments, it’s no wonder they are met with the same response.  Wireless technologies will render a fibre backbone obsolete in five years?  Cue the physics lesson on spectrum properties.  I don’t need fixed infrastructure to use my iPad?  Cue the reality check regarding fixed wireless and how short-range routers work.  And so it goes.

Hence, yesterday’s contribution from Turnbull (Good riddance to bad broadband memories, April 12). With an original remit from his boss to demolish the NBN, we have more scratching around for arguments to disprove everything from copper being about to hit its use-by date; to FTTP being nothing more than an extravagance for which the same outcomes can be achieved for a quarter of the cost, using other means. The flaw in this approach, however, is the assumption that these arguments have not even been considered in this debate.  This is not the case, as can be seen by examining some of them in turn.

Firstly, the fundamental notion that FTTN will do just as good a job for nowhere near the cost.  There is a good reason why even the Tory Lord Inglewood, Chair of the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications, has advocated a fundamental rethink of the approach in the United Kingdom, where a FTTN-equivalent solution is not achieving its objectives, and where gaps in broadband access require piecemeal supplementing by regional broadband initiatives.  Sound familiar, regional Australia?

Then there’s the argument that vectoring offers a complete solution to the extension of copper’s utility.  Vendors have an inherent interest in promoting their wares and the technologies that go with them, copper acceleration being one of them.  The evidence also shows that many operators are looking to vectoring as an interim solution on a path to FTTP.  The problem is, the path from FTTN to FTTP is not the traditional ‘ladder of investment’ as is commonly understood in the telco world, where competitive carriers graduate from resellers to facilities-based competitors.  It is essentially a choice about whether to roll out for the future, now; or roll out for the present, now.  It is not even clear whether the cost of vectoring has been factored into the estimates, assuming there are any costings on this policy at all.  And from a purely technological point of view, sure, vectoring will work, but you have to surrender sub-loop unbundling in the process.  So much for competition.

Of particular note is no mention of the operation and maintenance costs associated with the proposal.  I can buy a printer for a few bucks at a supermarket these days, but how much will it cost me to replace the cartridges?  Similarly, will it be quicker to reach a new deal with Telstra?  In this question, there are options for Telstra for which neither I nor Mr Turnbull cannot claim insight.  But we can presume that Telstra would be considering the O&M options very keenly.  It could even give the copper to the new network, provided it retains a nice O&M deal with it over, say, 20 years.  Or, a potentially more commercially viable option for Telstra would be to give up its copper network, provided that the Commonwealth takes on its O&M responsibilities.  Either way, the costs are massive, they are ongoing, and they are not factored into this so-called fraction-of-a-cost proposal.

And indeed, Mr Turnbull can have his tiny cabinets as he asserts – so long as they don’t need batteries, are not subject to flooding rain, and appropriate line lengths are available for each.  And with 60,000 of them, don’t forget to add the O&M costs onto each of them as well.

So even taking into account some of the key points by Shadow Minister Turnbull in yesterday’s piece, one can see how his protests raise even more questions than problems solved.

The Coalition will argue the fundamental difference  in its approach is that it’s doing the same as Labor only cheaper and faster, but I suggest otherwise.  The differentiator, for me, is values-based.  I want a solution that doesn’t discriminate on broadband accessibility and affordability based on postcode and wealth.  I want uniform pricing to end the digital divide between cities, outer metro areas and the regions once and for all.  I don’t want a policy that claims to know better than me how much speed and quality I need in my broadband.  So I guess Malcolm and I will continue to disagree. See you on the floor next month.