SUBJECT: Malcolm Turnbull’s NBN mess
LAURA JAYES: Michelle Rowland, thanks for your time. We know the NBN now has big problems. Does Labor take any responsibility to where we are at the moment?
MICHELLE ROWLAND, SHADOW MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: I think you need to go back, Laura, to where we were in 2007 when Labor came to office. We had a situation where Australia was essentially a broadband backwater and something big needed to happen. The decision was made to invest in a national piece of utility infrastructure in the form of the NBN. Because you need to remember that, under John Howard, we essentially had something like 12 failed broadband plans, we were sinking in world rankings, the market had essentially failed. So, the decision to take the approach that we did in 2007, let’s remember it was one that was widely supported and is still supported today in terms of fibre being a transformation piece of infrastructure that can go towards creating a real digital economy.
JAYES: But we've seen cost blowouts and a lot of complaints about the speed of the NBN and the rollout, the upheaval it has caused. So, does Labor take any responsibility for the cost blowout? Would it be more expensive under your original plan?
ROWLAND: Well, let’s remember that Labor had peak funding of $45 billion and a completion date of 2021. Under Malcolm Turnbull, it was supposed to be $29 billion, it's blown out to $50 billion. It was supposed to be finished by 2016, that came and went. So, I think for the government to come out and start blaming Labor for these issues, and also the fact that we've had something like a 160% increase in consumer complaints about the NBN, tells volumes about the choices that they have made in terms of technology.
JAYES: But Labor admits that it's a massive infrastructure project. Do you accept that it was always going to have some teething problems? Perhaps these can be described as more than teething problems here, but Labor's plan was to rollout fibre to each and every home. I bring up the example of the Tasmanian bowlo club that cost $90,000 to connect the NBN there. Doesn't this show that under Labor's original plan to rollout fibre to the home it would've been far more expensive, near $30 billion the government predicts?
ROWLAND: Well, that $30 billion figure is absolute rubbish. But again, I think you need to put this into context. What NBN or the government dropped in the last seventy two hours was essentially the 70 most expensive premises out of about 10 million or so in Australia, a combined cost of about $1.6 million. In contrast, this government is spending $177 million on new copper, and some $640 million on remediation of copper.
JAYES: You're talking in the millions there on the remediation of copper and fixing some of that copper network. Rolling out fibre optic cable to each and every home, do you at least admit that Labor's plan would've been more expensive?
ROWLAND: Well, over time it actually would have not had the operations and maintenance costs that copper has.
JAYES: How do you say that? How do you say that over time, over what, a 10, 20, 30 year period you're saying it would've been cheaper?
ROWLAND: Well into the future, because fibre is a case of "you do it once, you do it right". It is a technology that goes beyond the life of copper.
JAYES: So what are you saying, that would've evened itself out over 100 years or 50 years? What is it?
ROWLAND: Well, even Telstra was saying some years ago that copper was nearing the end of life and you need to remember that the inferiority of copper when compared to fibre is one that is not disputed. It's one that is widely accepted by technological experts and also by the public at large. But it is a choice that Malcolm Turnbull made to change to this multi-technology mix and in all of this, Laura, the thing the government is forgetting is that it's the consumers who were suffering, Australian consumers and small businesses. Now, we've seen extraordinary scenes in the last 24 hours where the Prime Minister once upon a time was saying "oh the NBN's in hand, it’s on track, it's going to be the envy of the world", now he's completely disowning it, so essentially stepping back and saying "not my problem. This is a mess and it's not my fault." Someone needs to take accountability for this and that's what consumers are looking for.
JAYES: What's Labor's plan then? We're not that far from the next election, the polls show that you're in an election winning lead. Do you have a plan to fix it?
ROWLAND: We've been doing two things. Firstly, we've been calling on the government to take fibre as deep as possible into the network and earlier this year we said "well, if you're not going to take fibre all the way to the premises, at least take it further and at least take to the driveway or Fibre to the Curb”. Now, it's pleasing to see that NBNCo has being doing trials in this area but we would call on the government and on NBNCo to look at any premises that aren't in design or construction phase and are due to get Fibre to the Node to essentially receive fibre to the curb instead.
JAYES: Have you had some analysis on what that might cost though, in terms of we've already had a $30 billion blowout? Is it going to be extra cost?
ROWLAND: Well, this would be within the existing funding envelope, and the fact that NBNCo is already doing this indicates that they have the budget for that. Now, we don't have, Laura, the complete metrics and the economics of the NBN as you can see even in the last couple of days seems to be changing. As we speak, we even see talk about NBN write downs, we see questions being raised by the head of NBNCo about putting a new tax on mobile wireless services. So, all of those metrics need to be analysed and worked out. But the second point I would make is that we know that our principle is always going to be that we put consumers first, that we have that level of accountability that's missing at the moment and is really the thing that is annoying most people. You know, we went into the last election with a business case formulated over a number of years, a fully costed business case to deliver fibre to up to 2 million more premises. An unfortunate fact of elections is once the election was over, that business case became redundant. So, we are continuing to find out what information we can to formulate our policy in this area and put metrics around it.
JAYES: Is it still your intention to rollout the NBN to each and every home, not just the node, not just the end of the driveway. Is it your intention to do that?
ROWLAND: We've always favoured fibre over copper and we would want to see it as deep as possible into the network, but Bill Shorten made it very clear some time ago that it's not our intention, if we are elected at the next election, to go out and start ripping up copper. We would need to be informed by the realities on the ground and the stage at which the NBN is at, and the Prime Minister tells us the NBN will be finished at the end of this term. So again, there will need to be a really thorough assessment about where we are and what sort of metrics we can put around what we can actually do to make this network better.