The National Broadband Network was a key policy under both the Rudd and Gillard governments and was a key election issue at this month’s federal election which saw the Liberal Party return to government after a six-year hiatus.
Post Tony Abbott’s victory, a petition hosted by change.org began to circulate on social media, asking the newly elected government to ditch their NBN policy which advocates a fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) model in favour of Labor’s fibre-to-the-premise (FTTP) model.
At time of publication, the petition had 218,657 signatures and is easily the most supported online petition Australia has seen but it will largely be ineffective due to the Liberal government believing they have a mandate to move to an FTTN model.
Malcolm Turnbull, the incoming Minister for Communications and Broadband (or “Mr Broadband” as Tony Abbott likes to call him), has dismissed the petition, tweeting:
From a largely well-liked politician the Tweet almost seemed cruel. But importantly, his point was redudant. Just because there was an election doesn’t mean the Australian population has to accept every policy the Liberal Party proposes, after all we live in a democracy in which freedom of speech is valued.
Mr Turnbull has since posted a more eloquent, polite and polished response to the petition on his website.
In his response, Mr Turnbull suggests the Liberal’s victory at the election resolved the question of which NBN policy was better as it had been a key election policy and was widely debated in the leadup to Australia heading to the polls.
The Liberal Party’s policy was announced in April and largely focused on the time Labor’s NBN was taking to implement and the cost involved. The Liberal’s answer to this was doing half of what Labor’s NBN was aiming to achieve through using connecting fibre optics to a node on streets which then connects to homes and businesses using Telstra’s exisiting copper networks.
Mr Turnbull wrote:
For those who don’t have time to read our policy (but time to sign an online petition) there are a few important points to bear in mind.
We do not regard technology as an ideological issue. We are technologically agnostic. We want to ensure that all Australians have very fast broadband as soon, as cheaply and as affordably as possible. The NBN project at present is running over budget and way behind schedule. At the current rate of progress it will take decades to complete and close to $100 billion.
For a government that’s leader wants to be remembered as an “infrastructure Prime Minister“, the Liberal’s NBN policy is nothing but shortsighted.
Governing a nation shouldn’t just be about the next three years, governments need to look to the long term and think about the long term impact their policies will have on our country. Imagine if the NSW government under Jack Lang had thought building the Sydney Harbour Bridge was going to take too long and be too expensive (it wasn’t fully paid for until 1988 after opening after six years of construction in 1932).
Mr Turnbull also wrote:
Many of the FTTP supporters on twitter and elsewhere say that they don’t care what it costs or how long it takes – they want fibre to the home regardless. That point of view is reckless in the extreme. Every public infrastructure project has to be carefully and honestly analysed so that governments, and citizens, can weigh up the costs and benefits.
His point is a valid one – every public infrastractutre project should be carefully and honestly analysed in order to weigh up the cost and the benefits of the project. But, the Liberal’s NBN FTTN model will cost more in the long term, while also leaving many Australians to continue to be plagued by problems due to the issues posed by the dying copper networks.
As previously covered by Cheaper Than Rubies, the FTTN model poses huge bandwidth and unreliability problems. Peter Cochrane, a former chief technology officer of British telco BT told the UK Parliament during an inquiry into superfast broadband in March that a range of problems are typically associated with FTTN roll-outs: vandalism, speed and reliablity.
On speed he said: ”To return to an earlier point, if you have got fibre to the cabinet and you are relying on copper, I can tell you that the network is going to collapse on copper when you get to 1Gbps. It will collapse much earlier. You may do 200 to 300Mbps over a short distance, but you are not going to do anything with a reasonable reach over 1Gbps, and you are certainly not going anywhere at 10 Gbps. So you have immediately got this knot in the bandwidth.”
The Liberal’s have been lauding the FTTN model based on its success in other first-world countries, namely the UK. However, there is a key difference between how it worked in the UK and how it will work in Australia. To begin with, the FTTN rollout was carried out by exisitng telcos which already owned the exisitng copper networks – the NBN Co. does not own the copper networks.
Previously, the NBN Co. had negotiated an $11 billion deal with Telstra to lease its assets and migrate customers over to the NBN. The Coalition will have to renegotiate in order to utilise Telstra’s copper networks for the FTTN model.
The NBN was a fundemental issue at the Sepetember election, and Mr Turnbull argues that it would be undemocratic to ignore the will of the people and continue with Labor’s policy. It’s a shame this is so, the NBN under Labor moved Australia to the forefront for technology and painted us as a forward-thinking country, ready to move into a techonologically driven future. But, Mr Turnbull needs to realise that the members of the Australian public dissatisfied with the FTTN model proposed by the Liberal Party have a right to raise their concerns in whatever manner they see fit. And considering that Mr Broadband himself used to behind the NBN, you’d think he’d understand the reasons why more than 200,000 people prefer the original policy.
But Mr Turnbull was right on one account:
The NBN debate is not over – but I am determined to ensure that from now on it is at least fully informed.
You can read the Liberal’s NBN policy here.