ANNE HURLEY. The Government just doesn’t get it when it comes to the NBN debacle

As I was writing this article in response to Paul Budde’s speculation about life following the NBN roll-out in 2020, the Government released its response to the first report of the Joint Standing Committee on the NBN. Sadly, if predictably, the Government seems to still be clinging to the forlorn hope that somehow things will work out in the end.  

My first observation was that Paul’s vision ‘What is certain is that in the end we will either need fibre-to-the-premises or fibre-to-the-curb’ does not appear likely any time soon. The Government flatly rejects the Committee’s recommendation that the rollout be completed using Fibre-To-The-Curb as a minimum. It defiantly reiterates its commitment to the MTM model based around ageing copper wires.

Their refusal to abandon FTTN is the most significant example of the government having its head in the sand. They received bad advice when they adoped the MTM and seem unable to accept that this is what has them, and Australia, lumbered with bungled broadband. The simple fact is FTTN is not capable of satisfying NBN customers now much less as demand for broadband capacity increases. As Internet Australia’s Dr Paul Brooks and others have consistently warned, it will only be five to ten years before all the copper wire based services have to be replaced. This will mean huge costs to the nation and inconvenience to NBN customers. The NBN as an infrastructure project will not be formally completed until that replacement process has been undertaken. So much for cheaper, faster!

But more compellingly, the Government provides an alarming answer to the question posed by Paul in closing his article: ‘Could the industry perhaps take the initiative here and mediate the politics?’

The question should be how can the industry not step up and collaboratively put the stake in the ground for a restructure and the creation of a competitive broadband network industry? If it doesn’t, the negative consequences for the industry and for Australia will be great.

The retail service providers industry will inevitably find itself being regulated to within an inch of its nearest node. The legislatively entrenched ‘self-regulation’ principle will mean that the industry provides the resources and funds to write the rules that the Government, ACCC, ACMA dictate will apply – not the operating environment the industry collaboratively defines and would presumably prefer.

The Government defends NBN Co against further regulation. It describes NBN Co as being highly-accountable under Corporations Law requirements so no recommendations for governance change are accepted. It also refers to the current ACCC inquiry into wholesale service standards, the Statement of Expectations and speaks highly of the work being done by NBN Co itself for the consumer experience. What planet does that come from? It all smacks of a very un-balanced regulatory and industry structure, where collaboration between all players is irrelevant.

It is not just in the competition/consumer sphere that this imbalance reflects. The Government calls out the expertise of NBN Co to make the decisions about which technology it utilises and how it rolls it out. It reflects an industry structure which will be balanced totally in favour of NBN Co which will make all the decisions about what it’s building out and how it works. And the Government of today will accept those decisions without question and without responsibility for the mess being created.

The days of collaborative work on networks over which the retailers compete will become a memory. For those who remember the massive industry structuring work when competition was introduced in the 1990s, Telstra didn’t get to dictate the rules for inter-connecting with the new industry players. They worked collaboratively with the new entrants to make things work.

How would a Bank respond if its wholesale and retail industry structure for now and the future were dictated by the Government? Guaranteed the banking industry would never let it get to that.

So come on Australia’s telecommunications industry leaders. It is your networks and your services which are critical to Australia’s innovative digital future. It is your expertise which is critical to seeing the right technology deployed, not more political posturing. Step up and get rationality back into Australia’s National Broadband Network design and rollout – for the nation’s sake.

Anne Hurley is immediate past chair of Internet Australia and a former CEO of the Communications Alliance

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