While neither side of politics is saying much about our increasingly-maligned National Broadband Network during the election period, the fact is Australia is falling behind in the race to leverage the benefits – economic and social – of an emerging digitally-enabled future. Irrespective of the outcome of the election we need #BetterBroadband and we need a less politicised future for NBN Co.
“It’s the economy, stupid” is the slogan attributed to James Carville, who was Bill Clinton‘s campaign strategist for his successful 1992 US presidential bid. It was about creating a clear campaign focus in the minds of potential voters.
In 2015, newly appointed prime minister Malcolm Turnbull similarly coined the term “innovation nation” to describe what he saw as a pressing need to make Australia more innovative and agile – and an issue that would differentiate his approach to government. Turnbull’s problem was that two years earlier, under pressure from his predecessor Tony Abbott, he had laid down tracks leading in the opposite direction.
Dumping a full-fibre fixed-line NBN network in favour of the so-called multi-technology mix (MTM) model has seen us fall from around 30 in global Internet speed rankings to a dismal 62 right now. Last week we learned that Sydney has slipped six places to 23rd among the world’s best cities for start-ups. Research by Sydney University has found that in our biggest cities there’s a 50 percent chance you’ll be stuck with an inferior broadband connection.
Labor’s communications spokesperson, Michelle Rowland, recently addressed an industry conference where she outlined a series of measures she sees as the first steps to fixing the NBN. Nothing from the Coalition’s communications minister Mitch Fifield recently other than assurances that the current rollout is on track.
Presumably, neither side is keen to make the NBN an election issue for the simple reason that the extent of the known problems – much less the stinkers thought to be lurking in the NBN Co basement – is such that they cannot be solved quickly or easily.
Along the way we seem to have lost sight of why we started building the NBN. Back in 2009 when Kevin Rudd and his communications minister Stephen Conroy launched the project people seemed to pretty instinctively understand the need to bring the country into the 21st Century communications world. It was, back then, a relatively easily sell – at least to begin with.
Fast forward to 2019 and we are barely a year off the scheduled completion of the NBN. Yet this nation-building exercise is now so mired in party politics that some of those who would benefit most from proper broadband access cannot agree on whether or not we need the NBN, much less what to do to rescue the poor thing. Why isn’t the business sector up in arms? What about health professionals and educators? And while their constituents are noticeably annoyed, why is the National Party ignoring the fact that broadband is buggered in the bush?
Some critics still argue Internet access should be left to the market to deliver, ignoring the simple reality that we would not have had universal telephone access except that the Post Master General was instructed to make it happen. Just as we realised that we needed to build roads and rail lines across the country, we agreed that the telephone is a basic service and one that should be provided by government.
Nowadays Internet access is also seen as a basic service. So we need to cast our minds back to 2009. We need to return to the vision – fast, affordable and reliable broadband for everyone.
Tony Abbott once declared he wasn’t about building the NBN so that people could watch television via the Internet. Yet, we are among the world’s top consumers of online video content. More than nine million Australians have so far subscribed to streaming services. For vast sections of the NBN customer base watching ultra-high definition content is no more than a dream.
That said the NBN is not just about a more advanced entertainment service. Internet access is increasingly the best way to conduct a range of activities common in peoples’ lives. Buying goods online, reading newspapers, transacting business with government departments and paying bills. Education and health services are available online. Most businesses, large and small, rely on the Internet for their very existence.
The Internet of Things is providing opportunities for Australian inventors and entrepreneurs to lead the world. When it comes to IoT, our greatest strength is our history of innovation. Our biggest weakness is we are not building a future-proofed NBN to provide the necessary underlying connectivity.
As I have previously noted, whoever is in office next year and beyond will be required to deal with what is now the biggest infrastructure bungle in our history. According to the Communications department when giving evidence to a parliamentary committee, NBN Co will now need more than the $19 billion the Government has agreed to lend it to complete the rollout, and has little (read no) chance of being able to repay it on time.
The fact is too few NBN customers are signing up to the more lucrative high speed tiers because NBN Co cannot deliver them. Take-up is slower than anticipated as many people hang on to their legacy system for as long as possible. NBN Co revenues are therefore well below what’s required and monthly ARPU (average revenue per user) is stuck in the low to mid $40’s when it needs to be in the mid $50’s or higher.
The Coalition’s advice that using ageing copper wires (FTTN) and old Pay-TV cables would allow for a faster and cheaper NBN rollout was flawed. Neither has proven possible. When someone cuts a ceremonial ribbon to signify the last premises able to connect the fact is NBN Co will need to begin replacing around 30 percent of the fixed line network – connections using technology that simply cannot deliver what many customers already want and many more will need in years to come.
Internet Australia chair, Dr Paul Brooks, has told the Government replacing FTTN will need to happen within five to 10 years of the scheduled 2020 completion date, if not sooner. Other experts say this should happen now. It is predicted that it will cost billions of unbudgeted dollars – adding to the total build cost and taking it way beyond what either side ever thought the NBN would cost.
If the Coalition wins the election it will need to rethink its commitment to the beleaguered MTM model. That’s a simple and unavoidable fact. Bluffing for another three years just won’t wash with the public. If Labor wins the Coalition would be well advised to support what Rowland is proposing. We must kick this political football off the field.
An incoming government will need to focus on three areas. Firstly, there’s the obvious and urgent need to dump FTTN, which uses those old and decrepit copper phone lines. Other technical issues also need to be put up for review.
Then there’s the funding of the project. Much has been written about the need for a financial ‘write-down’ to deal with huge accumulated losses. While a decision about this requires complex analysis by accounting experts, whichever way they go the likelihood is that inevitably more government funding will be required.
The final, and for my money most critical and immediate task – which NBN Co has spectacularly failed to date – is to revive the case for universally available broadband and the benefits flowing from a 21st Century NBN. Put bluntly, the marketing of the NBN has been as unimpressive as its service delivery.
We need to embrace the NBN and celebrate the huge role it is destined to play in our future prosperity and wellbeing. We need a bipartisan plan to put things back on track.
When Robert Menzies was opposition leader he campaigned against the Snowy Mountains Scheme. But when he became prime minister he embraced it, ensured it was completed, and claimed much of the credit for the benefits it bestowed. It is not too late for a Menzies-like conversion on the Coalition side regarding the NBN. Labor, for its part, should seek to find common ground with the Coalition.
It’s the vision, stupid!
(Laurie Patton was CEO / Executive Director of Internet Australia, the peak not-for-profit representing Internet users, from 2014-2017. He has consistently argued that we need #BetterBroadband and campaigned for a bipartisan plan to fix the NBN. This article first appeared in The Lucky General.)