The National Broadband Network (NBN) was meant to be a nation building project that positioned Australia as a leader in the global digital economy, but it has become a political football and as every day passes, Australia’s future prospects in the global digital economy are diminishing.
Having won the September 2013 Federal Election, the Abbott Coalition Government was quick off the blocks and by the end of the year NBN Co was a shadow of its former self having been given the task of rolling out a second rate network. To ensure that the Government’s plan would be followed to the letter the management team was replaced.
Having failed to gain a bipartisan approach to the NBN, the former Labor Government made a number of mistakes in the lead up to the project commencing in 2010 and foremost among the mistakes was failing to put in place reasonable measures to prevent a future Coalition Government from taking steps to “demolish the NBN” in the light of Abbott’s instructions to Turnbull in September 2010.
But who would have guessed that Malcolm Turnbull, future Prime Minister and former chairman of Internet Service Provider (ISP) OzEmail would have come up with such a regressive plan for the NBN as that presented as Coalition policy in July 2013.
In 2010 Mr Abbott stated that “the [Labor] Government is going to invest $43 billion worth of hard-earned money in what I believe is going to turn out to be a white elephant on a massive scale.”
Today we see that the Coalition’s efforts to “demolish the NBN” will cost $56 billion and rising and for this extraordinary amount of money, Australians will receive a second rate NBN with obsolete technologies being used for much of it.
Of concern to the telecommunications industry has been the approximately $3 billion financial windfall that Telstra has enjoyed since the Coalition government implemented its plan to “demolish the NBN”. One of the original goals of the NBN was to level the playing field, to create an open and fair competitive broadband market and the Coalition has done everything possible to undermine this outcome.
Leaks have been coming out of NBN Co from the very beginning, and it would be easy to attribute this to the lack of a bipartisan approach to building the NBN, but there is a need to account for the fact that the NBN was an ambitious effort to change Australia’s telecommunications market and there will always be some that think it is in the public interest to leak information that is being sat on for various reasons.
When the Coalition Government took office there were promises by Turnbull, who was the Minister for Communications at the time, of increased transparency and a business-like approach at NBN Co. In reality, NBN Co set about implementing a draconian approach to information security.
The key reason why the Government is concerned about the leaks is the apparent disparity between what official NBN Co reports present and what the leaks tell us. On many occasions, experts have questioned the figures in the official NBN Co reports drawing upon evidence from around the world and more recently from across the ditch where New Zealand is now laughing at Australia as it moves forward with its Fibre to the Premises (FTTP) rollout.
In an effort to “stop the leaks” NBN Co referred the problem to the Australian Federal Police in December 2015 after NBN Co failed to identify who was leaking the reports. NBN Co informed the Minister for Communications Mitch Fifield.
This is where this matter becomes Machiavellian, because Fifield appears to have claimed that he did not notify the other NBN Co shareholder Finance Minister Matthias Cormann nor his boss Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of the investigation. This is right out of Yes Minister.
So six months later during an election campaign, in the light of damaging articles appearing in the media, the AFP questions a number of NBN Co staff and raid the office of Senator Stephen Conroy and the home of an aide to Shadow Communications Minister Jason Claire.
An NBN Co employee accompanying the AFP in the raid on the aide’s home takes photos of identified documents and sends the photos back to NBN Co. In the immediate aftermath two NBN Co employees are stood down following interviews with the AFP and it is anticipated that NBN Co will terminate their employment.
Labor claimed Parliamentary privilege for the documents so it appears the photos should never have been sent to NBN Co, making the whole investigation a candidate for a new episode in the long running Keystone Cops. Over to the lawyers now, because there are questions to be answered and heads to roll, not just those who have been identified as the possible source of documents leaked from NBN Co.
When the media demands a response from Turnbull, Cormann and from Fifield’s office (he appears to have gone missing for some time) there is a unified “I know nothing” response – Sergeant Shultz from Hogan’s Heros would have been proud of the Coalition’s effort. Fifield reappears just in time to put out a statement late on Friday evening.
Plausible deniability. Does Turnbull really believe that Australians are so dumb that we believe the statements being run out that key members of his government did not discuss how to deal with the leaks and decide upon a strategy in 2015 to “put a lid” on the NBN problem during the upcoming election campaign?
NBN Co CEO Bill Morrow admitted last year that he spoke on the phone with Turnbull every second day when Turnbull was Minister for Communications so if this practice continues today and there is no reason to believe that it does not, Morrow and Fifield will have spoken about 90 or more times since this matter was referred to the AFP. With the leaks causing Turnbull, Fifield and Morrow constant headaches are we to believe that Morrow and Fifield never discussed what NBN Co was doing to stop the leaks, and informing Turnbull and Cormann? That Morrow’s discussions with the AFP were never discussed?
And why did it take the AFP six months before it decided to act, when over this same period Senator Conroy has mentioned in Senate Estimates hearings on several occasions that there a number of leaked documents and more arriving all the time.
Bunkum. That what this is. Turnbull is responsible for a second rate NBN that is now fully committed to utilising obsolete technologies and what is worse is the effort to prevent a future Labor Government from undoing the mess by putting in place long-term contracts for HFC remediation, “assistance” with the FTTN rollout and other measures.
Arguments of “commercial in confidence”, proprietary secrets, and intellectual property are tenuous at best as NBN Co is a monopoly and around the world there are hundreds of companies and governments rolling out new fixed access networks, many of which are publishing far greater details of what is happening locally. But of course the greater majority of these rollouts are FTTP, not the second rate and obsolete FTTN and yet to be remediated and upgraded HFC being provided by Turnbull.
The leaks coming from NBN Co could be seen to be the acts of whistleblowers that are trying to protect the public interest, and the $56 billion now committed by Turnbull to rolling out a second rate NBN.
The information contained in the leaks should have been public knowledge, it is in the public interest and what we’ve learnt from the leaks has correlated with the Australian experts that have stated ad nauseam since Turnbull’s plan was first launched that there would be problems with the HFC networks, access to power, asbestos, copper remediation, and so on – the list is quite long.
Why is Turnbull, Fifield and Morrow working so hard to prevent the public from knowing what is actually going on and why the Coalition is hell bent on “demolishing” this nation’s future as a leader in the digital economy?
Mark Gregory, Managing Editor Australian Journal of Telecommunications and the Digital Economy, Managing Editor International Journal of Information, Communication Technology and Applications, General Co-Chair 26th International Telecommunication Networks and Applications Conference.