These days you can’t buy a new car without airbags and ABS brakes. The Internet of Things is transforming the way we live our lives, run our businesses and grow the crops that feed the world. We’re developing autonomous vehicles and there’s talk about travelling to Mars. Yet millions of Australians are being sold broadband services using 50 year old copper wires. How did this come about? Why are we letting ourselves down so badly at a time when Australia needs to transform its economy now that the resources boom has passed by and we’re in the 21st Century where technology will underpin global economic development?
The answer is simple. Bad advice. We all know that prime minister Abbott directed then communications minister Turnbull to dump Labor’s NBN plans. We know, too, that keen to keep his prime ministerial ambitious alive Malcom cobbled together a second rate broadband network based on the advice of a few of his old ‘techie’ mates. Perhaps, as the streaker’s defence would have it, that seemed like a good idea at the time. But why, now that he is the PM himself, is he persevering with a project clearly so unpopular with customers?
What’s more, where is the industry leadership? The telcos are under the ACCC’s radar over their questionable marketing practices, yet they seem unwilling to tell the Government that at the heart of the matter is the flawed technology. Why are they not working collectively to force the Government to act? It’s an entrenched industry adage that telcos need to collaborate to build and operate networks in order to compete for customers. Why are the telco retailers not collaborating with NBN Co to build the best network over which to provide their competitive services? Why isn’t the ‘big end of town’ up in arms? Surely the masters of the corporate universe realise they’re being held back in an increasingly digitally-enabled global marketplace?
Internet Australia, which I chaired until late last year, has pointed out that much of the NBN, the parts using old copper wires, will need to be rebuilt within 5 to 10 year of the completed rollout. My erstwhile IA colleague Laurie Patton summed things up well with this comment: “Unless there are big changes soon, whoever’s running the country in 2020 will have to sort out our biggest-ever national infrastructure debacle”. Laurie points out that NBN Co will still owe the government around $19 billion and has no projected budget to pay for the massive and expensive upgrade that will be inevitably be required.
It’s not just the copper that’s failing. The Abbott/Turnbull version of the NBN opted to resurrect the old Pay-TV cables, known as HFC. It wasn’t long before they discovered that the Optus network was unusable. More recently serious questions have been raised about the use of the Telstra HFC network. Of course, Internet Australia and many other expert groups and individuals knew this would be the outcome.
It’s not like the Government is short of evidence of the flaws in the current scheme. A review by the Parliament’s NBN standing committee was scathing. The committee received hundreds of submissions and they pretty much all said the same thing. The committee has called on the Government to direct NBN Co to abandon the copper-based fibre-to-the-node rollout. Notably, the sole National Party member on the committee was among the loudest of the MP’s arguing for change.
Last week another survey rated Australia down at number 55 in world broadband speed rankings. We were once on the way towards joining the leaders. No longer. In an Essential poll on the subject last year 88 percent of the general population said they saw the internet becoming an essential service like water and electricity. In a more recent survey of people actually connected to the NBN only 52 percent said it was an improvement over their previous service in terms of speed and reliability; 17 percent said it was worse while, sadly, 28 percent stated that it was about the same.
During my time at Internet Australia we regularly highlighted the issues facing the NBN and called for a bipartisan review with the purpose being to get everyone to agree on a better way. We even provided both sides with a ‘get out of gaol free card’. While initially favouring a return to fibre-to-the-premises, about two years ago we began advocating an interim solution known as fibre-to-the distribution-point, also known as fibre-to-the-driveway or fibre-to-the-curb. The point being that this technology wasn’t available when the original NBN plan was devised nor when the current scheme was lumped on us. Both sides of politics could have moved on and simply argued they were following a new path using the latest technology.
So here we are, edging closer to ten years in the making and yet the problems keep emerging. Why was the Government unaware? Bad advice. That’s the simple and unavoidable conclusion we have to come to. Bad advice they keep taking.
Anne Hurley is the immediate past chair of Internet Australia and a former CEO of the Communications Alliance.