For former journalist and media executive Laurie Patton, spearheading Internet Australia’s campaign for #BetterBroadband meant becoming accustomed to the occasional sledge from the pro-NBN Co forces. However, a series of false and defamatory newspaper articles led to an out-of-court settlement and the publication of an ‘op-ed’ setting the record straight.
Earlier in the year, over a period of about a month, The Australian newspaper ran no less than five articles attacking Internet Australia and me. At the time I was IA’s Executive Director. In addition to numerous inaccuracies the articles contained comments that were both false and defamatory. Week after week these highly sensationalised reports appeared despite the journalist having been provided with unprecedented cooperation and a host of facts. Following the threat of legal action, an op-ed responding to those comments was published today. It will be attached via a ‘hyperlink’ to the online version of each of the offending publications.
In one article IA was described as “the nation’s most vocal Internet group”. As official spokesperson at the time, that’s an epithet I proudly accepted. It’s what the organisation set out to become and why the then board hired me. Other assertions were not so generous, including that exaggerated claims were made while pursuing efforts to have NBN Co change course. In fact, all our public statements were in line with official IA policy and backed by the collective technical expertise of the IA board and members, many of whom are internationally acknowledged leaders in the ICT field. Other recognised experts have made the same observations, time and time again. What’s more, IA’s warnings have since proven to have been prescient.
When I signed-on as CEO in 2014 the board’s NBN policy called for a return to fibre-to-the-premises, or FTTP. While still favouring a full-fibre strategy, but reluctantly accepting reality, a little over two years ago IA began advocating an interim solution – the adoption of FTTdp, otherwise known as fibre-to-the-driveway (or as the American-led NBN Co insists on calling it, fibre-to-the-curb). At that time neither the Government nor the Opposition had embraced this new technology. Fast forward and NBN Co is now, increasingly, deploying FTTdp – although without actually conceding that fibre-to-the-node (FTTN), reliant on Telstra’s ageing copper wires, isn’t working out as they’d expected. The ALP is moving in the same policy direction. The advantage of FTTdp is that, unlike FTTN, it can be upgraded for a reasonable cost.
Recent revelations about the state of Telstra’s HFC (Pay-TV) cables, on top of the earlier complete abandoning of the Optus HFC network, have only drawn more attention to the technology issues confronting NBN Co. The Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on the NBN recently published a report after extensively reviewing the rollout. It called on the Government to immediately direct NBN Co to abandon FTTN, and argued for FTTdp at the least and preferably FTTP. The Liberal Party members of the committee understandably observed their obligation to back government policy. However, the lone National Party member actually sided with the majority. Judging by the plethora of complaints about the NBN received by the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman, and clear indications from numerous opinion polls, the people of Australia have come to the same conclusion as IA. Both the Australian Communications and Media Authority and the ACCC are currently inquiring into this trouble-plagued project.
In its role as the NFP peak body representing the interests of Internet users, during my time at the helm IA sought to add constructively to the broad community debate about the NBN – and to provide independent, informed comment based on the advice of experts. A member survey last year found 80 percent did not believe FTTN would meet the country’s future needs. This was soon followed by an Essential poll where 88 percent of the general population saw the Internet becoming an essential service like water and electricity. In another Essential poll of 470 people who have an NBN connection, held last month, only 52 percent said the NBN was better than their previous service in terms of speed and reliability. Seventeen percent said it was worse and 28 percent reckoned it was about the same.
NBN Co has recently moved to improve its customer service and this should be acknowledged. However, nothing short of changing technologies can fix the underlying problem. This week a new wholesale charging regime was announced, making mid-range speed tiers more affordable. However, the likelihood is this will further expose the network’s fundamental inability to actually deliver the speeds many customers want now and more of us will inevitably need in years to come.
Unless the move to FTTdp is greatly accelerated, very soon, whoever is in office in 2020 will have to deal with our biggest ever national infrastructure debacle. NBN Co will owe the government circa $19 billion, which it’s having to borrow to complete the project and has no way of repaying any time soon. According to IA’s expert advisors, and others, within 5 to 10 years the FTTN sections of the network will need to be replaced. No-one seems to know how many billions of dollars this will cost. Meanwhile, millions of hapless customers are suffering slow and unreliable Internet services.
I’m incredibly proud of IA’s impact highlighting the need for a 21st Century NBN. I moved to a new role in a new organisation recently, but I still look at the mess being created and mourn the loss of opportunity being visited on Australia – and on our social and economic development. IA has warned both sides of politics of the impending disaster. It has consistently called for a bipartisan rethink and the adoption of an agreed plan for making us the “innovation nation” we’re clearly well-placed to become. I hope in time this will be achieved. Meanwhile, I wait with the proverbial “baited breath” to see what The Australian publishes next.
Laurie Patton was CEO and then Executive Director of Internet Australia from 2014–2017. Along with a number of other directors he did not seek re-election to the board at its recent AGM having taken on a new role as CEO of the Australian Smart Communities Association.