LAURIE PATTON. The Australian shoots the NBN messenger, as usual.

Sep 5, 2017

Three years ago, Internet Australia, the not-for-profit peak body representing the interests of Internet users, embarked on a mission to foster more informed debate about the National Broadband Network and its importance to Australia’s future.

It was – and is – the view of our board and members that we need something better than a network deploying ageing copper wires.

Most technology journalists already agreed with that proposition. However, some in the mainstream media took much longer to get the message. As one of my former colleagues from Channel Seven put it, the subject amounted to a lot of “white noise“.

We’ve soldiered on, putting forward reasoned arguments and explaining the technical flaws in the current strategy. Over the last six months or so there’s been a noticeable change. Hardly a day goes by when we are not contacted for comment by a newspaper, radio station or TV station. In that same time period, every survey and opinion poll has shown that consumers are unhappy and social media has been full of horror stories from NBN customers. Plenty of grist for the media mill.

So when The Australian contacted me about a month or so ago, I was happy to provide assistance. As a former journalist myself, I have had a long-standing practice of helping erstwhile colleagues.

The first couple of exchanges went well. Some balanced, factual stories, pretty much in line with the prevailing current of cautious criticism of what many believe is a highly dubious business model based on inferior technology choices.

One article noted there could be almost two million “seriously dissatisfied” voting-age NBN customers in the lead-up to the next Federal election. Another reported that communications minister Senator Mitch Fifield has ordered an inquiry into NBN customer complaints as he “looks to combat mounting dissatisfaction”.

But then, a series of strange questions. They wanted to see all our company accounts going back to 2011. How many members did we have? Who were they? It soon became apparent that this “fishing expedition” was being directed by a third party or parties — although no mention was made of this. Sadly, it turned out one of these was a former board member who fell out with the majority of the other directors, resigned and has been fomenting disharmony behind the scenes ever since.

As the questions became more targeted, we deduced they weren’t after a good news story. There was a marked increase in email exchanges as we continued to provide information. Eventually, the initial “hatchet job” — its first paragraph belaying the fact that they were on a mission. The difficulty was working out: what was that mission?

On the one hand, Internet Australia had ‘received tens of thousands of dollars from telco Optus and Internet giant Google’, while at the same time, its executive director (that would be me) was a member of the Labor Party. Pick the conspiracy theory. Your choice!

The reality is that, for about two years now, Internet Australia has been arguing for a bipartisan approach embracing new fibre-to-the-driveway technology — technology that wasn’t around when Labor launched the NBN, nor when the Coalition changed the model. The Australian knows this because we’ve told them on numerous occasions.

On the eve of the first journalistic assault, we assembled a digest of the most significant information we’d provided over many weeks. They ignored most of it. [Read the full email here.]

One headline screamed out that my link to Labor had been “exposed”. But the article failed to mention that my political history is well known (and irrelevant) and failed to include this statement provided to The Australian in a spirit of transparency:

As is noted in Wikipedia I was an advisor in the NSW Wran Government. I went on to work as a journalist, including stints in the Canberra Press Gallery. I have a Parliament House security pass co-sponsored by Malcolm Turnbull when he was communications minister and former Senator Stephen Conroy. I have discussed the NBN with Mr Turnbull, who I’ve known for many years, and with Mr Shorten. My role at IA is to advocate for a 21st Century NBN and I have consistently called for a bipartisan rethink and the need to take party politics out of the equation. There are many journalists who belong to political parties and still manage to act professionally and dispassionately. I did this as a journalist and I’m doing it now.

We also told The Australian that in the final week of the last Parliamentary session we’d met with representatives of the Government, Opposition, Greens and One Nation. We’d also provided information to Senators Hinch and Xenophon.

Here’s something else from our email The Australian didn’t use:

It’s a cheap shot to try to value IA on the basis of our financial capacity or on our local membership numbers. We’re the Australian chapter of the global Internet Society, which has circa 90,000 members in more than 100 countries. Most chapters, and indeed all the overarching Internet governance and policy setting bodies, operate largely through volunteers too.

Internet Australia has never hidden the fact that we are a small organisation and cash strapped. We ask that we are judged by our performance, not our purse. I’ve likened us to The Mouse That Roared — the title of the classic Peter Sellers film.

Not content with it’s first effort, The Australian has turned on Internet Australia again, and again. Another article alleged that our “international parent body” (the Internet Society) has distanced itself from us. Rest assured they haven’t. We are one of their longest-standing and most active chapters, and we were recently ranked at their highest performance level. Later this month we will be hosting one of many global hubs for an event called InterCommunity 2017 marking the 25th anniversary of the Internet Society.

So what was the basis for this bizarre assertion? A rather anodyne comment from a PR person on the other side of the world.

In Switzerland, asked whether Internet Australia’s views represented those of the global Internet Society, spokeswoman  Allesandra Desantillana  said local chapters of the group agreed to support its global goals, “however any public positions and statements of the chapters are their own”.

We emailed The Australian after the first attack, asking that this comment be included in any follow-up. It wasn’t:

We do not believe that today’s article was fair or balanced considering the amount of material we provided over many weeks. The ‘Fact Sheet’ contains obviously false information and we doubt it came from NBN Co, despite the positioning of their logo on the document. We have identified your primary sources and do not consider them impartial or reliable. The response we’ve received from both high profile experts and everyday Internet users has been so positive that we are even more proud of our achievement in fostering informed debate about the flaws in the current NBN rollout.

Notwithstanding efforts to diminish us, Internet Australia is resolute in its determination to press for #BetterBroadband. It’s not the only Internet-related issue on our agenda, but it is one that affects every Australian.

This, also from the copious material provided to The Australian, is what our campaign for #BetterBroadband is all about:

The biggest technical issue is that FTTN simply cannot deliver fast broadband. That’s the case even with well-maintained copper. So far NBN has skirted some of the more problematic sections of the Telstra network. So as they move closer to completing the FTTN rollout no doubt the complaints will increase.

The biggest consumer issue is that around 40-50 percent of premises will be stuck with FTTN. This means a digital divide where half the country is stuck with an inferior service. You will have seen this week’s announcement of 100 Mbps speeds on fixed wireless. That means people with fixed wireless, which is generally seen as a second tier technology, will have faster broadband than half the country with FTTN. At Senate Estimates earlier this month Bill Morrow conceded that they have no budget to upgrade FTTN. He told Senators that anyone with FTTN wanting faster speeds will have to pay for their own upgrade.

As we’ve pointed out to both the current Coalition Government and Labor Opposition, one of them will be in office three years from now when the NBN roll out is due to be completed. If nothing is done in the meantime, they’ll be lumbered with the biggest national infrastructure debacle in Australia’s history. NBN Co will still owe the government the $19 billion it is having to borrow. On current revenue numbers, it will struggle to do more than cover the Interest charges. Worse still, as our globally recognised experts point out 40-50 percent of the network – the areas stuck with the inferior FTTN – will soon need to be replaced.

So it makes sense for everyone to come together, accept there’s a better way and move forward in a bipartisan commitment to Australia’s future in the emerging digitally-enabled world. It would be nice to see The Australian supporting such a move.

The Australian has now devoted five articles, and an immense amount of time and effort, clearly trying to write us off as irrelevant and repeatedly pointing to our limited finances. It’s a theme also trotted out often by NBN Co boss Bill Morrow and a couple of his “fanbois” in the tech press.

On television recently Mr Morrow likened the NBN to the nation-building Snowy Mountains Scheme. I guess nobody told him it’s political history? Labor launched the “Snowy” amid howls of protest from the then conservative opposition. However, on becoming prime minister, Liberal leader Sir Robert Menzies embraced the project and became an ardent supporter. What a shame we didn’t see this happen with the NBN.

After the first three attacks the board of IA resolved not to answer further questions from The Australian.

Since 2014 Patton has been Chief Executive Officer / Executive Director of Internet Australia, a chapter of the global Internet Society.

This first appeared in Independent Australia, 9 August 2017.  It has been updated since

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