Mark Gregory. The new PM and the NBN. ‘An expensive lemon’

Nov 2, 2015

The National Broadband Network (NBN) is now delayed by between five and ten years and will cost significantly more over a 20 year lifetime due to the government’s decision to shift from a Fibre to the Premises (FTTP) fixed access network to the Multi-Technology Mix (MTM) approach that includes Fibre to the Node (FTTN) and Hybrid Fibre Coax (HFC).

The malaise that the telecommunications industry finds itself in has been exacerbated by the efforts of the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull who, as the Minister for Communications, spent two years doing very little whilst telling everyone that he was on the cusp of finding solutions for a variety of problems besetting the industry.

In his time as Communications Minister Turnbull was responsible or involved with a remarkably small number of bills before Parliament, no doubt because the Senate would not support a large majority of the Coalition’s unsubstantiated justifications and rationale for legislative and regulatory change to the NBN and the broader telecommunications market.

In a nation that appears to have an endless supply of state and federal funding for roads and hand-outs to multi-nationals that pay little or no tax, the decision by the Coalition government, that was implemented by Turnbull in 2013, to adopt the obsolete FTTN technology for a significant percentage of the NBN will, in future years, be seen to be economic madness.

Any belief that Turnbull would, on becoming Prime Minister, take action to remedy the mistakes made with the NBN rollout over the past five years has now been shown to be nothing more than a pipe dream.

Turnbull has clearly demonstrated that he is quite prepared to adopt the age old ploy of commissioning an endless number of reviews and audits that have been carefully stage managed to provide the answers that support his position on a range of topics. And he is quite prepared to direct government departments to take actions that appear to defy international standards and definitions if this is necessary to support his position.

So it is unsurprising that Turnbull squelched a range of protests by prominent Australian engineering experts and Academics by resorting to name calling and failing to respond to the valid points raised.

In what is likely to be the “greatest con in Australian history” the government promised that the NBN would be completed by the end of 2016 and it would be built for $29.5 billion. The latest projections from NBN Co indicate the NBN should be completed sometime in 2020 or possibly later and the cost for Turnbull’s MTM approach will now be at least $56 billion.

In the lead-up to the last election the former Prime Minister Tony Abbott stated “we will deliver a new business plan for the NBN so that we can deliver faster broadband sooner and at less cost. I want our NBN rolled out within three years and Malcolm Turnbull is the right person to make this happen.”

Turnbull was well aware that the NBN would not be completed by the end of 2016, yet he was prepared to be an active participant in what is likely to be the most expensive lemon in Australian history that was to be built with an impossible deadline as was widely pointed out by industry and academia at the time.

There can be no doubt that Australia needs the NBN if there is to be active participation in the global digital economy, but to be more specific, Australia needs national telecommunications infrastructure that is based on an all-fiber access network in areas where a fixed access network is appropriate to ensure that the nation can compete and become a global digital economy leader.

It is unremarkable that the success of New Zealand’s version of the NBN has not been addressed by Turnbull, the adoption of NG-PON2 FTTP in many markets around the world and it is likely that he will continue to harp on about the aging and underperforming FTTN networks operated by BT and Deutsche Telekom.

Recently the total number of fibre broadband subscribers passed the total number of copper broadband subscribers and what this means is that as Australia rolls out the copper based FTTN or G.Fast we will fall further behind our competitors in related measures of broadband access capability.

The recent launch of NBN Co’s Sky Muster satellite that will provide a much needed broadband access improvement to regional and remote Australia is likely to have been cancelled by Turnbull in late 2013 if it was not for the iron clad contracts put in place by the former government. Turnbull’s failure to comprehend the need for the two Ka band satellites led to his ridiculous remark in 2012 that the satellites were a “Rolls-Royce” solution that were not needed.

Unfortunately, as Prime Minister Turnbull is in a position to turn his attention to removing monopoly infrastructure regulation from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) in what can only be considered to be an effort to placate Telstra and if this decision goes ahead the telecommunications industry is set to enter a period not unlike the dark-ages.

Turnbull’s recent support of Telstra by writing to the ACCC and arguing that the ACCC should not reduce fixed-line charges by 9.4 per cent clearly demonstrates what the priorities of the Turnbull government are and these certainly do not appear to include working for improved customer focused outcomes and lower costs, so it is likely that Turnbull will renew efforts to marginalize the ACCC.

Telstra has had major financial boons from the two agreements with NBN Co and the associated multi-billion dollar sweeteners thrown Telstra’s way by the current and former government, but there is no doubt that if Turnbull has an opportunity to sell off the NBN then it is likely that the lions share will fall into Telstra’s hands due to the nearly $100 billion that it will be paid or save over time under the current agreement with NBN Co.

A review of the Universal Service Obligation (USO) was announced by the former Parliamentary Secretary to the Communications Minister Paul Fletcher and it was apparent that he was taking a positive leadership role within the Coalition government for this important keystone of the nation’s social equality oriented telecommunications policy. Why Turnbull’s attention was not focused on the USO in his time as the Communications Minister is a mystery, but could provide some guidance as to his priorities.

Turnbull appears to be in denial of his failure as a Communications Minister, and simply brushed aside demands for reasoned and justified telecommunications market reforms. Having made a mess of the NBN and brushed off the wide-spread criticism, we should not hold out hope that Turnbull will change direction.

And now that the Coalition government believes that Turnbull’s popularity will make the next election nothing but a formality the telecommunications portfolio is likely to remain in the background as the Coalition government seeks to broaden and increase the goods and services tax to 15 per cent. Another Turnbull gem?.

Mark Gregory is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at RMIT University.  His blog is here.

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