Laurie Patton: Why I took on The Australian's ‘gun’ technology writer

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Laurie Patton calls for a bipartisan rethink to fix the NBN mess, taking on relentless attacks from 'The Australian' along the way.

IN WHAT The Australian newspaper claimed as an “exclusive”, Anthony Klan revealed what must be the worst kept secret about our trouble-plagued National Broadband Network (NBN): people aren’t getting what they’re paying for.

His article correctly highlights the fact that between them NBN Co and their re-sellers, the so-called RSP’s, have allowed consumers to sign up to broadband packages sometimes advertising speeds as much as twice that which the network can actually deliver to them.

For those of you who do not read our national broadsheet, Mr Klan is the journalist who earlier in the year penned no less than five articles in a row attacking not for profit advocacy body, Internet Australia, which I was running. It was a relentless onslaught, week after week.

As a former journalist myself, I make a point of always responding to media inquiries. And this was the case with Mr Klan, who received an extraordinary level of co-operation and a generous flow of responses to a long list of clearly loaded questions.

After three years spearheading Internet Australia’s campaign for #BetterBroadband, I’d become accustomed to the occasional sledge from the pro-NBN Co forces. It went with the territory. As long as the facts weren’t stretched too far, I was happy to take the attacks for what they were — the attempt of a company under a cloud – and its supporters – to defend the indefensible. In the end, Mr Klan went too far and I had to take a stand — if not for my own sake, then for the sake of an organisation I’d helped transform from what was reasonably described as “largely invisible and ineffective” or a “club for geeks” into a widely acknowledged source of expert advice and public advocacy — consulted by governments and their agencies, and quoted extensively in both tech and mainstream media.

Following a threat of legal action, an op-ed responding to those articles was published in The Australian on Friday, 15 December. It will be attached via a "hyperlink" to the online version of each of the offending publications.

One previous article implied Internet Australia was politically motivated. In another, worst-kept-secret, Klan outed me as a member of the ALP. Quelle surprise! Apart from being on the record on my Wikipedia page – a fact pointed out to the journalist prior to his “expose” – my long-held philosophical preferences are well known in political circles.

One colleague, a former Liberal MP still close to a high ranking Government frontbencher, rang me to commiserate, commenting:

“We know who you are mate and we don’t give a f**k."

In 2014, when I joined Internet Australia, the board’s existing NBN policy called for a return to fibre-to-the-premises, or FTTP. While still favouring FTTP, but reluctantly accepting reality, a little over two years ago we 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). The advantage of FTTdp is it can be upgraded to FTTP later for a reasonable cost.

Getting either side to embrace FTTdp was not an easy task. The Coalition’s advisers were seemingly determined to stand by the flawed advice they gave then communications minister Malcolm Turnbull and trenchantly defended the use of fibre-to-the-node (FTTN). Labor was still publicly committed to the FTTP model it launched in 2009.

These days NBN Co is deploying FTTdp in some places — although without actually conceding FTTN is causing huge problems and creating massive customer dissatisfaction. The ALP is yet to announce a revised NBN policy, but all the signs coming from Opposition spokesperson and member for Greenway Michelle Rowland are that FTTdp will be in the mix.

NBN Co’s problems are not restricted to FTTN. Recent revelations about the problematic state of Telstra’s HFC (Pay-TV) cables have come on top of the earlier jettisoning of the Optus HFC network, which was found to be unusable.

Following an extensive review of the rollout, the Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on the NBN recently published a report calling on the Government to direct NBN Co to abandon FTTN. Understandably, Liberal Party members on the committee observed their obligation to back the Government’s policy. However, the lone National Party member on the committee bravely sided with the majority. If the NBN is under a cloud in the capital cities, that’s nothing compared to the derision it receives in the bush.

During my time at Internet Australia, we sought to add constructively to the broad community debate about the NBN, and to provide independent, informed comment based on the advice of our well-qualified and respected industry experts. A member survey in early 2016 found 80% did not think FTTN would meet our future needs. This was soon followed by an Essential poll, where 88% of the general population said they saw the internet becoming an essential service like water and electricity. In a more recent Essential poll of 470 people who have had the NBN connected, only 52% said the NBN was better than their previous service in terms of speed and reliability, 17% said it was actually worse and 28% reckoned it was about the same.

Last week, NBN Co announced a new wholesale charging regime in which mid-range speed tiers will become more affordable. However, the likelihood is this will only further expose their inability to deliver the speeds many of their customers want now and more of us will inevitably need in years to come.

Unless there are big changes soon, whoever’s running the country in 2020 will have to sort out our biggest-ever national infrastructure debacle. NBN Co will owe the government around $19 billion, which it’s having to borrow to complete the project and has no prospect of repaying anytime soon. Within five to ten years, the FTTN sections of the network will need to be replaced, according to Internet Australia's experts and others. How many billions of dollars this will cost is not known. Meanwhile, millions of NBN Co customers are suffering with slow and unreliable broadband.

On Internet Australia's behalf and since leaving the organisation, I’ve argued for a bipartisan rethink and the adoption of an agreed plan to fix the mess. I hope in time this will be achieved. If not, in years to come we’ll look back and wonder why we let ourselves down so badly at a time when competing in a digitally-enabled world should be a top government priority. 

Laurie Patton was chief executive-executive director of Internet Australia from 2014 to this year. You can follow Laurie on Twitter @LJPatton.

Read Laurie's response to 'The Australian' HERE.

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