Politics Analysis

Littleproud's 'cancerous' comments over Telstra too toxic

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National Party leader David Littleproud has accused Telstra of abandoning the bush (Image by Preston Keres | flickr)

Nationals' new leader David Littleproud has called Telstra "a cancer on the bush" and while regional telecommunications can be better, such poisonous comments go too far, writes Paul Budde.

THERE IS never a dull moment in the Australian telecommunications industry. 

While on holiday in northwest Queensland, along the Gulf of Carpentaria, I was often still able to get a mobile signal from Telstra (Lawn Hill, Adels Grove, Gregory, Burk and Wills Roadhouse and Karumba, just to name a few rather remote places visited on this trip).

Trying to get access through a National Broadband Network (NBN) service was shocking in Karumba — the message from the motel was "don’t blame it on us; write to NBN Co and complain to them".

This brings me to the spat that has flared up again between new National Party leader David Littleproud and Andrew Penn the (soon to be outgoing) chief executive officer of Telstra.

In an earlier Independent Australia article, I reported on the 2021 Regional Telecommunications Review. When Littleproud was the chair of the Senate Committee investigating regional telecommunications, he accused Telstra of abandoning the bush. He has since pushed that accusation further, now calling Telstra "a cancer on the bush".

While I do agree that regional telecommunications still have a lot to answer for, the fact that I can use Telstra’s mobile services in some of the most remote places in Australia also needs to be recognised. Can it be better? You bet. But Littleproud's poisonous comments are going too far.

Back in 2005, I started to advocate a national broadband network for Australia and I was greatly supported by various National Party MPs across the country. I did many interviews with regional ABC radio stations and, on many occasions, was joined by National Party MPs who supported the call for good quality broadband for regional and remote Australia.

Move forward to 2013 — the Coalition under Tony Abbott wins the election. His mantra was basically "kill the NBN" and guess what happened? All those National Party MPs totally abandoned broadband for bush campaigns and fell neatly into line behind Tony Abbott. I was angry about that and spoke to a few of those MPs directly but to no avail. Party politics prevailed.

I was reminded of this after Andy Penn's angry response to Littleproud’s "cancer" comment. He threw the ball back into the National Party court, questioning what the Nationals had done to improve telecommunications in the bush, having been in government for close to a decade.

I can answer that: "Very little, indeed."

From an NBN-for-regional-Australia point of view, I believe the National Party has been the biggest disappointment. In most of regional Australia, NBN service is appalling. The quality of services is nowhere near what people get in the cities.

The National Party has done regional Australia a great disservice by basically abandoning the campaign for good quality broadband. It was mainly Telstra that built a mobile system in regional Australia, which is often better and more reliable than the fixed NBN service.

Of interest, is the recent comparison between broadband in Australia and New Zealand conducted by regulators in both countries (Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC) and Commerce Commission).

While the ACCC gives a positive spin to it, the comparison clearly shows that despite spending those tens of billions of dollars, New Zealand's broadband network is significantly better – for a fraction of those costs – than the NBN in Australia.

Close to 90 per cent in NZ can have access to fibre-based networks against just over 30 per cent in Australia. The price/speed comparison is even more embarrassing. In New Zealand you can get a 1Gbps (gigabits) service for $99 — a lesser service somewhat comparable in Australia would cost you close to double that amount.

For roughly the same price, entry-level in New Zealand is 300/1,000 Mbps (megabits). In Australia, you only get a quarter of that speed for a similar price.

While it is certainly applaudable that NBN Co connected another 160,000 homes and businesses to its ultra-fast fibre-to-the-curb service in NSW, Victoria and South Australia, the question remains about how affordable it will be for those homes to use that service.

All of this is in line with articles I have written over the last few weeks. Unless we get some serious government intervention, we will not be able to connect more homes to affordable quality broadband and Australia as a country will drop further down the international broadband ladder, instead of where we should be — moving up.

Paul Budde is an Independent Australia columnist and managing director of Paul Budde Consulting, an independent telecommunications research and consultancy organisation. You can follow Paul on Twitter @PaulBudde.

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