Politics Analysis

Tony Abbott's NBN plan may have been a better option

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Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott indicated in 2010 that they would "demolish" the NBN (Screenshot via YouTube)

With Australia's national broadband service still lagging behind, Paul Budde reflects on what could have been if Tony Abbott had his way.

THERE HAS AGAIN been a lot of discussion about the NBN in recent weeks. As we already discussed, there was the announcement by the Labor Party and in a separate development, The Guardian reported the cost blow outs of the NBN under the Coalition Government.

In my analysis of the Labor plan, I mentioned that while it is a positive step, it remains a muddling one. While the fixed lines could finally see a more consistently good service, there are still the issues about the fixed-wireless NBN services and the future of satellite-based services.

With all of that in mind, if we at the time would have followed Tony Abbott’s advice to kill the NBN altogether, would that have been better? Was Malcolm Turnbull’s alternative of stripping down the fibre to the home (FttH) plan to the Multi Technology Mix (MTM), with hindsight, indeed the better option?

It will now at least take until 2025 before most people will have access to gigabit speeds. Critics will question if everybody needs that. The reality is that we create in this way the infrastructure capacity that allows organisations, public and private, to build good quality and resilient services.

As we have seen in the pandemic, many people complain about the slowness of the NBN when several people in the household must use the NBN simultaneously for work, education and entertainment. The infrastructure consistency across the country is simply not good enough for that. As we have seen in New Zealand, if good quality broadband is provided at an affordable price, people will flock to it.

The pandemic has shown how reliant we are for both economic and social services on a good quality NBN. Many organisations will be reluctant to expand their services to the public or the capabilities of their services if the underlaying broadband infrastructure is not up to scratch, or if only certain people can have access to such services.

The NBN struggle of the last decade has shown how difficult it is to go from a first class FttH plan to a second rate MTM and now full circle again going to a full fibre network, at least for the fixed services.

What the MTM has delivered would most probably also have been delivered by Telstra, Optus and TPG, along with the many smaller players in the market. Most likely, we would by now have had a significant higher level of FttH services. This would most probably have been achieved at significantly lower costs of what it now has cost the Government (and thus us the taxpayers).

The only reason for the Government to have entered the broadband market would have been to avoid fibre overbuild and built a fully fibre-based wholesale network. By downgrading the NBN they basically made the whole original policy obsolete.

To recoup some of its cost, what we are now seeing is regulatory creep. NBN Co is moving into the business market and if it would have been up to them, into other services as well and they certainly keep pushing for that. They are now even overbuilding fibre networks that have been built by private companies. We clearly see neo-monopolistic behaviour in relation to the wholesale prices they charge, which is done in the most complex way to make it as difficult as possible to unravel these structures.

Obviously, this is all crying over spilled milk and there is no way back. Nevertheless, it clearly shows the price we are paying for political failure. Our politicians failed to handle the development of the NBN in the best national interest and instead reverted to petty political grandstanding and point scoring.

And the NBN is not the only casualty of this level of politicking. The energy policy, climate change policy, electric vehicle policy — all have been delayed by the Coalition Government for a decade. They are now finally followed by one backflip after the other.

Obviously, this also reflects the voters who preferred a conservative government that would not come up with those “scary” progressive policies. We no longer are trying to reach each other at the middle ground. When I (and others) between 2007 and 2012 tried to build broadband bridges between the Labor Government and, at that time, the Coalition Opposition, there was absolutely no interest from the Liberal Party to do this — not on broadband, not on smart energy, not on e-health and so on.  

Now, 10-15 years later, all these policies are suddenly being accepted by the Coalition. What a waste of time having delayed progress on these issues for so long.

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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