Labor spells out its NBN rescue plan – too broken for a quick fix

By LAURIE PATTON | 10 April 2019

Labor’s communications spokesperson, Michelle Rowland, has outlined a very sensible approach to fixing the dud NBN. In fact, should the Coalition retain office it would be well advised to adopt Labor’s plan. 

As Rowland rightly points out, six years of flawed technology choices has created a delivery disaster and it will be no simple task to return the project to its original vision – fast, reliable and affordable broadband for all Australians.

Labor’s NBN policy does much more than presage a move ‘back to the future’ – it boldly tackles the biggest obstacle holding us back – the digital divide.

Rowland focusses on the hapless customers stuck with the underperforming fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) version of the so-called multi-technology mix (MTM) model.

Adopting FTTN was a foreseeable error given the known state of Telstra’s ageing copper wires. Rowland has correctly identified that there are serious problems with the internal wiring in many homes. It’s not just the rundown copper cabling in the streets that needs to be replaced.

Sensibly, Labor has resisted pressure to make bold promises it might not be able to keep. It has clearly learned from Malcolm Turnbull’s biggest mistake. In opposition Turnbull, responding to pressure from then PM Tony Abbott to “destroy” the NBN, clasped his hands around a bunch of ideas put forward by a few mates, without waiting to run them by the more qualified engineers at NBN Co.

Labor will wait and undertake a considered review before making any major moves.

Rowland outlined Labor’s NBN policy at an industry conference today. This summary is from her speech.

1. Launch a landmark Digital Inclusion Drive with the aim to increase broadband participation among the over 1 million Australian households not using any internet at home.

2. Direct the establishment of a $125 million program within NBNCo to reduce dropouts and improve speeds for up to 750,000 Fibre to the Node households by rectifying identified in-home cabling issues that are degrading performance, at no cost to the end user.

3. Establish an NBN Service Guarantee to set service standards and better safeguard consumers, and in particular small businesses against excessive periods of NBN downtime.

4. Position for the future by undertaking field trials to assess the costs and feasibility of responsible co-investment in future fibre upgrades. We will also place NBN on the COAG agenda to explore opportunities for partnership and future cooperation.

5. Commence an immediate review of the economics of the NBN to obtain a more informed picture about where we are and the options going forward. We will also review the future funding and capacity requirements of the fixed-wireless network and use this as the basis to have a more honest conversation with the public about options to address congestion challenges.

Much has been written about Australia’s poor showing in global broadband rankings. While slow to catch on, mainstream media is now regularly reporting on the manifest problems that need attention. The ACCC, ACMA and the Productivity Commission have all had their say.

The simple fact is we really need #BetterBroadband. Whoever wins the upcoming elections will have to deal with arguably the biggest infrastructure bungle in the country’s history.

Whoever has that task will need time to repair the damage. What would be really helpful is if we could see all sides of politics adopt a bipartisan approach. Labor has today provided a sensible set of guidelines to help us achieve that goal.

(Laurie Patton was CEO / Executive Director of Internet Australia, the peak not-for-profit representing Internet users, from 2014-2017. He has consistently argued that we need #BetterBroadband and campaigned for a bipartisan plan to fix the NBN.)