In years to come Malcolm Turnbull will be remembered as the communications minister who, under an instruction from then prime minister Tony Abbott, ‘demolished’ Labor’s 21st Century National Broadband Network. But another prominent politician had earlier inflicted enduring damage to any nascent aim of becoming an innovation nation and set us back in an emerging digitally enabled world. Are we heading towards a repeat of this mistake in telecommunications policy?
This week’s capitulation – that’s what it is – by communications minister Paul Fletcher sets us on a course that hopefully will see Australia start moving in the right direction again as we head further into a digitally-enabled future. It’s a welcomed move, but we’d be wise to take a close look at the detail in his National Press Club address before getting too excited.
Today we have finally reached the much-vaunted date on which the Government said it would have completed the rollout of the trouble-plagued National Broadband Network. Despite widespread industry expectations a media blitz by communications minister Paul Fletcher has so far not materialised. No ribbon cuttings and no skywriter plane spelling out “Mission Accomplished” as some jokingly predicted (see postscript).
Telstra’s decision to only offer a maximum 50Mbps plan to more than half its NBN customers is another setback in the quest for #BetterBroadband and further vindication of Labor’s plan to make Australia what Malcolm Turnbull subsequently dubbed an “innovation nation”. It’s the latest fulfilment of a highly political decision by Tony Abbott to instruct Turnbull to demolish NBN Co.
If anyone knows about good and bad broadband it’s Telstra. And they know that anything other than fibre is second best.
A report released by communications minister Paul Fletcher has confirmed that so-called ‘Internet piracy’ declined dramatically following the arrival of Netflix and other online streaming services – debunking the need for ‘site-blocking’ laws controversially introduced following a well-funded lobbying effort by local representatives of the Hollywood studios. In the same week NBN Co announced it is cutting in half its pricing for new connections to encourage reluctant consumers to sign up to its troubled broadband service.
What these two incidents suggest is we need politicians to engage more with industry experts when making technology-related policy decisions. We also need IT / telecommunications groups to do more to ensure the government of the day is well advised. And we need more mainstream media focus on keeping everyone better informed.
Earlier in the week Telstra chair, John Mullen, conceded the company must accept some of the blame for our flawed National Broadband Network due to its ‘recalcitrance’ back in 2007/2008 when it submitted a petulant bid that didn’t meet the requirements of the government tender to build a nationwide network. However, he then went on to attack the project, in particular drawing attention to NBN Co’s decision to compete more activley in the so-called ‘enterprise’ market – the provision of wholesale rather than retail products.
It’s all very well, if not ironic, for Mr Mullen to complain about a company offering a competitive service but let’s not forget that one of the biggest impediments to NBN Co’s financial performance, and thus its overall success, is the extremely generous terms of the deal the Coalition did with Telstra when Malcolm Turnbull followed Tony Abbott’s instruction to ‘destroy’ the NBN and opted to buy access to Telstra’s old copper wire network and its ageing Pay-TV cables.
In my view, NBN Co ought to consider renegotiating the deal with Telstra over access to their ‘pits and pipes’ and in return agree not to compete in the enterprise market. And Telstra should repair the damage it caused by negotiating in good faith – for Australia’s sake.
In my opinion, the National Broadband Network rollout will not be finished until everyone has access to fast, reliable and affordable broadband. On that basis the rollout will take us well beyond the current official completion date of 2020. It looks like a lot of NBN Co customers are in for a long hard ride unless the Government instructs the board to abandon FTTN (the trouble-plagued technology using Telstra’s ageing copper wires) sooner rather than later.
It’s not Mr Rue’s fault of course. He has been left ‘holding the baby’ – stuck with the flawed multi-technology mix (MTM) strategy introduced by his predecessor. But in a year from now it will be his problem fair and square.
Surveys regularly show that people increasingly regard access to broadband as an ‘essential service’. Which is why it’s essential that we fix the mess NBN Co has managed to get itself into.
The other day I was talking to a friend who recently retired from the public service. After a career lifetime of studied discretion he now wears as a badge of honour his entitlement to express independent views. Many of these are critical of the processes that played a pivotal part in his rise to a very senior posting.