If the National Broadband Network (NBN) is becoming a “calamitous train wreck”, as Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull claimed on October 23, then the fault lies with him.
He was the minister for communications in the Tony Abbott Coalition government who, in 2013, oversaw the disastrous decision to fundamentally change the NBN from Labor’s fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) model to a technologically obsolete fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) system. At the time, Abbott apparently wanted to “kill the NBN” entirely.
FTTP means a fibre broadband connection direct to the home or business, while FTTN means connection to the nearest street box or pillar, with the final section relying on an existing old-fashioned copper wire attachment. FTTN was meant to be cheaper, but will inevitably be slow and unreliable.
Now Turnbull is prime minister, leading a government that is implementing a third-rate national internet broadband system, inferior to the majority of countries in our region and the world. As the ABC’s Four Corners revealed on October 23, New Zealand is rolling out a FTTP broadband system, which is significantly superior to the NBN in Australia.
Telecommunications consultant Paul Budde highlighted the issue in a commentary piece in the Sydney Morning Herald. He emphasised that Turnbull as then communications minister led the change of NBN policy from FTTP to FTTN.
“Obviously, he didn’t [then] see his change in policy as a train wreck in the making, as he indicated he could build the NBN for $25 billion and it would be finished by 2016. The price tag is now up to $50 billion, to be finished in 2020–21 and we are saddled with a second-rate network.
“If we want to go even further, it was under [former Coalition Prime Minister] John Howard's watch that Telstra was privatised without any conditions attached to regional broadband or to an upgrade of the network from copper to fibre.”
Budde called on the current government to “stop the roll-out of the FTTN and replace it with (fibre to the curb (FTTC). More money spent on FTTN will only make the NBN less valuable and continue the waste of taxpayers’ money.
“If the price of this is a delay of another one or two years, so be it. Better to do it right in the first place.”
FTTC is a compromise between FTTN and FTTP, which takes the fibre connection much closer to the premises than fibre to the node, and is allegedly cheaper than a final fibre connection from the street to the individual house. Whether that is a better overall solution in the long run is debatable.
In any case, the key issue is the need for quality high-speed internet to be made available to all Australian households at a reasonable cost and for the NBN system to remain in public hands.
So far, the signs are not good. The Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman's recent annual report showed a 160% increase in complaints about the NBN.
Four Corners revealed that some towns that were in the process of receiving NBN roll-out when the change of policy occurred are now experiencing a so-called “digital divide”. Dubbo, for example, has a street with FTTP on one side, and the lower-quality FTTN system on the other.
Apparently, this has even affected the property market, with buyers wanting to know whether a house for sale has FTTP or FTTN connection, with a noticeable drop in price for FTTN
Rob Burgess explained in the October 25 New Daily: “The complexities of this week’s debate over the National Broadband Network should not obscure two simple facts: Australia is still way behind where it should be, and that’s due to the interests of corporations and politicians being put ahead of everyday Aussies.
“The main business beneficiaries have been shareholders in companies for whom fast, ubiquitous broadband represented unwanted disruption and competition.”
Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told Four Corners the main beneficiary was News Ltd (since rebranded to News Corp), via its 50% stake in the Foxtel cable TV network.
Rudd said: “It’s a matter of historical record that … News Ltd did not want fibre optic to the premises. And the reason they didn’t want that is that it would provide direct competition to the Foxtel cable television network.”
Telstra, owner of the other half of Foxtel, also had an interest in seeing the NBN rolled out slowly and has played hard-ball since the NBN was first announced in 2009.
Australia is now a shameful 50th on the global broadband performance rankings. Countries that are way ahead of Australia on the list include Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea and Japan, as well as Scandinavia and most of Eastern Europe.
The main long-term problem is that both the Coalition government and the Labor opposition agree that the NBN should be sold to private investors when the project is completed. In other words, once the public sector has overseen the construction of this massive institution of basic communications infrastructure, the prize will be stolen from ordinary taxpayers by big business once again.
The good news may be that the NBN as currently in formation may not be a profit-making venture and therefore not saleable to the corporate sector. The bad news is that our neoliberal government will find a way to gild the lilly — by imposing further fees or surcharges on consumers to access the NBN system.
The labour movement and the community need to draw a line in the sand now before it is too late. There should be no sale of the NBN to the private sector under any circumstances. We must keep this crucial piece of national communications infrastructure in public hands.
Moreover, we need to start a campaign to nationalise (or re-nationalise in the case of Telstra) the entire corporate telecommunications industry, under workers’ and community control. This is the only way we can defend the interests of working people and consumers in the critical telecommunications sector.