Malcolm Turnbull as opposition communications spokesperson was a brilliant if obvious appointment by Tony Abbott. Turnbull can begin his critiques of Labor’s National Broadband Network (NBN) by asserting his credentials as “one of the founders of OzEmail, Australia’s first big internet company” and then hope his glorious brilliance will blind us from noticing that he’s trotting out familiar dodgy talking points.

Take, for example, the one posted on his blog before the election but getting exposure today at ABC’s The Drum.

Turnbull can be forgiven for larding this piece with the tired old political rhetoric about Labor’s “waste” versus the Coalition’s “affordable” policies. It was an election campaign, after all.

Hence, Turnbull labels the NBN a “white elephant”, “the most expensive network in the world”, “too good to be true”, “taxpayer-funded spree”, “simply too risky”, “no benefit to taxpayers” blah blah blah-di-bloody blah.

What Turnbull should not be forgiven for is telling fibs about the differences between the Labor and Coalition policies.

“Just because the Coalition’s total spend is less doesn’t mean the vast majority of users will be worse off. On the contrary, most will have access to privately provided broadband services virtually indistinguishable from Labor’s — but at a much lower cost,” Turnbull writes in one of the few paragraphs that addresses the actual policy.


Under Labor’s NBN, the “vast majority of users”, 93% of them, will have the opportunity to use fibre to the premises capable of speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second today and upgradeable to greater speeds in the future.

Under the Coalition’s policy, those users will get … well … who knows? Turnbull’s predecessor Tony Smith pointedly refused to state which areas would get what speeds because, of course, that would be decided by the market. But one thing was clear. Unless the market decides you’d get fibre, you’d be stuck with ADSL2+ at 20-odd megabits per second if you’re as close as possible to the exchange and much less otherwise. Or hybrid fibre-cable (HFC) at 100 megabits per second tops if that’s already in your area. Or fixed wireless at a whopping 12Mb/s.

Either way, you’re on technology that will always be slower than fibre.

And they’re downlink speeds, of course. None of those technologies offer uplink speeds offer anything more than a couple Mb/s up. Only fibre does that. Only fibre can provide, say, the sustained 7Mb/s uplink speed required by high-definition video conferencing.

In other words, Turnbull’s claim that the services available would be “virtually indistinguishable” is wrong. Not good enough.

The Coalition’s broadband challenge is now twofold.

Provide a focused, sustained critique of Labor’s NBN without appearing merely negative — especially when the key independent are slathering to get that fibre. It shouldn’t be too hard once we start seeing more data.

Present an alternative policy that doesn’t look like it was cobbled together in a last-minute pre-election panic.

It shouldn’t be too hard, given Turnbull supposedly has a clue about this stuff. As long as egos can be held in check.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey