“If Australian consumers want a fixed line for telephony or internet access, they are going to have to use NBN’s line — like it or not,” wrote Malcolm Turnbull, opposition communications spokesperson, yesterday. My response to that is simple: so what?

Yes, the Tasmanian government is introducing legislation to adopt an opt-out model for the remaining rollout of the National Broadband Network in that state. In other words, if you’re in the 93% coverage area, NBN fibre will be laid to your home or business unless you confirm in writing that you want to be excluded.

“NBN Co will not require homeowner consent before connecting them to the network,” Turnbull said, and the media dutifully re-bleated. “Tasmanians will be forced into connecting to the national broadband network (NBN) unless they ‘opt-out’,” wrote Fairfax. Similar sentiments were expressed at The Australian and News.com.au — the latter helpfully illustrating their story with a photograph of a huge yellow cable-laying machine, presumably poised to despoil gardens across the Apple Isle.

Running through all of this is a glorious piece of fear mongering: the implication that householders will be forced to buy presumed-to-be-expensive communications services they don’t want.

Which is rubbish, of course.

Householders will continue to buy their telecommunications services from their chosen retail service provider (RSP), just as they do now. Voice telephony. Internet access fast or slow, high-volume or not. Alarm monitoring. Whatever. The RSP then provisions those services using the customer access network (CAN) that connects premises back to the exchange. That’s the Telstra-owned copper today — “like it or not”, as Turnbull would say — and NBN Co’s optical fibre tomorrow.

It’s not really any of the customer’s business how the RSP delivers the service. They’re paying for a capability, and the rest is the RSP’s concern. After all, we don’t choose what kind of pipes our water supply comes in, and the water company replaces pipes with longer-lasting ones as required. Foxtel connects you to pay TV by coax cable or satellite dish at their discretion.

Also widely reported was Turnbull’s re-statement of that curious opposition talking point: that the NBN’s business plan depends on “the elimination of competing technologies”. “The move adds compulsion to Labor’s existing plans to shut down competing fixed line technologies (such as Telstras’ [sic] copper network, or voice and broadband delivered over HFC pay TV cables),” he wrote.

What Turnbull seems to be suggesting is that we continue to run two or more CANs in parallel, with the obvious inefficiencies of maintenance and management. Presumably this is simply so the Coalition can leverage the ‘my home is my castle get off my lawn shotgun shack’ mentality into marginal-electorate votes.

Turnbull is suggesting that as we upgrade the CAN from copper to fibre we don’t do it as efficiently as possible, with the last-block fibre bundles pre-made in a factory to fit precisely and installed in one efficient operation. Instead, we should let the process drag out for years, possibly decades. As each new home crosses over from copper to fibre, another work team hits the streets to field-splice the cable.

‘Choice’ and ‘competition’ are magic words in modern politics, especially for the Coalition. But basic infrastructure doesn’t work that way. We don’t build duplicate water reticulation, sewers, roads and electricity grids in the name of competition, and a telecommunications CAN is no different.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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