The news yesterday that the Gillard government was pressing ahead with plans to connect 1.3 million extra homes to the NBN — taking the total number of premises “connected” or where construction will have “commenced” to over 4.8 million by 2016 — has overshadowed the continued political brawling over broadband, with the two major parties battling over competing visions of a connected future.
Minister Stephen Conroy has been caught up in torturous interviews about what phrases like “premises passed” actually mean, while opposite number Malcolm Turnbull has been actively trying to “destroy” Conroy’s logic on the policy, leading to testy exchanges on online forums, where he branded Conroy a “grub”.
In the background, News Limited has been agitating against the plan, with The Daily Telegraph splashing with vitriolic front pages and The Australian persisting with its “NBN Watch” series, that aims to shine a light on contractor balls-ups in the style of its previous Schools Watch and pink batts series but is yet to secure any major scalps.
Still, the NBN is a massive deal. Advertisements for sub-contractors to get on board recently popped up at Mumbai airport, of all places, and even assuming a Coalition victory on September 14, rose gardens and existing fibre-to-the-home won’t be ripped up.
The National Broadband Network is a Labor government initiative aimed at increasing Australia’s open access broadband capacity. The NBN aims to provide direct fibre-optic cable connection to 93% of individual premises (know as fibre to the premises, or FTTP) at speeds of up to one gigabit per second, with the remaining 7% of homes and businesses to be serviced by a combination of satellite and wireless services, at speeds of up to 12 megabits per second. The NBN aims to enable improved remote health services, teleconferencing, and rural schooling options through increased ability to transfer large amounts of data at high speeds.
The construction and implementation of the NBN has been delegated to the government-owned National Broadband Network Co Limited, with a budget of $43 billion to be used in the NBN rollout over the next eight years . Construction of the infrastructure necessary for the network began in 2009, with the establishment of the NBN Tasmania Limited and the rollout of broadband services in Tasmania. NBN Co Limited estimates that the project will be completed by 2021, with NBN access available to all Australians.
So where do the parties stand on broadband?
Under Labor’s plan for the NBN, the government plans to have the network completed by 2021 with full coverage for all Australians. Under its 2011 National Platform, Labor has announced its intentions to:
- Complete the NBN;
- Make sure every Australian can access the NBN;
- Use the network “to provide better educational outcomes, to improve health service delivery and increase economic opportunities” (pp. 44);
- Deliver uniform wholesale national pricing for technologies associated with the NBN;
- Deliver a universal price for all customers using optic fibre, fixed wireless or satellite;
- Ensure “increased backhaul competition” (the price internet service providers pay for transporting data within the network — this is a more in-depth explanation), along with lower broadband prices and better services for regional and rural Australia;
- Drive genuine competition at the retail level;
- Establish a strong regulatory framework for telecommunications, so as to protect consumers, increase retail competition and provide better services for families and business.
Following the release of the fourth report on the rollout of the National Broadband Network in February 2013 by the Joint Committee on the National Broadband Network, opposition communications and broadband spokesman Malcolm Turnbull criticised NBN Co for being “tragically slow” in its rollout of the government’s plan and called for the government to avoid entering long-term contracts that might be affected by the September election. Its initial response to the government’s plan — the Plan for Real Action on Broadband and Telecommunications” was criticised for taking a lightweight approach.
However, a revised Coalition policy, the ‘Plan for a better NBN’ , was released in April. A Coalition government pledged to ensure:
- Public expenditure for the NBN will be limited to $29.5 billion;
- Construction will take place over six years, with a forecasted completion date of 2019;
- Ensure a minimum broadband speed of 25 mbps by 2016, and 50 mbps by 2019, with a maximum speed of 100 mbps;
- Fibre to the Node (FTTN), as opposed to direct Fibre to the Premise (FTTP –preferred by Labor), will be favoured where possible;
- FTTP where the individual pays for it;
- NBN Co. will be forbidden from providing services to the end user;
- Networks, with a focus on rural, regional, and outer metropolitan areas;
- New satellite services will be established for the 3% of the population currently not covered by other technology;
- Broadband competition will be fostered by pricing and regulation support;
- New (Greenfield) housing estates should utilize FTTP unless unfeasible.
- Average household cost for broadband access estimated at $66 per month (by 2021).
The Greens have not released an official policy statement in response to the NBN. However, through the Greens’ spokesperson for communications, housing, heritage, nuclear issues, infrastructure and sustainable cities, Scott Ludlam, they have made their position clear. The Greens will support:
- The maximisation of Australians’ ability to access “communication technologies and networks regardless of location, inequality or disability”;
- Keeping the operation of the NBN in the public’s interest;
- Preventing the sale of the NBN Co. to private interests;
- Ensuring regional areas receive adequate coverage; and
- Fibre to the premises, as opposed to fibre to the node.