We are all for his nomination for a Gold Logie, and his segments often do “nail it”, as his online fan base often puts it, but there were many things wrong with Waleed Aly’s attempt to take on the NBN.

In a segment titled “Who’s to blame for the NBN” on The Project last night, Aly took on the complex, political football issue of the National Broadband Network and laid blame squarely at the feet of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Here’s what he got right:

  • The NBN is not being delivered anywhere near as fast as the Coalition promised prior to the 2013 election, and it costs much more than was promised. Almost three years ago, on April 9, 2013, Turnbull and then-prime minister Tony Abbott announced that all Australians would have access to 25Mbps by the end of 2016. This promise was quickly broken when they got into government and realised it wasn’t as simple as flicking a switch and asking Telstra nicely to hand over its copper and cable networks. Although government equity remains the same (at $29.5 billion), the cost to build the network is now estimated to be up to $56 billion, and it won’t be finished until 2020.
  • Infrastructure projects are built with the future in mind. Quoting one of the men behind AARNet — one of the early forms of the internet in Australia — Aly said that if we were to be the innovation nation Turnbull wanted us to be, we should be going for a full fibre-to-the-premises network. It’s definitely the way to nation-build and have a future-proof network. The difficulty in this lies in the politicisation of the project. Labor mostly abandoned the argument that the NBN was nation-building when the Coalition began mounting a campaign about the cost of it and the delays it was facing. It instead became about a network that could be built on time (but wasn’t at the time) and within budget (but wasn’t at the time). Turnbull saw an opening to argue that delivering users upgraded speeds is better, so he is to blame that the NBN became a politicised issue — but Labor certainly didn’t help with the way it sold the network when in government.
  • Turnbull most definitely didn’t “virtually invent the internet in Australia”.

Here’s what he got wrong:

  • Aly only focused on fibre-to-the-node. This will be a large component of the network, but not the only one. There’s also fibre to the basement (which takes the fibre into the basement of an apartment block or building to use the existing copper in the building), cable, and FttDP (or fibre to the driveway, which is what Labor will likely mandate across the board). As Crikey reported last month, NBN is using a mix of technologies depending on what is most cost-effective.
  • He claimed FttN speeds were a “maximum” of between 25Mbps and 50Mbps. The average speed being achieved on FttN connections on the NBN today (excluding fibre to the basement) is 76Mbps. This is without vectoring and other potential advances in the future that could take it closer to 100Mbps. NBN can offer up to 1Gbps on FttP now, but very few people are actually ordering that service. (Although that could change in the future, depending on demand.)
  • Comparing the estimated cost of the NBN under Labor’s modelling with the Coalition’s estimate is not useful. Aly did briefly mention that the Coalition’s estimation of the fibre NBN is much higher, but the broad comparison claimed that Labor’s NBN would cost $45 billion and be completed in 2021. NBN’s modelling under the Coalition (which is contested by former CEO Mike Quigley) claims that to down tools and return to Labor’s version of the NBN would cost $73 billion and take until as far out as 2028. This is contested, but based on NBN Co’s continual delay and cost blowouts under the former government, neither figure can really be completely trusted.
  • By turning the NBN into a political football, Aly claimed, Australia had slipped from 30th to 60th place in global rankings on internet speeds. But as El Reg‘s Simon Sharwood points out, we have dropped down the rankings behind other countries that have been deploying fibre to the node, such as the United Kingdom, while at the same time for the majority of the Abbott-Turnbull government, NBN has mostly continued to roll out fibre-to-the-premises. The number of houses able to order FttP connections stands at 1.5 million, while the number of FttN connections stands at 303,000. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported this week that between December 2014 and December 2015, the number of Australians accessing the internet by fibre to the premises actually almost doubled from 324,000 to 645,000.
  •  As I have written before, Akamai’s rankings are used by both sides of politics to make claims about what the other side should be doing, but they aren’t actually that useful a metric. If, at the end of the rollout of the Coalition’s NBN — should the party get a second term — Australia continues to slide down the rankings or fail to move up, that would be Turnbull’s fault, but at the moment it is far too early to blame the NBN when most of the NBN is still fibre to the premises.
  • Aly blamed the time it takes for videos to buffer on Turnbull’s NBN policy. This is wrong for many reasons. Firstly, the entirety of the NBN is just one small component of the internet, and there are a number of reasons why a video might buffer. The server might be overseas, meaning the information has to travel down subsea cables that can, and often do, have connectivity issues, the customer’s ISP might not have secured enough bandwidth to allow that user to stream video while all its other customers are also streaming video, or it might be a dodgy wi-fi network in the house. There are so many factors that determine whether a video will stream live that blaming one component of the network for it is silly.

The problem with this debate in an election year is that while Labor continues to use the Akamai rankings and leaks to claim the NBN is going down the wrong path, the party is not promising a return to its nation-building fibre-to-the-premises policy after the election.

We could be less than three months from an election, and we have yet to see Labor’s NBN policy announcement, aside from simply stating “more fibre”. The party’s communications spokesperson, Jason Clare, has indicated that Labor would likely adopt FttDP (which brings fibre right up to a person’s driveway and uses the existing copper line to their house). This is technology NBN is already looking at bringing in, but is at very early stages. Labor appears to be making the most out of leaks from NBN and issues with the copper to get political mileage on Turnbull, but its likely the opposition’s own policy will also be to use copper in their NBN — just a tiny bit less.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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