OPINION: Opposition’s lack of vision for broadband

Fibre optic cable being layed in the Canberra suburb of Gungahlin this week. Photo: Alex EllinghausenTHERE is not much new in the opposition’s NBN policy.
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Critical details on how it will achieve a cheaper outcome even at lower prices remains a big question. The roll-out of FTTN (maintaining the old copper network) is increasingly becoming a less-favourable option.

With the ageing of the copper network, that problem will only increase. Working with an old network means that you will come across many ‘‘surprises’’ in that network that need to be fixed and that will either increase the costs or make it impossible for people to get true fast broadband in.

There are plenty of such examples in Europe and North America.

This doesn’t need to be a major problem as long as there is a policy in place that recognises and address these issues. This, however, is still missing from the opposition, nor is there any recognition of the potential technical problems that might occur.

What will be its path to eventually get everybody in the country (i.e. more than 95per cent) on a network that provides an equal opportunity for all to participate in the rapidly developing digital society and digital economy?

Also, how is it going to entice Telstra and Optus to abandon their lucrative contracts with the government?

How is it going to entice the rest of the industry in relation to the far more complex regulatory issues that will occur if we keep the old Telstra-owned copper network?

One of the most significant problems arising in Europe in relation to FTTN is how to make it an open network in relation to ensure competition (wholesale) over that infrastructure.

While the opposition indicates you can’t trust this government in relation to its NBN, why would we trust it with its plan, as there are so many elements that can cause unforseen costs as well as hard-to-resolve technological problems that could lead to a widening of the digital divide – a problem that is increasingly seen as a major issue in European and North American politics.

True, if you have $5000 or so to spend to upgrade your own infrastructure to FTTH that is fine, but broadband is now seen worldwide as essential national infrastructure and it is seen as critical for the digital economy, e-health, tele-education and so on. The opposition still fails to address and recognise these issues and to formulate its policies accordingly. The question remains why does the opposition want a NBN?

This is clear in the case of the government: it talks about nation-building, essential infrastructure, etc. While there are still many questions that need to be answered by the government, at least it has policies in place, for example, the national digital strategy.

It is good to see that the opposition indicates that eventually FTTH will be needed.

So the question remains, how will the opposition address that issue in five years?

Eventually, for social-economic reasons, all of the network will need to be upgraded in order to run a sophisticated country such as Australia. There is nothing in the opposition’s plan that addresses this issue, beyond its initial quick and cheap fix, still at a considerable cost of $20billion.

There are quite a lot of assumptions in the opposition’s plan that are easy to say but difficult to reconcile.

Looking back over the past 10 years, all internet and broadband-based services have come down in price. If you compare an internet access product that was available 10 years ago, that same product (i.e. internet access at a certain speed) has come down in price more than 200per cent.

The reality, however, is that people still spend about the same as 10 years ago but now have speeds that are 20 or 40 times faster.

The same will apply over the next 10 years. It is highly unlikely that, as the opposition suggests, prices will increase.

There is no technological reason for this to happen and secondly, the ACCC would never allow it.

So, the opposition’s projected increased costs for the NBN (if continued) is scaremongering, as such a development would run against international trends.

There are still no clear policies on the demand side of the NBN (digital productivity). If the opposition doesn’t see the NBN as a socio-economic policy, it should abandon the NBN altogether and leave it to the private sector.

You would only, as a government, intervene if you believe that this was needed for a national purpose.

As a step-one plan, it addresses some of the cheaper and faster issues but it falls short of providing a true vision for the national digital infrastructure for Australia.

Paul Budde is a telecommunications consultant.