By Mark A Gregory
Labor’s broadband plan includes few surprises and fulfils Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s commitment to responsibly increase the construction of fibre to the premises (FTTP). At the same time, it would ensure the completion of the National Broadband Network (NBN) is not delayed further.
It shifts the focus back to providing Australia with broadband infrastructure that would slowly arrest the country’s slide in the global broadband rankings. Importantly, this would help business compete in the global digital economy.
Under Labor’s broadband plan, NBN Co would connect an additional two million premises to the NBN with FTTP rather than the technically inferior fibre to the node (FTTN). Existing contracts for hybrid fibre-coaxial (HFC) remediation, upgrades and new construction would continue under Labor.
If elected, then according to Labor’s projections, by the time the NBN is completed in June 2022, connections to the NBN would include 21% FTTN, 39% FTTP, 34% HFC and 8% fixed wireless and satellite.
The public equity contribution to the NBN remains capped at A$29.5 billion and the total funding is capped at A$57 billion under Labor’s plan. This is A$1 billion more than NBN Co’s current projections.
Good for business and consumers
An all-fibre-access network is vital for business to compete in the global digital economy.
Labor has listened to the growing criticism that Australia has retreated from the “gigabit race”, where nations are competing to build superior broadband networks using the latest FTTP technology to support new business opportunities and innovation.
Labor has also listened to consumers who want the NBN rollout to be completed as soon as possible and preferably with the quality and reliability of FTTP.
There is a correlation between broadband quality, speed and capacity and the introduction of new business opportunities and innovation.
The entry of Netflix and other video-streaming services into the Australian market has brought about rapid growth in streaming services and a corresponding increase in data usage. This, in turn, increases revenue for service providers.
New high-bandwidth education, health, eGovernment and entertainment services, including immersive virtual reality, are being developed. These will add to the demand for gigabit broadband connections and as more consumers shift to using cloud services, the demand for faster upload speeds is increasing.
The Coalition’s plan
The key criticism of the Coalition’s broadband plan centres on the government’s failure to listen to Australian technology experts. In late 2013 and early 2014, it carried out seven reviews and audits by hand-picked teams, including consultants from Europe. The reviews went to considerable effort to provide justification for the shift to the inferior multi-technology-mix approach.
The Coalition government under Tony Abbott ignored Australian broadband technology experts. Fundamental data used in the reviews and audits have been found to be questionable, if not way off the mark.
For example, the predicted download speed figures required by consumers in 2025 that underpin the 2014 NBN cost-benefit analysis are already lower than the connection speeds available in many countries today. The growth in demand for higher connection speeds and increased capacity is not expected to abate.
The Coalition’s broadband plan has unravelled over the past two years. Significant time and cost blowouts have occurred. And, in an embarrassing move, Turnbull’s 2013 broadband plan has been removed from the Liberal Party website.
The NBN is now mentioned as part of the Liberal’s infrastructure policy. Communications Minister Mitch Fifield has criticised Labor’s plan, saying the Coalition would have “every home and business in Australia” connected to the NBN by 2020, two years ahead of Labor.
Infrastructure Australia review
In an effort to address a range of issues, Labor has announced it would commission Infrastructure Australia to investigate and provide a report that includes options on how to proceed.
The independent review would take into account the views of technology experts, consumer groups, business and the telecommunications industry.
As well as considering questions about FTTN and HFC, Infrastructure Australia would be able to consider and prioritise infrastructure needs. This includes a third NBN satellite, increased fibre capacity in regional and remote areas, and the opportunity for NBN Co to roll out a wholesale wi-fi network.
Malcolm Turnbull was the key driver of the Coalition’s NBN plan. It is time for him to look again at the time and cost blowouts that occurred during his time as the minister for communications and to consider seeking a bipartisan position with Labor.
It is vital for future jobs that Australia builds internationally competitive broadband infrastructure that will return the country to the upper echelon of global rankings. We need to do this within the next decade.
Labor’s NBN plan is positive, forward-looking and takes a pragmatic approach to ramping up the construction of FTTP, ceasing construction of FTTN and ensuring the NBN is completed with fiscal restraint and without further delay.
Mark A Gregory is a senior lecturer in the school of engineering at RMIT University