Anti-NBN policy proves Abbott's Luddism

Anti-NBN policy proves Abbott's Luddism

Summary: Howard-era comms minister Richard Alston was famously labelled as an ICT Luddite — but Tony Abbott's anti-NBN campaigning suggests Alston wasn't alone. Yet as details of Abbott's alternative policy become clear and pushes many voters towards Labor, it appears Abbott may want to reconsider his position if he actually wants to win the election.


If there was ever anything worse than Tony Abbott's promise to axe the NBN, it was the details of the wireless-only plan that has reportedly become the sum total of the Liberal Party's thinking on communications infrastructure. If elected, Abbott will axe NBN Co and its forward-looking fibre roll-out for a $1.9 billion nationwide network of wireless and satellite services based largely on the once-promising Opel project — and, at the same time, confirm his status as the Liberal Party's biggest Luddite since Richard Alston.

Alston and Abbott

Separated at birth, or just joined in policy? Abbott's fear of fibre puts him in questionable company — and could cost him the election(Richard Alston image by DAEaton, CC BY-SA 3.0/
Tony Abbott's Office)

The WiMax-based Opel promise of 12Mbps access may once have seemed like a lot, but in the harsh light of reality — and three years' progress, around the world, towards fibre-optic networking — it can now not be regarded as anything more than an anachronism. Steamrolling towards a wireless-based policy would make a mockery of Abbott's claims that the NBN is a risky proposition. Wireless should rightly be a complement to a robust fixed network, not a replacement for it — and there are no WiMax deployments globally having the size and scale that would be required for such a plan. Even Intel, a long-time backer of WiMax, is causing controversy after closing a WiMax program office in Taiwan, where a government-Intel partnership has produced the world's only near-nationwide WiMax roll-out.

The other option is Long Term Evolution (LTE), an emerging wireless technology that is showing great promise in delivering robust speeds over long distances and in the 1800MHz spectrum. However, Abbott can hardly claim he is risk-averse by jumping on the bandwagon of LTE, a technology that has only been commercially deployed in a handful of places, and never at the kind of scale that would be required for an Australia-wide roll-out. Sure, we have news this week that a privately-backed US$7 billion LTE network to be built by Nokia Siemens will apparently cover 92 per cent of the US population by 2015 — but that's so speculative as to be laughable if it's used to support an Opel-styled policy.

Abbott can hardly claim he is risk-averse by jumping on the bandwagon of LTE, a technology that has only been commercially deployed in a handful of places, and never at the kind of scale that would be required for an Australia-wide roll-out.

Even fundamental issues of available bandwidth would be a problem: Stephen Conroy's pronouncement that the government will reserve 126MHz of wireless spectrum for services like LTE was a major step forward — but that allocation is still years down the track. Abbott & Co. would be contesting the next election well before the spectrum was even available to start rolling out an LTE-based Opel replacement. On that schedule, Abbott's wireless alternative network would probably kick into commercial service in the 2015-2016 time frame — by which point the NBN will be substantially complete.

Notwithstanding all that, it seems wholly irresponsible to base national communications policy on a technology whose scalability and performance are inherently restricted by the laws of physics; 3G networks are already struggling to keep up with the demands of mobile services that are still only in use by about 5 per cent of Australians. Can we really expect LTE to perform effectively when it's the primary conduit into our homes?

The other two provisions of the Liberal Party's apparent policy don't offer much consolation either. Continuing the roll-out of backhaul to areas where Telstra is the monopoly provider is good policy, but it's exactly the same thing NBN Co is doing — and it would require a managing authority like NBN Co and many of the same massive construction contracts for which Abbott has been so loudly criticising Labor.

The third plank involves an increase in the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission's (ACCC) ability to quickly resolve disputes — a nod towards the chronic problems Telstra competitors have had in dealing with the telecommunications giant. Suggesting that the ACCC is the medium to encourage competition in the sector, however, carries with it the implicit suggestion that the Coalition's policy will return Telstra to a position of primacy in determining Australia's telecommunications direction. Heck, we already know Abbott will rip up whatever tentative deal Labor has managed to nail down with Telstra.

And why didn't the Coalition empower the ACCC during its previous 11 years of governing? Surely, there was more than enough time to make it happen, and save the entire industry a great deal of heartache in the process. If greater ACCC powers are being spruiked as a progressive policy, Abbott is kidding himself and letting down his party. Not even Telstra is counting on continuing to enjoy the kind of market power it once had — but it appears an Abbott victory would bring the entire industry back to the bad old days.

It's interesting to see the fallout as industry stakeholders gradually come to grip with just how bad the Coalition's alternative telecommunications policy is. Abbott has not committed to backing down on other contentious Labor policies, like the filter or the still-vague internet monitoring provisions, but his blatant opposition to the NBN has confused financial responsibility and bald-faced Luddism.

If greater ACCC powers are being spruiked as a progressive policy, Abbott is kidding himself and letting down his party. Not even Telstra is counting on continuing to enjoy the kind of market power it once had .... [Think of the] National Party, which promotes rural interests and may struggle to justify Abbott's bloody-minded determination to return the bush to the horrors of the Howard administration's rural infrastructure policies.

Abbott's policy certainly isn't winning the Liberals any votes: NSW Rural Affairs Minister Steve Whan came out this week arguing that he was "quite shocked" by the promise to ditch the network and that "any decision to ditch the NBN should be seen, and will be, as a huge blow to regional NSW and the potential of regional communities for economic development".

That's hardly going to augur well in the heartland of the National Party, which promotes rural interests and may struggle to justify Abbott's bloody-minded determination to return the bush to the horrors of the Howard administration's rural infrastructure policies. With early adopters crowing about their NBN connections, the network has already been pulled out as a key election issue in Tasmania, and ICT industry body the AIIA came out this week saying that Abbott's policies will basically see anybody involved in the IT industry voting for Labor.

"The current policy position of the Opposition doesn't recognise the critical position that the Digital Economy will play in the future," Birks told ARN. "The key issue is to understand the role technology has in underpinning a better society and economy and the Opposition doesn't really have that clearly as their platform at the moment."

They say you are the company you keep; if this is true, I'm sure most of us would prefer to be in the boat with countries like Japan, whose broadband leadership has long been unquestioned and with which Mike Quigley has reportedly secured some sort of agreement about broadband future. Fibre to the home has become a linchpin of economic development around the world, and Abbott is doing himself and his country a disservice by suggesting that anything less will be enough to suit our communications needs in the long term. If he thinks the Australian public doesn't care about the NBN and will buy into his claims that axing it is a step forward for financial prudence — and that the business community will sit idly by to limit their communications possibilities — all signs are that he's got another thing coming.

Topics: NBN, Broadband, Government AU


Australia’s first-world economy relies on first-rate IT and telecommunications innovation. David Braue, an award-winning IT journalist and former Macworld editor, covers its challenges, successes and lessons learned as it uses ICT to assert its leadership in the developing Asia-Pacific region – and strengthen its reputation on the world stage.

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  • Oh I hope, I pray, that this Luddite does NOT win the election!

    Vote for Labor, and you get 100Mbps Fibre 93%, 12Mbps Wireless and satellite 7%
    Vote for Liberal, and you get 12Mbps Wireless and satellite 100%, which will be obsolete in 5 years' time. Hmmmm, I'm gonna have to think for a minute....
  • RL no reflection on David's thoughts but you really did forget to mention the censorship on the Internet.
  • The suggestion that wireless broadband is a bad thing is ridiculous - it is the future of communications. Just look at the ABS statistics ... wireless broadband adoption is exploding and fixed broadband is stagnating and will probably start going backwards in 2010. The NBN is not going to change people's preference for 'mobility' and therefore the NBN is very much in danger of becoming a white elephant. If anything we need a "wholesale-only" 3G/4G network so we can increase competition amongst the mobile networks.
  • Hi Syd, like RL, you really did forget to mention censorship on Telstra Exchange...

    Here -
  • In a world where we have cash to burn, then fibre to every house would be nice. In the current environment the rollout of fibre by Government to the country is insanity. What is the cost per household, who needs all of this extra bandwidth just to go to facebook. Private enterprise was managing this why does the government feel its got to fix it. While the government is putting in this wonderful superhighway who is upgrading the rest of the infrastructure to be able to download using it. The internet is not the problem with much of my surfing its the overseas links the end destination servers, and how fast I can type, etc.. So I can download a movie in 2minutes, is this to encourage ecommerce or greater piracy. There is also the issue of what happens when bot nets running around on fibre start generate serious traffic, that could not only run up someones bill very very quickly but cause hugh congestion and Denial of Service attacks. And lastly $48b is the starting price, how many government programs or initiatives have ever come in on budget, this is already looking like a consultants buffet. So if this solution goes Myki on us are we prepared to say spending $500b for faster downloads was worth it. Oh by the way with the government filtering to be reintroduced next year (after the election) a whole lot of things you may have wanted to access or download will just not be available.
  • I'm not sure that's exactly what I said. Wireless broadband is an excellent thing but it is not capable of carrying all the communications that are now being carried over fibre-optic networks.

    Remember that although it gets a lot of the high-profile discussion, home use of the NBN is only one of many uses for the network. Consider how many businesses in poorly-serviced areas are currently struggling because they cannot get a decent Internet connection into their premises.

    Wireless may provide mobility but it's not reliable enough, or fast enough, to stand in as a perfect substitute for fibre. Experience with 3G has shown that wireless is susceptible to great variations in service quality and availability, which are simply unacceptable for a fundamental piece of network infrastructure. Remember also that all this wireless broadband doesn't just magically get carried through the air to its destination; it is relayed through wireless base stations onto terrestrial fibre networks to be carried the bulk of the way to its destination; even if the recipient is also wireless, the data spends most of its time on a fibre network like the one being built by NBN Co. If you think mobile carriers Telstra, Optus, and Vodafone won't be relying on the NBN's network to complement their own wireless backhaul as they extend their mobile networks, you're not considering the whole picture.

    The need for mobility is an easy shot at the NBN but if you think about it, wireless is only a complement, not a replacement, for fixed communications. As long as people live in houses, work in offices, and demand mobile communications, there is going to be a need for fixed communications and fibre infrastructure.
  • @cashtoburn spoken like a true Liberal zealot.

    All this talk of debt and anyone might be led to believe that the country's finances are in peril. Last time I heard, it was about $65b in public federal debt, ask Japan about their $US11,000b debt and see what they say!

    The cost of the NBN will only go up with every year that it is delayed as it is not the cost of the fibre or networking equipment that make up the bulk of the cost but the labour of the people to lay it (or string up).

    $43b-ish over 8 years is a small figure!! We spend $20b-ish/year on defence alone.

    International links are built based upon investment returns and usage, as more people use the NBN and (presumably) the international links do become more congested then there will be clear business case for consortiums to build more links.

    Please try to be better informed.
  • Aah Cashtoburn appears to be another Liberal luddite who wants us to return to the dark ages.
    Under the previous Howard government , the Liberal Party proved it has absolutely no clue when it come to IT. Alston, Minchin, Coonan all exposed their complete and utter ignorance time and time again. In 10 years og government they did absolutely nothing.
    Cashtoburn only talks about his own private web surfing.
    That is not what the NBN is about.
    The NBN will finally bring usable internet speeds to the thousands of country businesses and farmers who currently pay through the nose for the most appalling speeds and level of service. City and near city businesses will also be huge users of thre NBN.

    Labor is not much better when it comes to IT. The NBN is the only thing they have got right. Conroy's maniacal pursuit of a mandatory censorship filter and his and his clangers like "spams and scams coming through the portal" prove he also has no clue. He likes to take credit for the NBN but I believe it was others in Labor who really ensured the NBN got off the ground.
    The level of IT and telecomms ignorance on both sides of politics is truly scary, and is a real threat to Australia's future prosperity.
    The only politician who has made any sense at all in recent times in regards to IT/telecomms is Kate Lundy. Hopefully she will be the Minister in charge of IT/telecomms after the election.
  • There is another flavour of wireless broadband that is easily fast and reliable enough to carry the backhaul requirements of 3G/4G/LTE networks of the future (and businesses for that matter) - 'fixed wireless' or point to point microwave. It is also highly reliable and not susceptible to the variations in performance that has hampered 'mobile' wireless networks. It can also be deployed rapidly without digging up the street at great expense.

    In fact a very large percentage of the mobile network base stations in Australia (and the rest of the world for that matter) are connected using microwave backhaul and the carriers are busily upgrading these backhaul links today at a fraction of the cost of deploying greenfields fibre. Point to point microwave links can easily deliver 500-1000Mbps capacity today with 10GigE capacity only a couple of years away.

    Having said that I completely agree with you that fibre is critically important as a long-haul backhaul technology - unfortunately only a small percentage of the $43bn NBN budget is being spent on this with the majority of the money going in to connecting homes which will then be competing with wireless networks for customers and history has shown us which technology will win that battle. More money should be spent on competitive fibre backhaul to regional towns and centres and less on overbuilding the HFC & ADSL2+ networks, IMHO.
  • It's all very well sheeting this Luddite nonsense back to Tony Abbott. But what about the nodding donkeys who stand in the background supporting his Taliban like attitude to technology generally including on issues like eHealth? A recent 7.30 report showed an early version of eHealth working in remote aboriginal communities already but that is far too advanced for the rest of us.
  • I had telstras fibre optics 20 years ago folks and it was a dismal failure. Every time the power went out the phone cut out. Business stopped during the black outs we had and that was just the start of it. Then the line got noisy and I could hear the neighbours. Why the hell do you think Telstra opted not to go with it? Duuuh, you trade union lawyers.