Coalition's biggest achievement: making the NBN boring

Summary:Six months on, and there's so little excitement around the NBN that an industry conference was cancelled because there was nothing to discuss. Welcome to the Coalition's NBN: lowering expectations and rewriting history until the project is so unambitious and boring that we'd rather just watch the footy.

Six months after the Abbott government came to power, the debate around the NBN has shifted markedly and its ferocity attenuated dramatically. Labor's attempts to push a progressive and disruptive telecoms agenda, predicated on building an industry that could finally be free of Telstra's dominance, has faded into the distance as Malcolm Turnbull winds back the clock – and Australia's expectations – in a strategy that is turning the NBN into something that can only be described as... boring.

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Stephen Conroy used to paint big visions of broadband-enabled businesses, telehealth, distance education, economic growth, and so on. Today, however, years of Labor's aspirational statements about the transformative power of high-speed broadband have been replaced by a casual disdain from a government that is now focused more on completing the project cheaply, than completing it well.

Turnbull speaks little of the transformational power of broadband and instead prefers to spruik his party's NBN platform on the basis of its still-theoretical economic credentials. His  NBN may be cheaper, but there's scant discussion about what value it will provide, or why it's worth spending $41 billion to build. 

Perhaps this was always to be expected: in the Coalition's business-centric philosophy, after all, there is no room for innovation or even enablement; the government's job, as Abbott has said time and again, is to collect all our tax monies and then stay out of our way.

A government in this context cannot afford to be innovative because the spectre of a government that is both well-resourced and innovative  will simply discourage the private sector from doing anything for itself.

In moves that Turnbull must have signed off on with John Hancock-esque aplomb, NBN-related research funding and business education is on the chopping block ; Department of Communications staff have been thrust into a perverse Hunger Games scenario where they fight each other to keep their jobs; and formal enquiries will see the Coalition waste countless millions interrogating half the public service to weed out anyone who ever thought fibre was anything more than something you get from your breakfast cereal.

Ladies and gentlemen, the NBN inquisition is well and truly underway, and the revisionists are working overtime to make sure Australia's businesses and homeowners soon forget that there ever was anything resembling Labor's NBN on the table. If Labor's NBN was envisioned in glorious high-definition colour, the current alternative is a black-and-white box that you have to slap every five minutes to stop it from rolling.

The NBN's current situation is so boring that Slattery IT... had to postpone this year's NBN Realised conference... because there weren't enough interesting things to talk about....For the NBN to go from being a divisive hot-button election topic, to something that isn't even interesting enough to feed a one-day event, is a stunning turnaround and a testament to the Coalition's ability to suck the life out of the project.

The NBN's current situation is so boring that Slattery IT, an events-management company whose two previous NBN Realised conferences (eg in 2012) have previously offered interesting deep-dive content around the previous NBN, had to postpone this year's event  – originally scheduled for March 13 – because there just weren't enough interesting things to say about the NBN in its current state.

"The stakeholders of the NBN Realised Forums felt that to maintain the quality and value of the Forums it was not possible to hold them at this time," a Slattery IT spokesperson told me.

"When planning began for these events many months ago we anticipated by March 2014 there would be plenty to talk about, which does not now seem to be the case. It is hoped that these events will be rescheduled for the end of this year when there is more to talk about."

For the NBN to go from being a divisive hot-button election topic, to something that isn't even interesting enough to feed a one-day event, is a stunning turnaround and a testament to the Coalition's ability to suck the life out of the project.

While Turnbull handles the ideological cleansing, NBN Co chair Ziggy Switkowski is working overtime to set expectations suitably low.

He's already snoozing his way to a rather ho-hum rollout victory  by removing all form of aspiration from the project, and is well advanced in his efforts to hypnotise Australia's public with empty and unconvincing statements that simply beggar belief.

The pocket watch is out and swinging in front of our eyes.

No, NBN Co will not actually guarantee  the speed of the services it will deliver, despite what you thought you heard the government promise when you voted for them. 

Swish.

No, the Coalition government did not, as voters seemed to believe, promise to continue the fibre rollout in Tasmania; that part will now be played by FttN , so suffer in your jocks. Lara Giddings is gone anyway, so now you'll get the NBN you really deserve.

Swish.

No, you do not need fibre at all; the technology NBN Co uses "does not matter", Switkowski is telling us, as long as it delivers the speeds you require. Which, of course, it won't.

Swish.

Please, keep your eyes on the pocket watch. It is modern technology, you know.

Swish.

Labor's model was designed to deliver a level, consistent access mechanism that would finally undo... the rogering Telstra was giving the rest of the industry for over a decade of Coalition government. Then, as now, the party was inextricably conflicted between its free-market ideals and the vague notion it should be doing something to benefit the country.

For all its faults of execution and rollout challenges, Labor's model was designed to deliver a level, consistent access mechanism that would finally undo years of broadband neglect in rural, regional and even many urban areas. This was worthwhile given the regular rogering Telstra was giving the rest of the industry for over a decade of Coalition government. Then, as now, the party was inextricably conflicted between its free-market ideals and the vague notion it should be doing something to benefit the country.

Now, the hopes that situation would be fixed are all gone, to be replaced with the feeling that only a few residents will actually see anything resembling service improvements from a private sector that was never really interested in servicing areas outside the capital cities.

That sector still isn't interested, but it's sure as happy as ever to push for the low-hanging fruit in the cities. Those in the most distant areas wait, patiently as always, until new satellites are launched next year. Even then, the Coalition – still refusing to even grudgingly admit that it was only through Labor's foresight that the satellite impasse will ever be resolved – will no doubt consider NewSat's offer  to buy the still-unlaunched birds at what will surely be fire-sale prices.

Aspirations for the project have been slashed and its rollout complicated so much that many are now saying "why bother spending $41b for this outcome?" It is a valid question, especially given how little interest there seems to be in promoting the project as anything other than the bastard child of Kevin Rudd, Stephen Conroy and a paper napkin.

That said, there is sure to be at least some prurient excitement as the new government finds itself approaching fibre-to-the-basement (FttB) aspirant TPG  with one hand extending the hand of friendship and the other concealing a long shillelagh behind its back. Enter Optus and Telstra, which are also threatening to cut the NBN off at the knees with FttB services that will siphon a significant number of high-value customers.

The extent of the mess that Turnbull's free-market vision has created is so glaringly obvious that even The Australian – for so long, rabidly supportive of Turnbull's vision while eviscerating Labor's ambitious-if-flawed agenda – is calling him out on it. No less than the country's own Treasury is advising Turnbull to tread carefully  before allowing competitors to diminish the NBN's business case.

The result: the biggest story around the NBN is no longer the NBN – which has been buried in drudgery, ordinariness and an utter lack of vision – but, instead, on how in the world Turnbull is going to get himself out of this one without compromising everything his own party believes in.

Before long, there will be nothing left of the current NBN except the slow, quiet multi-technology rollout and the lingering, niggling feeling that we've all been had.

There will be some resolution, eventually. And, before long, there will be nothing left of the current NBN except the slow, quiet multi-technology rollout and the lingering, niggling feeling that we've all been had.

That's exactly how Turnbull wants it: slow and steady. Predictable. Unremarkable. Non-aspirational. All facilitated by a private sector that will supposedly roll over for the government in a gushing of "goodwill and spirit of openness", in Turnbull's own words.

I'm not sure whether it can really be called goodwill, since the reality is that the future of the Coalition's NBN vision rests on Telstra's largesse and the longtime monopolist has been anything but coy in demanding its pounds of flesh. Telstra wants to determine  the products NBN Co offers; will exact a nice rent  as NBN Co tries to figure out whether Turnbull's long-professed love of FttN is actually viable; and could hold up the entire NBN project at will by simply walking away from the negotiating table on the flimsiest of excuses.

Boring may well be the way Turnbull likes the NBN, and there is certainly something to be said for a rollout that just works. But we're not exactly there, since the only rollout going on right now is left over from the previous government's organisation.

As for the Coalition's part in the NBN, most of it is still utter speculation, grandstanding, and more than a few crossed fingers. With so much up in the air, Turnbull will be praying hard that the whole thing remains as boring and uneventful as he has already made it.

Swish.

What do you think? Is it OK to build a network without elucidating a vision to go along with it? Does the government have an obligation to talk up innovation as well as infrastructure? Or is the Coalition right to promote the NBN as nothing more than an incremental benefit?

Topics: NBN, Australia, Broadband, Government : AU, Telcos

About

As large as the US mainland but with a smaller population than Texas, Australia relies on ICT innovation to maintain its position as a first-world democracy and a role model for the developing Asia-Pacific region. Award-winning journalist David Braue has covered Australia’s IT and telecoms sectors since 1995 – and he’s as quick to draw le... Full Bio

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