Election rant 6: broadband envy

Given the flack they've copped over their alternative broadband policy, Tony Abbott and Tony Smith must be feeling gut-churning envy each time they watch industry figures and analysts gush over Labor's National Broadband Network.

Long before the battle between fibre and wireless, and longer still before the battle between Betamax and VHS, Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse waged a vicious PR battle over whether alternating current or direct current was a better electricity standard. Westinghouse, ably assisted by Nikola Tesla, won the battle, paving the way for the electricity used in every country in the world.

Abbott, a confessed non-tech-head, who is probably ruing the day he agreed to back such an anaemic, ineffectual policy as that proffered by the Coalition. Abbott and Smith call Labor's NBN a white elephant, but they have chosen to fight it with a herring.

The response of a bitter, disappointed and no doubt rather envious Edison was to demonstrate how high-voltage AC power can be used to kill animals — and, later, to promote an AC-powered Westinghouse electric chair when it came into fashion in the late 1880s. This novel method of punishment revolutionised the act of killing prisoners, but AC still became the world standard, to Edison's chagrin.

Stephen Conroy likes to compare the NBN's current position with that of early electricity decision-makers, who knew at that point only that electricity could provide light without candles; they had no idea that widespread availability of electricity would lead to the invention of refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, computers or even the George Foreman Lean Mean Fat-Reducing Grilling Machine. In a similar way, we don't know what the NBN will enable until fast communications is as ubiquitous as electricity and people start to run with it.

There is, however, another aspect to our big NBN battle that's more comparable to the Edison-Westinghouse fight. Based on the defensive stance the Coalition has taken since launching its alternative broadband policy just over a week ago, I'd say that Tony Abbott and Tony Smith are suffering the same sort of hurt pride that drove Thomas Edison to promote the AC-powered electric chair: by repeating the words "pink batts" and the figure $43 billion over and over again, they hope to poison the NBN project and taint it by association.

If they weren't taking the moral and economic high road, an Edison-esque response would be to set up a pornographic and file-sharing website and serve up helpings of high-def hedonism to prove that the NBN really is, as some critics argue, only about faster access to porn and pirated movies.

Of course, that won't happen — although it would be, among other things, amusing. Yet I would suggest that not only are the Coalition fighting wounded, but that they are even envious of Labor when it comes to broadband policy.

An Edison-esque response would be to set up a pornographic and file-sharing website, then serve up helpings of high-def hedonism to prove that Labor's NBN is only about faster access to porn and pirated movies.

They'll deny it, of course. However, the almost universal backlash against the Coalition's policy can't have gone unnoticed even by Abbott, a confessed non-tech-head, who is probably ruing the day he agreed to back such an anaemic, ineffectual policy as that proffered by the Coalition. Abbott and Smith call Labor's NBN a white elephant, but they have chosen to fight it with a herring.

Abbott, I'm sure, did not expect the NBN to become such a prominent policy of such great importance to so many, or he would never have come out so bluntly against it from such an early stage. With the stage set long ago, however, the closing days of the election have escalated the NBN's role as a major point of difference between the parties. Yet it doesn't even rate in Abbott's four highest priorities, as determined by his ads. Given the nature of his plan, how could it?

Surely, he envies Labor's position of having a working network that is, despite attempts to paint it otherwise, going from strength to strength. He must envy Julia Gillard, who has only been leading her party for a few months longer than Abbott has led the Liberals, and can show up and bask in geek adulation as she pushes the button to launch broadband. News that the Tasmanian NBN has come in on time and 10 per cent under budget only serves to twist the broadband policy knife, again and again. (Of course, she's had practice twisting the knife; but so has Abbott, so they cancel each other out on that point).

Surely, Abbott is wishing around about now that he had pursued a more moderate approach — perhaps breaking the NBN into regional and metropolitan components to focus a fibre backbone on areas of need; or, perhaps, fast-tracking the roll-out of Ka-band satellite services across the country as a stopgap measure, while steadily filling out the fibre footprint as budgets and political desire willed it.

The Coalition could even have come off looking better had it resurrected the $4.7 billion fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) roll-out of the type that was in vogue when Howard lost the last election. Yes, if Abbott had opposed Labor's NBN rather than the fibre NBN most people seem to agree we need, he could have come off as a far more proactive, productive leader rather than an uninformed Luddite.

Yes, I'm sure even Tony Smith envies the way his cocksure counterpart, Stephen Conroy, can ride the momentum of the NBN he has facilitated.

Of course, as the Liberals are in the Opposition, it's their job to, well, oppose. They needed a telecommunications policy that was different from Labor's, and they, erroneously, focused on fibre. That led to the official decision to fight a fibre-based NBN even though industry groups and many expert analyses have suggested that a better approach might have been to support it and argue that a coalition could build it better and more cheaply. Instead, they started from the ground up and allocated only as little money to broadband as they could possibly do, and most of that won't even flow until after Abbott is re-elected in 2014.

Not only is Abbott arguing that the Coalition can regulate the telecommunications industry and build a cut-priced NBN that's better than Labor's, but he has convinced himself that giving the private sector a minimalist backhaul network, then adopting a hands-off approach that leaves them to build out the rest of the NBN and the entire industry, is going to somehow fill in the gaps left by the previous Coalition's policies. This is blind faith of the tooth-fairy order, and the whole industry seems to know this.

Even Tony Smith seems to know this: whenever he's questioned about a shortcoming of the Coalition's policy, he retreats into his warm cocoon, where the big, anonymous "private sector" will magically decide to roll out fast broadband to places it has never been able to justify doing so in the past. One can almost imagine distracting carnival music playing in his head as he waits for the interview to be mercifully over.

Yes, I'm sure even Tony Smith envies the way his cocksure counterpart, Stephen Conroy, can ride the momentum of the NBN he has facilitated, and has done what I have previously argued is all that he needed to do: get live services in Tasmania before the election so Julia Gillard can drop in on gushing customers and get great photo ops launching new services. When Conroy says the Tasmanian NBN is on time, all he means is that it's live before the election.

Abbott can't help but envy all of this, because it's feel-good stuff that screams "progress". The Coalition, on the other hand, faces the unenviable position of arguing against progress — and pitching watered-down policies that aren't really that different from those espoused by Labor. The Coalition will axe Labor's computers-in-schools expenditure, for example, but has announced it will provide $120 million for — wait for it — computers in schools. Or, if the schools prefer, glowing USB Christmas trees for every student; it's up to their discretion. Then the Coalition took a wait-there's-more approach to Labor's parental-leave scheme, dramatically extending its duration (and boosting its cost) but offering basically more of the same.

The Coalition will axe Labor's computers-in-schools expenditure, for example, but has announced it will provide $120 million for — wait for it — computers in schools.

The Coalition likes to tout its healthcare prowess, but its NBN model cannot even support a model like Labor's $392 million remote telehealth package. Even in terms of its Telstra legislation, the Coalition has been hugely uncreative: its suggested reform is basically a large helping of I'll-have-what-she's-having, bar that pesky provision about resolving Telstra's separation issues once and for all.

He won't say it publicly, but the NBN — and every issue around it — surely has become a millstone around Tony Abbott's neck. He must surely envy the calm, assured confidence and the position of technological strength from which Labor is operating to build an NBN that will be the envy of the world. However, the Coalition's blind quest to discount Labor's policies has made its own communications platform the envy of no one.

This is part of a series of seven election rants, one for each deadly sin, aired each business day until the big day. Renai LeMay is writing a reply to each of the rants, playing devil's advocate.

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