Liberal's 'internet pioneer' misjudging NBN complexity

Summary:Malcolm Turnbull may have put his fingers in his ears as difficult FttN questions piled up this week, but if elected, will he really be up to the challenges they present?

After NBN CEO Mike Quigley complicated things for Labor last week, so many things went wrong for the Coalition's alternative NBN plan this week. So Malcolm Turnbull can probably be forgiven for completely failing to mention how he's going to handle what would be one of the great early challenges of a Coalition government: gutting NBN Co, then finding enough other skilled telecommunications engineers to re-staff the place and get them up to speed quickly enough so that they'll be able to complete the rollout in the 2.5 years he's promised .

It's a big ask, but one that must surely be on the cards: Turnbull, after all, has dedicated a large part of his NBN counter-argument to maligning the management and staff of NBN Co for their failure to implement FttP quickly enough. And while objective measures suggest that the company is certainly nowhere near rolling out connections at the speed it needs, the real — and still unanswered — question is, how is Turnbull going to get NBN Co to do any better?

Surely he doesn't expect to take office, be sworn in as communications minister, deliver one rousing pep talk, and inspire these apparent technological laggards to up their game in a way that never occurred to them over the past four years. Or maybe he does; he's already promised no immediate changes at NBN Co.

But how can this be? If he's prepared to trash the progress of NBN Co's rollout, as he has been, surely that lack of speed is the fault of NBN Co's staff. And if those staff are so incompetent at FttP, how are they going to suddenly be motivated to shift into top gear to meet the Coalition's timetable?

OzEmail, a dial-up ISP, was not fundamentally an infrastructure play, but was established and relied completely on Telstra's copper network; it was a completely different proposition than the NBN — which is not about the internet at all.

It seems that Turnbull will need to instruct NBN Co to get rid of most of those staff, find suitable replacements, then train them up — all the while dealing with the devastating blow to NBN Co's morale and its inevitable effects on productivity.

He might find some support from Telstra, who's skilled copper-maintenance workforce will be steadily looking for new work under the company's agreement with NBN Co. Yet, as Telstra CEO David Thodey has made painfully clear to the Coalition, Turnbull isn't going to be able to reduce the government's payment to the company — only to renegotiate it so that the Australian taxpayers basically gets less value for money than they will under the current arrangement.

Amazingly, Turnbull has remained unfazed by Thodey's proclamation, suggesting that there is enough flexibility within the deal that "we can use their copper, we can do fibre-to-the-node rather than fibre-to-the-premise, as long as Telstra shareholders are not worse off financially, and that is very manageable".

Exactly how it's manageable, of course, would be nice to know. Apart from certain backhaul access, NBN Co's contract with Telstra is predominantly around access to ducts — not the company's actual copper network. If FttN is ever to work, the Coalition will need unfettered access to use — not just look at — Telstra's entire network.

For Turnbull to suggest that Thodey will happily commit years more to renegotiating a signed contract, just because he asks nicely, is really the height of optimism. If he wants the public to take his case seriously, that he can make it happen — and do it quickly enough to complete a nationwide FttN rollout by 2016 — he needs to provide more detail about what he actually expects to do, both with regards to the NBN skills crunch and Telstra.

He may also want to find a way to reconcile his position vis-à-vis France, which has come down as a major investor in FttP and supporter of Labor's NBN .

"We had the same debate in France," French Minister Fleur Pellerin said. "Should we do some more [xDSL] vectoring because it is cheaper? Maybe today we don't realise what kind of speed our citizens will need in the mid-term ... It is a very good investment to choose the best long-term technology."

The difficult situation in which Turnbull finds his rhetoric is, of course, compounded by his previous investment in French FttP and his claims that Australia's tech media are incompetent for ignoring what's happening overseas. Now imagine him as communications minister, trying to convince the country to ignore what's happening in France and that FttN is actually better for Australia.

For all his well-regarded intellect and business expertise, Turnbull will be a greenhorned novice when it comes forcing the government's revised position ... It took a bulldog with the stubborn tenacity and focus of Stephen Conroy to wrestle Telstra to the ground, but Turnbull's wink-wink-nudge-nudge camaraderie with Telstra could make him a lame duck when the rubber hits the road.

There may be a deeper, so-far unspoken problem here: although Tony Abbott has previously referred to Turnbull as an internet pioneer because of his experience in establishing OzEmail, Abbott is ignoring two simple facts.

The first is that OzEmail, a dial-up ISP, was not fundamentally an infrastructure play, but was established and relied completely on Telstra's copper network; it was therefore a completely different proposition than the NBN — which is not about the internet at all, but about modernising Australia's telecommunications and regulatory environments.

The second is that Turnbull has never acted as communications minister before: in other words, he has not been engaged in the deep, heated negotiations and technical nuance that comes with the role. For all his well-regarded intellect and business expertise, Turnbull will be a greenhorned novice when it comes forcing the government's revised position onto Telstra, which has absolutely no requirement to listen to him.

It took a bulldog with the stubborn tenacity and focus of Stephen Conroy to wrestle Telstra to the ground, but Turnbull's wink-wink-nudge-nudge camaraderie with Telstra could make him an absolute lame duck when the rubber hits the road. As opposed to his current role in opposition, there's a lot more to being communications minister than giving narky speeches that trash the opposition with baseless, inaccurate, or selectively correct proclamations.

This is the reality of Turnbull's position, but one that doesn't sound like he has particularly entertained in the lead-up to the election. He is so focused on discrediting Labor's rollout — which, slow as it may be, is in fact real and proceeding — that he has utterly failed to convince anybody that his alternative plan will work at all. When presented with entirely valid points about the obstacles in front of them, he simply shrugs them off as though they were irrelevant.

History has shown that this is not necessarily a formula for success: Coalition governments in Queensland, NSW, and Victoria have worked much the same way: they were so eager to be elected that they forgot to mention to the populace that their much-vaunted fiscal propriety would involve sacking thousands of the same people that had voted for them. The record-low approval ratings for Queensland's Campbell Newman and the disastrous end to the career of Victoria's Ted Baillieu showed just how well things turn out when the Coalition focuses more on the target than the road to get there.

If Turnbull cannot start putting more substance behind his NBN politicking, he may traipse into office to find a lynch mob carrying burning torches — and no bucket of water to be found anywhere. It could be an ignominious end for the Coalition's putative "internet pioneer" — and the beginning of the end for the kind of NBN that even France wants.

What do you think? Is Turnbull right to ignore the details? Or is he writing a political cheque that he won't be able to honour?

Topics: NBN, Australia, Government : AU

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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