NBN debate not black and white: Turnbull

Summary:Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has lambasted Labor for painting its National Broadband Network project in do or die terms.

Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has lambasted Labor for painting its National Broadband Network project in do or die terms.

"Ultimately, Labor prefers to frame the public debate over its plan and any alternative proposals as a series of caricatures and false dichotomies," the Liberal heavyweight told the Communications Day conference in Melbourne today, according to his speaking notes released by his office.

"It's the NBN or perpetual mediocrity," Turnbull said. "Fast fibre or overcrowded wireless. Visionary nation-building versus mean-spirited penny pinching. The future versus the past."

In reality, Turnbull argued, the future of Australia's telecommunications sector was a great deal more complex than Labor was presenting it. "Reducing them to cartoons is helpful only if you are trying to avoid scrutiny," he said.

Turnbull contended that the NBN was actually a response to four separate objectives held by the government in relation to telecommunications:

  1. The need for a guaranteed level of basic access to broadband for all Australians of 12Mbps
  2. A cross-subsidy on broadband from metropolitan regions to the bush
  3. A desire for most Australians to have access to substantially higher broadband speeds than are currently available in the market to most
  4. A major change in the structure of the telecommunications market, which Telstra currently dominates as the nation's formerly monopolist telco.

However, Turnbull claimed in his speech that none of those objectives were easily resolved by the NBN policy.

For starters, he said, those under-served by broadband in the cities could more quickly receive services by removing barriers to the upgrade of ADSL equipment (DSLAMs) in telephone changes, or through wireless broadband. Building competitive backhaul connections would ensure the development of regional areas by telcos that haven't invested there due to the claimed cost of Telstra's own fibre.

On the cross-subsidy front, Turnbull argued that this would be better delivered as a direct subsidy to carriers or as a voucher system to telecommunications customers. "Both of these delivery mechanisms have the benefit of being far more transparent than the hidden cross-subsidy inherent in the currently proposed NBN wholesale pricing arrangements," he said.

On higher speeds, Turnbull said there was still debate about what the speeds would immediately be used for. Turnbull believes a faster and quicker way for the nation to receive faster speeds if needed would be to provide Telstra and Optus with the investment certainty to upgrade their hybrid-fibre coaxial cable networks to the DOCSIS 3.0 standard — delivering 100Mbps to a third of Australian homes.

And lastly, Turnbull said that if the vertical integration of Telstra (with both wholesale and retail arms) was the issue with Australia's telecommunications industry, then the solution was structural or functional separation — the NBN was overkill and would itself be a fixed-line monopoly.

Turnbull ended his speech with an impassioned call for reason in the NBN debate and reiterated his call for the government to conduct a cost-benefit analysis into the project.

"For those who cry out 'nation-building' and 'vision' when matters of finance are raised, consider this: why is subsidising the provision of a near infinite range of video and entertainment services to every Australian home more worthy than building a decent public transport system in our cities, better hospitals and roads, let alone fast trains and water infrastructure?" he asked.

Topics: Broadband, Government, Government : AU, NBN

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