NBN for just $2047.62 per vote

Summary:The government dumped its well-intentioned bidders and spent the day awash in adulation from an industry that suddenly felt all its Christmases had come at once. But isn't this the same government that, two weeks ago, was warning it had to ditch key election promises for lack of funding?

I'm thinking of a number from one to 10. If you guess it, I will come and clean all the windows in your house for a year. Five? No. Two? Nope. Seven, eight, one, four? Not even close. Three, six, nine? 10? Nope, that's not it either. Give up? OK, it was 14.

Yes, I know I said it was between one and 10, but I changed my mind. Oh, stop complaining. You agreed to play the game, but it's my game and I can change the rules whenever I want. Hey, where are you going? Remember, the lift stopped between floors and you can't get out until the power is back on. Want to hear a song?

This is pretty much the best way I can describe the bait-and-switch that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy and their crew have pulled on the telecoms industry and the five commercial bidders who spent millions of dollars scoping, designing and tendering for the FTTN project the government spent most of the past year saying it wanted.

Instead, the government dumped its well-intentioned bidders and spent the day awash in adulation from an industry that suddenly felt all its Christmases had come at once. Big-spending Kev's $43 billion splurge is a stroke of political gamesmanship that will both create jobs and ensure Labor remains in office at least until 2017 or so. That's $2047.62 per vote (let's pretend for a moment that every Australian can vote).

Malcolm Turnbull might as well take the next eight years off.

It was only two weeks ago that Wayne Swan ... was warning of the 'sacrifices' and 'hard choices' that would be necessary in May's budget as Labor prepared to ditch key election promises

The funny thing is that it was only two weeks ago that Wayne Swan, the guy who gets to sign the big novelty cheque (and a whole lot of real ones), was warning of the "sacrifices" and "hard choices" that would be necessary in May's budget as Labor prepared to ditch key election promises because it couldn't fund them. How can we, then, explain the extra $38.3 billion the government has suddenly found to bring broadband to every corner of Australia?

Well, it's 90 per cent of Australia's corners, actually. Those of you taking time to do the maths will note this is indeed less than the 98 per cent target that Conroy had reiterated over and over again for the past year and was repeating as recently as 13 March, in his speech at the ATUG annual conference. At that point, Conroy told the audience "the government is locked down, giving very close and careful consideration to the Panel of Experts' report on the five NBN proposals".

Hogwash. This is the same report, you must remember, that the PM told us this week had already concluded that none of the five proposals offered value for money. How do you give that conclusion "consideration"? It was only when Conroy addressed the Communications and Media Law Association, on 25 March, that he stopped throwing around that 98 per cent figure.

We can, from this change of rhetoric, infer that it was only within the past three weeks that our government decided to definitely take this plan of action, even though it received the Expert Panel's report back on 22 January.

Over the intervening months, it appears, Conroy was, um, well, how do I say this nicely? Leading us down the garden path. Telling half-truths. Keeping up appearances. You get the idea. That's because Conroy and Rudd were really hunkered down figuring out how to reverse their poor scoping decision, break the news of their backflip nicely, quell the critics and deliver a big-spending project that would fix Australian telecoms once and for all — and get them re-elected in the process.

Swinging for the stands
They certainly found it. Yet for all the excitement, media coverage, big promises and political smiles of the day, the NBN has this week been born in a shroud of double-speak that has characterised Rudd's government since it came into office.

When it comes to major telecoms investments, Labor has so far been better at cancelling projects than starting them... Conroy is 0 for 2 in the broadband stakes and doing even worse when it comes to overall policy follow-through.

Remember that one of Conroy's first acts was to cancel a viable, working digital television working group and start his own, more expensive, digital television working group. He then cancelled a viable, signed contract with Opel and replaced it with, well, nothing. He cancelled the previous government's perfectly fine NetAlert free web filter program and replaced it with a pointless blacklist-based system that won't work, and which nobody wants anyway.

Labor then launched a major tender for an FTTN network, spent months threatening drawing and quartering for any company that dared discuss the process, threw out Telstra for not following the rules of its tender, and ultimately changed its mind and also threw out all the other suppliers, who had spent millions following its rules to the letter.

When it comes to major telecommunications investments, Labor has so far been better at cancelling projects than starting them. This is a government that is just winging it as it goes. I'm not sure what his golf handicap is, but Conroy is 0 for 2 in the broadband stakes and doing even worse when it comes to overall policy follow-through.

We are now 18 months into Rudd's tenure and we have yet to see a single clod of earth turned, a single fibre-optic cable laid in the ground, a single person actually employed to deliver any sweeping broadband initiative. What Labor has given us so far is a mountain of rhetoric and an intractable inertia that has left the entire communications industry dazed and bewildered.

Its latest backflip will have at least one unintended consequence: given that the government has so far built nearly all of its telecommunications policy on shifting sands, can we really expect any company to seriously invest in Australian telecoms? And what of the companies that planned long-term investments, in good faith, around the planned FTTN roll-out? They must now go back to the drawing board and, in many cases, will be putting further infrastructure investment on permanent hiatus.

The NBN is an encouraging outcome from a flawed process. We now have promises of money — lots and lots of it — and bandwidth, also lots and lots of it. This network will indeed bring Australia out of the internet dark ages (at least within the limits of Australia's transoceanic backhaul). Fibre to the home, after all, offers both immediate and long-term performance improvements to 1Gbps and, if ever necessary, beyond. For most of the next eight years, however, you'll be stuck with the same slow ADSL or (peace be with you) dial-up connection you've struggled with for years.

Just as noteworthy is the government's commitment to regulatory reform: the terms of its yet-another regulatory review confirm that operational separation of Telstra is back on the table, as it if mattered anymore.

More on that next time. For now, I'm just happy that I can stop trying to figure out which mustard goes best with a pair of Asics.

Topics: Censorship, Broadband, Government : AU, NBN, Telcos, Telstra

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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