Turnbull's NBN confusion softens Libs' case

Summary:I'm all for a healthy and robust opposition that works to keep the NBN roll-out on the straight and narrow. Yet, while Malcolm Turnbull looks healthy enough, his latest opposition to the NBN has been far from robust.

I'm all for a healthy and robust opposition that works to keep the National Broadband Network (NBN) roll-out on the straight and narrow. Yet, while Malcolm Turnbull looks healthy enough, his latest opposition to the NBN has been far from robust.

This became hugely evident in Turnbull's response to Tasmanian Premier David Bartlett's decision to mandate connections to the NBN. "I don't understand his reasoning," The Australian reported Turnbull saying on talkback radio soon afterwards. "This is basically designed to make sure that every house is connected to it. If consumers want a fixed line for telephones or internet access they are going to have to use NBN's line, like it or not."

Surely this cannot come as a surprise to the opposition; Stephen Conroy has made it very clear that this is the NBN's design premise. He even went to the trouble to negotiate an $11 billion payout for Telstra to make sure it happens, and he was rumoured to be working on a similar deal with Optus. Yet if you're still unsure about the NBN's design parameters — as Turnbull seems to be — watch even just the first 12 seconds of this video, which was shot after Conroy's July AIIA speech in the lead-up to the federal election.

"What you've got to remember is that Telstra signed a deal to close the copper network down," Conroy said. "So take-up isn't an issue. We will have 100 per cent of all fixed line customers using the NBN. It's not an issue any more, the take-up."

Turnbull has repeatedly attacked the idea that the NBN will substitute one monopoly for another, and seems to believe that forcing people onto the NBN will limit their choice of providers in an act of "compulsion". But this is not true: while some people have the option of Telstra or Optus' hybrid-fire coaxial (HFC) networks, they only reach around one-quarter of the country's homes — and zero per cent of Tasmanian homes. Neither Telstra nor Optus rolled out HFC on the Apple Isle, and they never will. In fact, Tasmania — like most of the rest of the country outside Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, the Gold Coast and a few pockets in the ACT and country Victoria — simply has no fixed-line alternative to Telstra.

And what happens when Telstra's copper network is decommissioned? Turnbull argues that forcing people onto the NBN will restrict consumer choice, but it's actually the only way to ensure Tasmanians can retain fixed services given the apparent fate of Telstra's copper loop. If NBN connections aren't mandated, households that aren't connected to the NBN will have absolutely no fixed-line service at all, once Telstra's copper network is decommissioned. Turnbull's opposition is thus as tenable as telling residents of rural towns they don't need TVs capable of receiving digital TV signals.

The fixed line really isn't the place for telecoms competition; rather, it's a vehicle for lock-in and market abuse. Under the current Telstra regime, most consumers don't really have any choice now about which infrastructure they use to connect to the internet. Sure, they can go all revolutionary and commit themselves to the living hell that is wireless broadband, but even then their dwellings still have a copper connection to Telstra's network. And if they want fixed broadband, they'll be using it.

Telstra will still have customers, as will Optus; the only difference is that they'll be handled by a retail organisation forced to play by the same rules as all of its 600-plus competitors.

How can Turnbull say customers won't be able to choose Telstra if the NBN is in place? Telstra will still have customers, as will Optus; the only difference is that they'll be handled by a retail organisation that's forced to play by the same rules as all of its 600-plus competitors. And, by the way, customers anywhere in Australia will be able to choose any ISP, telephony and pay TV provider they want — regardless of whether they happen to live somewhere that provider has rolled out its network. If that's not better competition, I'm not sure what is.

Much of Turnbull's opposition stems from his initial assertion that the NBN is a private company rather than a government-supported infrastructure provider that has been set up to provide the level playing field that 13 years of (coalition-dominated) private-sector competition has failed to do. In reality, the NBN's ultimate fate is still up in the air: it may be privatised eventually, or it may not. In either case, it doesn't change the fact that Telstra was handed a monopoly fixed-access network and proved that it cannot be trusted to fairly administer that network for the good of the whole market (nor, I should add, should it have been expected to).

If the Coalition wants to attack the NBN on financial grounds, it's more than welcome to; there are certainly questions to be answered and issues to be addressed. But going on radio to say that he doesn't understand what is a clear and rational policy move, discredits Turnbull's case and suggests that he is only willing to fight battles based on his own terms of engagement. The NBN has always been about all the things Turnbull says it is — yet while he says them pejoratively (and, in some cases, incorrectly), the rest of the industry is saying them with an undertone of hope.

Then, there are the blatant falsehoods — such as his radio comment that homeowners face additional costs to wire their homes to take advantage of the NBN. This is a flat-out lie that either shows Turnbull will stop at nothing to scare homeowners off the network — as The Australian did when it ran a similarly incorrect front-page story the day before the election — or that he bought this furphy hook, line and sinker. There's no reason that homeowners would need to wire up their entire homes when connecting to the NBN. After all, if you sign up for cable-modem internet, or for Foxtel, or even for a Telstra local line, you already have a service person who comes to your house and makes sure everything is set up correctly; this includes the wiring of additional access points as necessary.

If you sign up for cable-modem internet, or for Foxtel, or even for a Telstra local line, you already have a service person who comes to your house and makes sure everything is set up correctly; this includes the wiring of additional access points as necessary.

Tasmanians, and everyone else, can expect the same thing when they get actual services connected over their NBN connections. Sure, they may need to pay for it, but that's no different to the situation now. Installation fees have long been an accepted part of setting up a new service, and that's not going to change just because your internet or pay TV are carried over the NBN. Indeed, installation costs may even be lower since residents won't have to pay for the last 20 metres between the kerb and their home, as they currently do with Telstra and Optus HFC connections.

Turnbull has been tasked with stirring up dissent about the NBN, but when he fervently repeats arguments that are baseless supposition or simply inaccurate — well, that can't really help the Coalition's credibility, can it? The NBN is, after all, going ahead, and if the Opposition wants to complete its real role in this government, it needs to stop spreading easily repudiated misinformation and focus on getting some hard facts with which to attack Labor. And if those facts aren't available, perhaps Turnbull needs to stop trying to stop the NBN, and focus on making sure it's done correctly — rather than not done at all.

What did you think of the opt-out announcement? And do you agree with Turnbull's NBN angles of attack?

Topics: Broadband, Government, Government : AU, NBN

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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