Turnbull's media crusade masks Libs' NBN incoherence

Turnbull's media crusade masks Libs' NBN incoherence

Summary: Turnbull is playing the man, not the ball. But the media is not his problem; his policy is the problem. And no amount of bluster will change the fact that there are serious, unanswered questions around the Coalition's alternative policy.


It must have made sense when Malcolm Turnbull wrote his speech, but I couldn't help laughing a bit as he fronted the recent CommsDay Melbourne Congress industry forum and named ABC Technology and Games editor Nick Ross, Delimiter editor Renai LeMay, and myself as some sort of journalistic axis of evil for being openly critical of his fibre-to-the-node (FttN) plan.

Malcolm Turnbull
(Credit: David Braue/ZDNet)

It wasn't the last time that Turnbull took on members of the telecoms media, who have persisted in critically evaluating his many spurious claims about FttN since he was appointed to his current role just over two years ago.

Journalists are using all available evidence to explore the merits of a party line that — while far from the disaster of the Coalition's 2010 NBN election policy — is still based around FttN and attendant challenges that Turnbull repeatedly refuses to address.

Despite repeated entreaties to do so, Turnbull has instead decided to complain, repeatedly and loudly, about the technology media — even at events that are completely unrelated to the NBN.

"Is there anyone from the technology media here, by the way, anyone?" he asked at a recent speech at an event by angel-investment fund Innovation Bay. "No? We are so let down," he continued. "Again, I'm going to complain about the media."

Complaining about the technology media has become a part-time job for Turnbull, who feeds his promise of delivering broadband faster, cheaper, and sooner to mainstream media outlets that generally lack the technical knowledge to ask him real questions about his policy.

This may fly with the likes of sympathetic radio and print personalities, but Australia's community technology journalists long ago committed to keeping the NBN fight fair and fact based. Turnbull clearly sees them as a nuisance, but I suspect that most Australians would be happy to be served by journalists that refuse to blindly accept political spin, and have the technological nous to keep both sides on their toes.

Part of this effort has been to try to get Turnbull to fill in the many blanks in his policy, but doing so has been like pulling teeth. I wrote to Turnbull's media representative after the CommsDay event to seek further comment, and have still received no reply. When Turnbull or his media representative occasionally do see fit to respond, the most politely worded emails draw curt, venomous responses.

Usually, my enquiries are met with silence. When Turnbull does deign to reply, his answers are entirely non-responsive; it took him four full months to come up with thoroughly useless answers to questions posed by industry blog Delimiter on July 30.

It's always a lot easier to talk about people who aren't in the room. But whether they are there or not doesn't make your arguments any more persuasive.

Turnbull's speeches say only a bit more; for example, his CommsDay Melbourne Congress address, in which he said that he would "rather talk about something other than the NBN," but restated his arguments for the record.

One of them related to the NBN Co-Telstra agreement that will maintain industry Universal Service Obligation (USO) payments to preserve Telstra's copper network in rural areas while the NBN transition is underway. Turnbull also argued that an FttN architecture would replace exchange-to-node copper with fibre in a move that he said would alleviate many of the line-quality problems flagged by Ross and many others.

"I have never seen this point acknowledged by the likes of David Braue, Nick Ross, Renai Le May, or the other so-called specialist commentators in this space," Turnbull said in his speech.

It's always a lot easier to talk about people who aren't in the room. But whether they are there or not doesn't make your arguments any more persuasive. After all, USO costs are nothing new; the industry has paid AU$145 million in annual USO levies for years, most heavily by Telstra, because of its relative market size.

They will also likely be there under a coalition NBN, which relies intrinsically on a working copper network. Ditto Labor's plan (PDF) , which will shift those costs to TUSMA, a new legislative body that will manage USO funds as well as paying Telstra up to AU$230 million per year to keep the copper working and provide voice services as a retailer of last resort. With NBN-era competition likely to increase the number of active telcos, each telco may end up paying less for the USO as the industry-wide revenue split readjusts itself for the NBN.

Yes, it's a 20-year commitment. But until the last copper connection is switched off, someone will be paying for the network's upkeep. This is hardly news.

Were he truly committed to proving his FttN policy correct, surely Turnbull could go to the industry to get some realistic estimates of the work involved in an FttN project, and to assemble a realistic assessment of the costs that a coalition government would face in implementing Turnbull's FttN. Surely, he could get indicative costings from the US and European carriers that he regularly floats as FttN paragons.

Yes, it's a 20-year commitment. But until the last copper connection is switched off, someone will be paying for the network's upkeep. This is hardly news.

But that seems to be too much to ask of a party seeking to be elected on the basis of policies that it repeatedly refuses to substantiate. Turnbull finds it easier to just blame the media, recently bagging the ABC's Lateline, on which he debated with Stephen Conroy, as "missing the point."

Turnbull has also attacked Ross' site as offering "relentless propaganda" in support of the NBN; blasted what he calls "partisan ideology" from "apologists for the NBN"; and labelled the tech media as "parochial," "unbelievably uninformed," and filled with NBN "cheerleaders" spouting "terribly, terribly ill-informed" commentary.

Turnbull has proven himself to be that particular type of politician who, when he has run out of defensible facts, shifts strategy and begins to target not the policy, but the people he sees as its proponents. Rather than dealing in facts and genuine debate, Turnbull is instead opting to deal in vagaries, insinuations, and character assassinations. He attacks critics who are absent, withholds crucial facts that would properly inform the debate, and is now all but refusing to engage with those who are anything but bloodthirsty enemies of Labor and its NBN.

He is playing the man, not the ball.

But the media is not his problem; his policy is the problem. And no amount of bluster will change the fact that there are serious, unanswered questions around the Coalition's alternative policy that must be answered before an expensive, technically complex change of NBN course is ordered. Without these details, by next year, the NBN will not be as big of an election issue as many believe; no, Labor's NBN will be irreversible and imminent, if only because the Coalition has not yet provided a real reason to make it otherwise.

What do you think? Is Turnbull's assessment of the media correct? Has he gained the high moral ground? Should he be providing more useful information to foster a more productive NBN debate? Or does he have the right to only release the information he wants, and only to a sympathetic media?

Topics: NBN, Government AU, Telcos


Australia’s first-world economy relies on first-rate IT and telecommunications innovation. David Braue, an award-winning IT journalist and former Macworld editor, covers its challenges, successes and lessons learned as it uses ICT to assert its leadership in the developing Asia-Pacific region – and strengthen its reputation on the world stage.

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  • +1

    Hear hear David
    • +1?

      I give it +1000. The article nailed it on every point :-)
      Hubert Cumberdale
  • Why do you bother writing this non-sense

    Your politically biased rant is disgusting. Go write this in one of fairfax media papers or Cricinfo where this claptrap non-sense will find audience. How Zdnet allows you to write this crap
    Van Der
    • Nice!

      Nice of you to contribute to the conversation with some rational counter points, instead of resorting to the weapon of the intellectually weak...a personal attack.

      Oh, hang on...that's exactly what you DID do...
      • it's artful really!

        His response is deliciously ironic given the points made by David in his article...

        In fact, I think Van Der would make an excellent Shadow Communications minister!!
  • I wouldn't take it personally...

    If the shadow communication minister can't debate the issue or policy with relevant facts in his favor, he's going to rely on misdirection, making extremely selective statements, character assassination and so fourth. It's pathetic, of course, but fairly standard practice for any politician caught between a rock and a hard place.

    The biggest disappointment (and the wider issue at play) is the Coalitions wholesale embrace of the political dysfunction in the states. Rather than come up with an alternative policy that is debated on its merits, allowing the 'stronger' policy to be implemented, it's easier to simply not have a policy at all, and sabotage your opponents policies. This will of course, end in political deadlock at the expense of the country itself, and the blame rests entirely at the feet of the party who saw this as a valid political tool.

    Turnbull's appalling behavior mentioned in the article is simply the above 'tactic' being used in the context of telecommunications policy here in Australia, encouraged by the likes of Alan Jones and the various gormless trolls on these boards who are driven for the most part by self interest, emotion over reason and skewed ideology.
  • "What do you think? Is Turnbull's assessment of the media correct? Has he gained the high moral ground?"

    Turnbull's assessment of the media is questionable. Consider that he is a member of a political party that believes the current government is not legitimate and have been very eager to take control ever since 2010. By that logic they should have their broadband policy READY TO GO. The current status of the NBN is irrelevant, Turnbull can (and does) make all the excuses he likes. We (as voters) need the relevant information to make an informed decision and so far there really has not been much meat to his "FttN/mix of technologies" "plan". His deliberate evasion of the questions posed to him has become tiresome. Of course for him this tactic has many benefits and that is all too clear in one of his rants last week with the many predictable dodges.
    Hubert Cumberdale
  • Kudo's

    Well said David
    I do not believe there actually is a policy to implement a NBN
    Abel Adamski
  • Why would he be complaining?

    Let's look at David's articles:

    Cheerleading the NBN; dismissive of competing technologies that are today delivering high speed broadband at a fraction of the cost in other markets, NBNCo failures ignored.

    Many of the above covered in talkbacks (to howls of abuse) and an opinion piece by Liberal MP Paul Fletcher in The Australian earlier in the week:


    including these gems:

    "Yet NBN Co's corporate plan, issued in December 2010, promised to pass 317,000 premises by June 30, 2012. Another comparison: in 1994, Telstra announced it would build a national hybrid fibre coax network. By June 1997, three years on, the network passed 2.1 million homes.

    NBN is doing equally badly on the number of services being delivered. There were 3867 fibre services in operation as at June 30, 2012; the corporate plan promised 137,000."


    "Total equity contributions - entirely taxpayer funded - are projected to reach $30.4bn by 2021. This is almost $3bn more than the Rudd-Gillard government had previously disclosed.

    NBN Co is splashing around money with abandon. It pays extremely generous salaries. Average remuneration cost per head was $172,000 in 2011-12, more than 50 per cent higher than the comparable figure at Telstra.

    Yet it has barely any customers and barely any revenue. It earned less than $2m from providing telecommunications services in 2011-12."

    The waste is extraordinary (at least recognised sometimes at Delimiter), the delays incomprehensible.

    I've been critical of the lack of detail in the Liberal's alternative, however they aren't in government. It isn't their program that's the disaster.

    Since Conroy announced (from opposition) Labor's $4.7b (not a cent more) NBN plan in early 2007 private investment has stalled. This has now ballooned out to a $40+b (taxpayer borrowing), $63b+ expenditure to forecast breakeven in 2021. Yet David can't find anything but the opposition (rightfully asking questions) to write about.

    Back in the realworld we continue to experience the NBN reality. 5 years of neglect, only the promise improved services in the future (NBNCo paying themselves bonuses for producing corporate plans that are laughable 2 years later).

    In other markets it is a different story. Good news everywhere, minimal taxpayer funding. David would do well to read his own site e.g. :
    Richard Flude
    • Derp is strong with this one

      Firstly, there are no "competing technologies" to fibre, there just isn't. I have detailed the inadequacies of copper technologies, on my blog & on twitter to Mal repeatedly, each are met with weasel words & no detail. Copper is just not capable of the speeds of fibre, there no arguing with that, it's physics.

      You seem to not grasp the idea of an investment, instead prefer to obfuscate reality with another Malism. Linking articles written by LNP MP's not only shows where your vote goes, but how hypocritical you are. To attempt to call a journalist partisan while in the next breath linking an MP who has no idea what he's talking about.

      The last article you linked is about the UK's broadband upgrade that was:

      1) Funded by the UK government
      2) Hijacked by BT
      3) Slammed by the house of lords for being inadequate
      4) Changed to include FTTH as BT deployed FTTN

      Not only is Mal being an idiot lately, his hypocrisy is blatantly obvious. He has investments in France Telecom which is building France's FTTH network, funded by the government, & written into law (all new connections in France must be FTTH).

      Next you'll be saying the NBN is being made to monitor our internet usage & tax file numbers are there to track us.
      • Who's saying copper is as fast as fibre?

        I'm certainly not.

        What some of us are saying is we don't need all that capacity today, suitable speeds can be attained for much less money. We cable offices with Cat6, not fibre, for the same reasons.

        "You seem to not grasp the idea of an investment, instead prefer to obfuscate reality..."

        I'm happy to put my finance knowledge up against yours.

        "...linking an MP who has no idea what he's talking about"

        What specifically do you think is wrong?

        UK's broadband upgrade was majority funded by private investment. BT was the majority successful tender becuase they were the cheapest. Please link to the House of Lords slamming;-) FTTP was always part of the options, being from nodes rather than back to exchanges.

        I presume MT's France Telecom investment is about expected returns, not underlying technology choices. The levels of government investment irrelevant to his returns unless in competition. Greenfield infrastructure in OZ is also fibre (makes sense).

        Fine strawmen finish.
        Richard Flude
        • As usual - not a clue....

          "We cable offices with Cat6, not fibre, for the same reasons."

          A pathetic and supercilious argument. Cat 6 will carry signals to a maximum of 100m. So would you like cabinets that ensure no copper tail is less than 100m?

          Typical Liberal twat.
          • A pathetic and supercilious argument?

            Fine, why do we use it then?

            Note: we're not running new copper.
            Richard Flude
          • "Fine, why do we use it then?"

            Good question. I'm asking you why do we use it? No one actually needs 1gbps over 100m do they?
            Hubert Cumberdale
          • Can I...

            I'd suggest Richard's CEO has decided his company will use Cat6 to future proof their clients. As any visionary CEO would.

            Now back to Richard the CIO (the would be.try hard CEO - d'oh) telling us FttN via obsolete copper will do, because his precious Libs say it will :/
          • Typical name-calling...

            Yay - let's advance our argument by calling people we disagree with 'twots' - classy...
        • "What some of us are saying is we don't need all that capacity today"

          What some of us are saying is the NBN is not just about today.

          "suitable speeds can be attained for much less money."

          Another "Malism". Define "suitable speeds".

          "We cable offices with Cat6, not fibre, for the same reasons."

          Cat6 is capable of 1gbps (Hint: just like the NBN) and is not limited to 50-60mbps like Turnbulls speed claims for FttN. Perhaps you could explain why cable and network adapters are capable of such speeds that are not needed in offices (you can just use a USB stick to transfer files) and remember everything you need according to Turnbull can be done on his FttN speeds so it doesn't make much sense to have 1gbps in offices at all. If you think about it such speeds would be more useful over longer distances, not short local distances.

          "I'm happy to put my finance knowledge up against yours."

          yay! armchair bean counting ftw! fiesta!

          "FTTP was always part of the options, being from nodes rather than back to exchanges."

          yep, and just more proof FttN is a waste of time and money.

          "Greenfield infrastructure in OZ is also fibre (makes sense)."

          yep, of course it makes sense. Can you tell us why? Oh wait, you already did, you practically admitted it your second sentence when you said "we don't need all that capacity today" that along with this fibre in Greenfields endorsement it implies an inevitable need for more speed, so rolling fibre out now simply "makes sense" too. Awesome, glad we got that sorted.
          Hubert Cumberdale
          • If you ignore cost & time

            But then you'd have to know finance.
            Richard Flude
          • "If you ignore cost & time"

            Tell us exactly who is ignoring cost and time here:

            FttN Cost = ~17 billion
            FttP Cost = ~43 billion

            FttN bandwidth lifespan = ~4-6 years (from 2010)
            FttP bandwidth lifespan = 20+ years (from 2010)

            FttN = Step backwards
            FttP = Step forward

            Fluddy wanting FttN network = Wrong
            NBNco building FttP network = Right

            Verdict: FttN is without a doubt a complete waste of time and money. FttP is better value for money. Safely disregard those opposed to the proper NBN plan as they are ill-informed and refuse to acknowledge time & cost issues associated with either.

            "But then you'd have to know finance."

            Go on, dance for my general amusement bean boy.
            Hubert Cumberdale
          • Correction HC

            FTTP does not cost $43 Bill, the total NBN including wireless, satellite, lease of backhaul and transits and exchange facilities and space, the posts have been shifted and apples are not being compared with apples
            Abel Adamski