Liberal's 'internet pioneer' misjudging NBN complexity

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, Government AU, Australia


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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  • Full story for once, Malcolm

    Given he is so critical of others, is Malcolm prepared to say now that he will fall on his sword (and migrate to France?) if he fails to meet his targets? RSP’s quoted “expensive” internet prices include line rental because FTTP does not need it. Will Malcolm’s broadband prices include line rental to Telstra?
  • Not sure he cares

    Unfortunately David, with the commanding lead the Coalition have in the polls currently, something tells me Mr Turnbull doesn't care if he's in for a tough time because he'll actually get to HAVE a tough time IN OFFICE.

    This Coalition are seeking power in a way I've not seen in my short lifetime of following politics. For that reason alone, as well as their BB "ideas" (not plans, because a plan involves actually doing something to organise it....) their desperation has definitely convinced me they don't deserve to be in office.

    Turnbull likely has NO hope of doing what he actually says he will. But it doesn't really matter at this point :(
    • Of course he doesn't care!

      I totally agree with seven_tech. The waffle from Turnbull is just that - hot air and bluster. They have absolutely NO intent in doing anything at all. They will - shock! horror! - claim that an audit of NBN Co shows it is so "horrendously corrupt; overspent by tens of billions of dollars and quite incapable of EVER finishing any sort of roll out" that it will be disbanded. The 'shining knight' Telstra will come to the fore - pay a pittance for the existing network that has been built with a few nebulous promises to "do something", and Abbot and cronies will claim it is the only realistic solution, and of course 'Telstra will do it faster and far, far cheaper' and they'll shrug off the resulting storm of protest. Well, news for you, turkeys - the Australian public will NOT forget!
  • Yep all good at NBNCo;-)

    "The federal government’s NBN Co is poised to take control of the national broadband network’s physical construction in the Northern Territory from the under-performing lead contractor as pressure mounts to speed up the lagging rollout."

    The farce is nearing it's end. Even gillard's attack on 457 visas not given a run.

    Conroy will be able to take the over and fix it;-)
    Richard Flude
    • Hey Fluddy that certainly is interesting, reading the article I am wondering how one could come to such an erroneous conclusion like you have, sounds like NBNco are doing the right thing after all but speaking of actual farces do you have that page number yet?
      Hubert Cumberdale
  • Theology

    "It took a bulldog with the stubborn tenacity and focus of Stephen Conroy to wrestle Telstra to the ground..." and hand them $55 billion in pre-tax payments over the next 35 years, if you include the $6.4 billion laundered through TUSMA - but don't worry, David will be the first to forget Conroy's abject surrender and blame the Liberals, or make some egregious claim about copper maintenance and neglect to mention Conroy has locked taxpayers into paying for upkeep of the most costly copper for the next twenty years.

    One can't help but think the telecoms/tech policy debate in this country would be a little more intelligent if there was a bit less religion and a lot less pouting

    that and last to admit it if , but Turnbull's wink-wink-nudge-nudge camaraderie with
    • The FUD just keeps infalting every day

      $55B now is it. It grows every day. Why not take it out a few more years and inflate it more to say $100B? And copper maintenance? Is that all? Surely there is some more news ltd fud you could squeeze in there.

      "One can't help but think the telecoms/tech policy debate in this country would be a little more intelligent if there was a bit less religion and a lot less pouting "
      Yes, it would. If people would look at the tech rather than coming up with stupid claims to push their political agenda or are you part of the tin foil hat brigade?
    • "David will be the first to forget Conroy's abject surrender and blame the Liberals"

      The 'Liberals' believe they can direct NBNco to build a network which according to them would be better than the proper NBN plan in every way. If they cant do what they claim while in office everyone including David has a right and imo a duty to call them out on it. If the coalition clowns make a mess of it (which looks likely) the blame will rest squarely on their shoulders and they should take responsibility for the waste that will inevitably result from it... don't forget their mantra "Stop the waste!!!"

      "neglect to mention Conroy has locked taxpayers into paying for upkeep of the most costly copper for the next twenty years."

      Don't worry, I'm sure in such a scenario there will be enough people neglecting to mention that they could have avoided all of that by sticking with the proper NBN plan.

      "One can't help but think the telecoms/tech policy debate in this country would be a little more intelligent if there was a bit less religion and a lot less pouting"

      Indeed. Unfortunately Abbott and his religious zoo crew chums have been pouting ever since 2010 so that really hasn't helped.
      Hubert Cumberdale
  • Gratitude

    Thanks David.
    Good Article.
  • Good article

    You are of course, absolutely right David.
    I find it bizarre that the Coalition would, (having lost the last election to the NBN) cobble together such an inferior opposing policy for 2013.

    I get that Abbott has positioned the libs in a similar way to the Republicans in the US, opposing *everything* to the detriment of the nation and a productive political system. Unfortunately, much like the Republicans, they may well find that empty promises and bellicose hyperbole actually only resonates with a small fraction of disenfranchised voters. They really are playing politics for a previous generation, and it's kind of fun watching the rug being slowly pulled out from under them.

    Abbott isn't playing the long game, and theres a whole generation of switched-on, politically aware younger voters that will never vote for the Coalition primarily because of their ridiculous NBN stance and angry, detached white businessmen don't actually resonate well with the electorate.

    If the libs think that the best way forward for the country is to oppose everything that the Gillard government does, then fine. They should be arguing that the (cost neutral, business friendly) NBN DOSEN'T GO FAR ENOUGH and that fiber to 93% of households is woefully inadequate- it should be close to 95% (or something). The point is that Abbott could continue to sabotage the political process but without alienating a generation of voters, good policy is still implemented and he gets to keep pretending Gillard is worse than Hitler. Everybody wins.

    In any case, that ship has sailed, and Turnbulls millstone will only get heavier as the NBN shapes up to be a (the?) primary election issue. He wil continue to humiliate himself and Abbott by proxy with their categorically inferior plan.

    Despite the pessimism on these boards and elsewhere, the only poll that counts is the one on election day and the Libs contempt of the NBN cost them the previous election, there is every possibility that we'll see the same thing happen again.
  • The Issue of Honesty Vs Policy

    As a potential voter, I find myself saddled with a dilemma: whether to put honesty and morality before policy.

    On the one hand, I am cranky as all heck with Julia Gillard and the Federal Labor machine for its lack of honesty. I believe that they need to be punished, and soundly. No matter what the present Labor Government does or says, they do not - cannot - deserve a vote next September. So far as I can see, to vote for them now is to condone dishonesty, and there should be no place for that in a democratic world.

    On the other hand, we have the wretched Coalition team. Abbot, Hockey and Turnbull competing to reach new moral lows in their discussion of Australia's economic and telecommunications future. Their constant use of 'mistakes', 'economical truth' and repeated untruths builds into a picture of massive and deliberate misinformation - of lies! This behaviour suggests to me that EITHER they have no real understanding of the economic or technological issues at stake, OR they are being downright, snake-in-the-grass dishonest about their intentions - or both! Morally, they are emerging as not one millimetre better than their opponents. Faced with such a choice between the political parties, how is a voter to choose?

    My problem is compounded by the fact that I do not REALLY know what the Coalition will do about the NBN if elected. They promise to reduce it to FTTN, and then build their tin-can-and-string version 'cheaper and faster'. Given their apparent shaky grasp of economics and technology, I think it most likely that the only promise they will be able to keep is to wreck the NBN - at which point I will hold them to account for breaking their word about 'better, cheaper and faster', and will then have the bleak satisfaction of voting against them at the following election.

    There is, however, a REALLY frightening possibility. Maybe, post a September Coalition victory, Turnbull might say, oh dear, so hard! - too many locked-in contracts etc - and then proceed to build the NBN exactly as Labor planned - except maybe, by accident, a little cheaper and faster. How would I feel then? He would have broken every promise he ever made, yet delivered exactly what I would have wanted.
    • Interesting

      However their lord and Master does not want competition to his media and pay TV interests, so bugger our economies future and just dream on
      Abel Adamski
    • MSM

      This might provide a bit of insight into why they don’t
    • re Honesty

      Not trying to be offensive - but how old are you?
      I admire the fact that you are weighing up both major parties to find the better option but there are really only 3 things to remember about politicians:
      1. An honest politician is one who stays bought.
      2. A politician would sell his/her Grandmother to get (re)elected.
      3. When a politicians' mouth is moving - he/she is lying.

      Keeping this in mind only really leaves Policy - see point 3 above.
      So, having disposed of both of your concerns all that is left is to look at your local politician's track record and vote accordingly. I despise the current Labor leadership but my local (Labor)member has a good track record so i will probably vote for him as the others are either unknowns or incompetent.
    • Welcome to the real world

      if you honestly think an election will change anything than you are surely mistaken...if they did, politicians would make them illegal. I remember as a child a sticker at school which said "Politicians Care". If it also included "about themselves" then it would have been honest - see they cannot even print some stickers with the truth printed on them. See Clane 3 points....about sums it up. All a wannabe politician would have to do to get my vote is actually get off his ass and door knock his electorate and introduce himself and (whether honestly or not) promise he will do his best for his area instead of paying 13 year olds day after day dropping his junk mail into my letter box.
  • Worrying

    Interesting discussion, Arafurian, but I do disagree with your last paragraph. I do not believe there is even the remotest possibility that Labor's NBN rollout will not be shut down by the LNP as soon as possible after winning government. In fact. I believe that rollouts in areas with HFC (Foxtel or Optus cable) will be stopped very quickly.

    The problem is a political party needs funds and backers who provide material support for them to be elected into power. The members used to provide this, now it's special interest groups. The leader makes agreements with people and groups which deliver money or votes, but these must be repaid. All parties do this, and I'm sure you can find examples from your last state election. In NSW Barry O'Farrell made such agreements. So, for example, the NSW Clubs' gambling taxes were reduced within months of the Libs being elected - they had campaigned against Labor and for the Libs before the election.

    So what deals have the Libs struck federally? Well, who will be the big losers from the FttP rollout?
    Given the amount of hysterical opposition to the NBN coming from Murdoch's businesses and, to a lesser extent, the commercial free-to-air broadcasters, you'd have to think cable TV and commercial FtA broadcasters.
    NBNCo is already trialling Multicasting, a process which will allow live events (sports, concerts, etc) to be broadcast efficiently over the internet with high definition. Richard Chirgwin has written about it on the ABC website. Trends in the US show Pay TV subscriptions declining and IPTV growing, and multicasting on the NBN will affect FoxSports just as badly here. Andrew Demetriou of AFL has said he is looking at how they can use the NBN to connect directly to their fans. This will cut out any need for an exclusive contract with FoxSports or the FtA stations. Just watch it on your internet-connected TV.

    Major sports, major events like The Olympics, big concerts, in fact anything live which Fox and FtA stations now tie up with exclusive deals (so they can make money out of the advertising) could be provided over the internet using a direct to subscriber model. It's already happening overseas and it will happen here if we get the NBN. It will all but destroy the value of Foxtel.

    Abbott and Turnbull have said there will be NO fibre laid in areas which have HFC. That is their promise. It's a 'Core Promise' and it will not be broken. Murdoch will hold them to it.

    What is so worrying about your last paragraph, Arafurian, is that the idea that somehow the LNP government will continue with the NBN rollout is rapidly becoming an urban myth, repeated by many wishful thinkers and strategically fed by the LNP commentariat.

    It's never been true, it's not true and it will never be true, because it can't be true.
    • Foxtel will benefit from the NBN

      In 2010, TLS shares were $2.56 when Malcolm Turnbull forecast a share price collapse of Telstra if the NBN went ahead. It went ahead, and TLS is now almost doubled to $5.00.

      Foxtel can only sell its packages where last-mile infrastructure exists, cable or satellite. When every premises has fibre (or 25 Mbps wireless or satellite), then it can sell to 100% of Australians.

      The ubiquity of the NBN is good for Foxtel's bottom line.
      • Murdoch's Foxtel bottom Line

        Would suffer badly if he permitted the Libs to continue with FTTH/P as it would then be open to competition from multiple established players & destroy his exorbitant charges for limited content cash cow.

        Oops what have I said??? I'm supposed to be posting FUD, not facts!!!
  • You're still scaring me

    I have said it before and I'll say it again, it is absolutely scary that you lot are willing to base the whole election on your desire for a fast internet connection?

    You talk about the NBN as if there are no other problems to consider before you vote for our future.

    I'm starting to get a feeling for what they mean when they talk about 'mug voters'.
    Gary O'Connor
    • Be very afraid

      Gary, the coalition was defeated over the seemingly minor issue of fixing regional communications in 2010. Their own post mortem conducted by Peter Reith shows this fact.

      Most people will vote on a range of more important issues, or their underlying political views, but there is a largeish chunk of voters for whom fixing the communications dearth matters enough to change their vote. It was this cohort which voted crossbench last time and delivered a hung result. The idiotic post-election refusal to deliver fibre by Tony Abbott then handed government to the crossbench-Labor block.

      In 2013, the NBN remains a minor issue and Labor is again on the nose. It should be another no-brainer outcome with a coalition victory.

      But even more regional voters will know what a game changer optical fibre is, and more people's expectations of bandwidth have moved up to include Smart TV support, reliable VoIP calls, Skype and cloud file storage.

      For this diverse subgroup of voters, many of them conservative in outlook, voting for a coalition candidate who would stop the NBN will be impossible, so they will vote Labor or cross bench on the day.

      The coalition will lose at least ten safe regional seats if it does not endorse Labor's NBN. This is the political reality, on raw numbers, and has nothing to do with the relative importance of policies.