Some of that ol' NBN religion

Some of that ol' NBN religion

Summary: Discussions about Australia's National Broadband Network (NBN) has long since departed the realm of rational existence to become purely symbolic--and it'll stay like that until the election in September.


In a rational world, something as important as a political party's policies for the nation's broadband infrastructure would refer to objective facts and measures.

There'd be no talk of "super-fast broadband," as if that were actually a unit of measurement. There'd be no lumping of different technologies with widely different performance characteristics under this or any other generic label. We might not necessarily go into the fine details of bonded copper pairs or GPONs versus other kinds of optical fibre distribution, but we'd at least have the decency to talk about actual upload and download speeds, about theoretical maximum speeds versus those that are likely to be obtained in real life, and maybe even about capabilities.

We might even discuss the relationship between upload speeds and download speeds, and the ability for individuals and businesses to be creators and participants in the digital economy and culture, rather than merely consumers.

Opposition communications spokesperson Malcolm Turnbull was spot on the money when he spoke on ABC Radio this morning.

"This is not a religious issue. It is a question of being business-like and getting the balance right, as I said. The problem with this debate is that it is proceeding in some quarters as a quasi-religious debate. It is not.

"This is just about business, it's about engineering and it's about balancing, as I said, the service to be delivered, the cost of delivering it, and the time that it takes to deliver."

You might think that having called for an end to "quasi-religious debate" on the NBN, Turnbull might then have offered something more than an appeal to faith. But no.

"The total cost of our project, I cannot put a dollar amount on it, but it will be much less than what Labor will spend," Turnbull said. "We will tell voters that it will cost substantially less."

Now should the Coalition win the election, as seems likely at this stage, it will indeed be very easy for them to build the NBN for "substantially less." They'll just deliver substantially less.

Their Real Solutions policy document devotes four whole bullet points to broadband policy out of 50 pages--surely an indication in itself of the priority given to digital infrastructure.

"We will, for the first time, do a fully transparent cost-benefit analysis of the National Broadband Network to find out the quickest and most cost-efficient way to upgrade broadband to all areas where services are now unavailable or sub-standard," reads the first point, before having a dig at Labor for not doing a cost-benefit analysis.

The others say that they'll roll out "super-fast broadband using whichever is the most effective and cost efficient technology" using existing infrastructure where possible; that they'll "roll it out faster to high priority areas"; and without "billions of dollars of wasteful spending" on the NBN.

But none of these hand-wavey terms are defined anywhere.

What constitutes "sub-standard" broadband? What is the standard? If it needs upgrading, to what capability will it be upgraded? What is a "high priority area"? What are the target dates?

This isn't a policy. It's empty political rhetoric.

Now this isn't intended to give the government a free kick. I've long maintained that as Australia's largest-ever infrastructure project, the NBN needs to be as open with its financial arrangements as it is with its technology plans. Wrapping things up in a government-owned company shrouded in commercial confidentiality has the potential to hide incompetence and corruption a'plenty, should there be any.

Turnbull claims that rolling out fibre to the node first and then fibre to the home later would cost less. He has a powerful argument involving opportunity costs and the relative value for money spent now versus money spent in the future. Is he right? Well, until he practises what he preaches and shows us some spreadsheets, then it's something we have to take on faith.

It is, in other words, a quasi-religious debate.

Topics: NBN, Government AU, Australia


Stilgherrian is a freelance journalist, commentator and podcaster interested in big-picture internet issues, especially security, cybercrime and hoovering up bulldust.

He studied computing science and linguistics before a wide-ranging media career and a stint at running an IT business. He can write iptables firewall rules, set a rabbit trap, clear a jam in an IBM model 026 card punch and mix a mean whiskey sour.

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  • A thought provoking article

    We technically do not have an election at this point. As Gillard is proclaiming, the true nature and term of an election will not commence until the GG issues writs for the election on 14 August (?). At this time, we have the government demanding costing and details of Coalition policies whilst at the same time saying that the election won't start until 14 August. The questions that you ask are valid, but there is little chance that any of those will be answered until after 14 August. After that, there will be precious little reason for those questions not to be answered.
    • Surely

      If the Coalition have a plan for "better, cheaper and faster broadband", as they say they have... wouldn't it be prudent to get it out now, so that all of us NBN religious nuts who are swinging to Labor and could perhaps tip the balance... can see the real light and be drawn to the Coalition's wonder plan, rather than hiding it until 1 month prior?

      Yes it would.

      So the fact we haven't seen it and probably won't tells you what?
      • So you want the Coalition to release policies now

        but you have no such requirement for any other individual or Party?

        You start with a false premis and then do nothing much to justify it. All Parties and individuals will release their policies when they are ready to do so. You will simply have to develop some self control and wait. The timing of the release of policies will be done strategically, not on a whim.

        As for the quotation:
        "better" is a highly subjective term and each person will determine whether or not the plan is better.
        "cheaper" - it is quite clear that it will be cheaper.
        "faster" - that's hard to believe given the method that will be used. The Coalition plan is highly unlikely to be faster.
        • Did we even read the same response?

          "So you want the Coalition to release policies now but you have no such requirement for any other individual or Party?"

          ...What other individuals or parties, pray tell, matter, in this context? The only other NBN policy that matters in an article about how the NBN could be affected by an election is the Coalitions policy. That's not a false premise.

          "The timing of the release of policies will be done strategically, not on a whim."

          ...His whole point was that this would be a strategically good time to release the policy and if they don't, chances are they don't actually have a real policy to send out.
          • Thank you...


            Sad the nay-sayer couldn't work it out and got all politically upset :/

            FYI RA, the opposition are saying faster. Intentionally misleading isn't it, in a broadband context, because they'll tell you they meant faster roll out.

            Weren't you the one who already has the NBN RA?
        • Cheaper

          Sorry, I seriously question that, remember the FTTH component is only approx $12Bill, some of that will be installed or committed, some will be Greenfields which will continue, some will be areas where the copper is completely unserviceable.

          So possibly 50% of FTTH converted to FTTN

          Telstra OWNS the Copper and their Legal Obligation is to their shareholders so they must maximise value to Telstra, so one way or another there will be a steep price for that copper.

          The Pipes and pits will still need remediation for all but the final mile.
          Every cable pair will need to be tested, possibly most local junction boxes/joints will need to be refurbished.

          There will need to be a redesign including providing power to the cabinets which in Aust will need to have cooling and in many cases also be waterproof.

          There will not be the higher value plans as readily available to subsidise the rest

          Realistically unless Telstra is kept out of the picture Media competition will be strangled and stillborn

          Retaining the HFC will guarantee massive subsidies to upgrade it to provide for more than the small percentage that can currently use it and include MDU's and Business capable ( Considering $10Bill approx between Telstra and Optus to build originally ) will cost similar or even more to adequately upgrade, not the couple of Million MT likes to quote - called incentivisation.

          Lower profitability for NBN means lessened ability to cross subsidise Rural wireless, backhaul and The Satellites so possibly taxpayer subsidy for Rural.

          So many other factors as well. - not at all fiscally responsible, good governance or even particularly intelligent

          All in all not as simple or cheap as is being portrayed

          The list continues, Analyse dispassionately and consider all aspects, it is the Nations economic and social future at stake
          Abel Adamski
  • Better, Faster, Cheaper from Tunabullshit.

    First it's not going to be "CHEAPER", FTTN is only cheaper if fibre to the home is NEVER EVER BUILT, when at some time over the next century or so if FTTN is built out to FTTH then the white elephant cabinets will have to be removed the network restructured and the to the home built out, it will be MORE EXPENSIVE. Tunabullshit is just cost shifting to the future and adding cost to be shifted to the future.
    Is Tunabullshit saying we will "NEVER EVER" get FTTH? Is this something he is guessing? or Does he KNOW, is this a religious belief?

    Secondly "BETTER" that's clearly a Tunabullshit, he wants to come to my place at Katoomba where I have had no phone or DSL for a week because it rained, all my comms go dark every time it rains and takes a few days of fine weather and a week or so of daily emails/phone calls to TELSTRA call centres in the Philippines and then a phone call to a Telstra director when that doesn't work. I have a wireless key but it works fine when it's dry but when it rains and everybody's hopelessly out-dated wire fails everybody goes to wireless then it's congested and barely works. Tunabullshit sounds more like John Williamson tying it up with wire.

    FASTER if you believe this Tunabullshit you need an ambulance and a couple of big guys with a white coat .
    Kevin Cobley
    • Kev

      Move to another location if this is such a big problem for you
  • Life Expectancy

    "when at some time over the next century or so if FTTN is built out to FTTH then the white elephant cabinets will have to be removed"

    Cabinets have a 20-30 year life and could be re-used for the FDH that serve around 200 homes. These cabinets will be oversize and won't require cooling but could still be re-used to some extent. All I want to see is an estimated price list that the NBNco has brought out that includes all cost including copper. If the NBNco ends up buying the copper reforming the decommission clause then these are the details that need to be in the open. Minimum upload and download speed including any detailed of propped tiers like the 12/1 25/5 etc.

    I know it won't happen know but without those details the whole thing is hot air as they have to prove the cost can be brought down below the wholesale cost of the NBNco.