Will Abbott's Real Solutions include real NBN costings?

Will Abbott's Real Solutions include real NBN costings?

Summary: Honest pre-election costings would finally put a price on Turnbull’s FttN plan. Will the Coalition follow through, or will it use a post-election cost-benefit analysis to worm out of its long-held opposition to Labor’s network?


It can be no coincidence that Tony Abbott kicked off this year's election season just days before Gillard's formal announcement of the election. It can also be no coincidence that the National Broadband Network (NBN) gets few mentions in the Coalition's Real Solutions manifesto; its relatively light-touch approach to the NBN is a significant departure from its 2010 election strategy--and a suggestion that it'll use the vaunted cost-benefit analysis (CBA) as a get-out-of-jail-free card.

They're promising Real Solutions in broadband and elsewhere--but will the Coalition follow through on its promise to cost them?
(Screenshot by David Braue/ZDNet)

The jail to which I refer, of course, is that untenable position in which a stubbornly on-message, technically illiterate Tony Abbott has maintained by continuing to rail against the NBN. This has created troubles for Malcolm Turnbull, who has impressively parried a profoundly interested media in a war of words that started out as policy dogma but has increasingly become an uphill battle against the reality of today's NBN.

Turnbull, in his uncomfortable role as both an advocate for high-speed broadband and a nemesis of Labor's plan to deliver it, has been scooching toward a middle ground that would appease both his taskmasters and the progress-minded supporters of that party's project.

First came his significant back flip on separating Telstra; then, the admission that the Liberals were not in fact sleeping with their pickaxes at hand in anticipation of digging up the fibre laid to date; and now, efforts to paint the Liberals' fibre-to-the-node (FttN) broadband as delivering nearly equivalent services to Labor's fibre-to the-premises (FttP) version.

"We will roll out super-fast broadband using whichever is the most effective and cost-efficient technology, and we will use existing infrastructure where we can," the Real Solutions document stated. "We will roll it out faster to high priority areas...We will end billions of dollars of wasteful spending on the NBN and deliver more of the modern infrastructure we urgently need while encouraging competition wherever possible to put downward pressure on prices."

That's a big change from the Liberals' 2010 election platform (PDF), which promoted HFC, DSL, and fixed wireless, and didn't even mention the possibility that the Coalition would support FttP as part of its solution.

That policy committed AU$2 billion to building fixed-wireless broadband networks, pushed for "100Mbps down to a minimum of 12Mbps peak speed" broadband, and threatened, in writing and in rhetoric, to "cancel" Labor's NBN. The old policy--which, because it's still posted at the Coalition's policy website, is apparently still its official policy--called Labor's project "reckless and expensive," and channelled Abbott's obsession with blanched pachyderms.

Turnbull has been scooching toward a middle ground that would appease both his taskmasters and the progress-minded supporters of that party's project.

These days, Turnbull has dispensed with the 12Mbps figure, focusing on what he claims will be up to 80Mbps peak speeds through the magic of VDSL. He continues to provide scant detail about how this will happen, how the party will negotiate its way to take over a copper network it doesn't own, and what kind of costs will really be involved in bringing his plan to fruition.

Indeed, it is getting harder and harder--in a political sense--for the Liberals to carelessly slam Labor's NBN plan, as they said in their 2010 manifesto, as "reckless and expensive." The real costs of the network are better known now--and much lower--than they were three years ago; its slow ramp-up is now finally showing signs of gaining momentum; and eager support from those who can get the network shows that the NBN is a pretty sure vote winner. The Coalition doesn't want to squander this.

Clarity may finally come later this year, after coalition manager of opposition business Christopher Pyne said that the Opposition will release its policy costing "sometime after the budget, and before the federal election."

Given that even a coalition-led FttN network would still be the most significant and expensive single government project currently being undertaken, it follows that these costings must include a detailed assessment of the cost of the party's NBN alternative--and by "detailed," I mean one that evaluates the real cost of implementation in the current market, and not just reiterating Turnbull's fanciful AU$15 billion figure.

Turnbull has long refused to offer such detail, but he may be painting himself into a corner. If the Coalition's NBN is costed at last, we'll have some real numbers with which to weigh this particular Real Solution against Labor's own solution.

If the Coalition decides not to cost its NBN alternative, it will be all but admitting that it cannot, in fact, deliver the NBN at an appreciably lower cost than Labor. Given the mind-numbing rhetoric of the past three years, this would be a significant admission.

There's no telling whether Quigley has circled September 14 in red on his calendar as the last date of his employ, yet with a date confirmed at least the company can make some accurate predictions as to exactly where it will be come election time.

In the meantime, however, we can expect Turnbull to provide as few answers as possible to difficult questions, and keep pushing the party's "Real Solutions" official line--which is to "deliver broadband faster, sooner, and at less expense to taxpayers and consumers than Labor's NBN"--until he's blue in the face.

Costings or not, the Coalition's endgame may well lie with its much-vaunted CBA. If that CBA suggests that continuing the FttP rollout is more cost effective than switching canoes in the middle of this particular stream, the Coalition will throw its hands in the air, blame Labor for tying its hands, and wash its hands of the whole thing while Abbott starts building his precious highways.

I suspect that this is the real agenda behind Turnbull's intransigence and the party's new policy: It's a get-out-of-jail-free card that will allow Turnbull and Abbott to deliver the broadband outcome the country wants without compromising their long-held opposition to the project.

There's no telling whether NBN Co CEO Mike Quigley has circled September 14 in red on his calendar as the last date of his employ, but, with a date confirmed, at least the company can make some accurate predictions, based on the current run rate, as to exactly where it will be come election time. Whether even the most optimistic modelling can save Labor from the electorate's wrath remains to be seen.

What do you think? Will we be kissing the NBN goodbye on September 15? Or will the Coalition use the CBA to extricate itself from years of unsubstantiated rhetoric? And, more broadly, how big a factor will the NBN be in the election?

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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  • This certainly will be interesting. If the coalition clowns do get in at the next election there's really no telling what will happen. There is simply too much uncertainty with their plan and the lack of a real one. I'm not going to risk it by voting for them that's for sure. Their deliberately ambiguous statements and blatant lies over the last two years is all we need to examine.

    btw noticed that this time Abbott didn't say anything about scrapping the NBN for the Queensland floods. Maybe he figured he got as much political mileage out of that line back in 2011...
    Hubert Cumberdale
    • Are you serious?

      "Their deliberately ambiguous statements and blatant lies over the last two years is all we need to examine."

      "There will be no carbon tax under the government that I lead" followed by the promise of a Citizens' Assembly when a price was to be set (at some point in the future). Unfortunately, we know that most politicians across all Parties and interests are less than honest, but this government has set a new standard for lying!

      The utter arrogance, lying, incompetence and wastefulness of this government has been breath taking. Almost everything that Labor has touched since it was elected in 2007 has had the reverse Midas touch. Labor might have a great national initiative with the NBN, but that will take close to a decade to determine. Putting that aside, just about everything else that they have touched has been a debacle; utter failure.

      Sorry, I forgot Labor's one true success, if you want to call it that. Before the 2010 election, Labor bribed GetUp! $100,000 to take down the PromiseWatch website and also got a seat on their board to ensure it did not happen again. So, Labor successfully ensured that the truth of their continuing policy failures would not be communicated to the public.

      The Liberals aren't great and their "talent" pool is rather shallow. It is unfortunate that we live in such poor political times wherein there is not much talent across all Parties. The Raving Loony-Loony Party (aka the Greens) scared the Hell out of me in ways that words cannot describe. The Independents installed into power the worst government in our history . . . and then kept them there!

      And before you start carrying-on, I DO NOT vote Liberal and won't be at this next election! You are welcome to be pro-Labor, but do try to open your eyes, even just a little!
      • Restricted access I really dont give a crap about any of you irrelevant political comments. This topic is about the NBN and that is ALL I'm am considering in this debate. So yeah, rant about the independents, labor, greens and the liberal party all you like but please try to add something relevant to this discussion. There is nothing about the NBN in it at all. Your comment is null and void.
        Hubert Cumberdale
      • btw Restricted access just because someone is in favor of the NBN it doesn't necessarily mean they are "pro-Labor"... do try to open your eyes, even just a little!
        Hubert Cumberdale
        • "This topic is about the NBN

          . . . and that is ALL I'm am considering in this debate."

          Poppycock! BTW, what is the number on your Labor membership card?
          • Not "Poppycock" at all. The title of this article is "Will Abbott's Real Solutions include real NBN costings?" Note the NBN in there. Try to keep up. Not sure about you but that is all I'm here to talk about. Hope that helps.
            Hubert Cumberdale
          • Are you 8 or 80?

            "Poppycock! BTW, what is the number on your Labor membership card?"

            My what an intelligent response and in true 1950's style - poppycock
          • An utterly pointless response

            Nothing further worth saying.

            No need to get snooty lol. You fail.
      • Hmmm

        You have quite a quandary there RA...

        You won't vote for (your words) the "worst gov in history", nor (your words) Raving Loony Loony party/Greens and you DO NOT vote Liberal (no nasty inference?)...

        So who TF are you going to vote for...?

        Ah yes the marijuana party obviously, that would explain it.
        • I don't do drugs, never have and never will. Idiotic and childish sarcasm.

          At the moment, I've no decided for whom I will vote. Apparently, perhaps through some psychic ability, you already know all of the candidates for your area. I don't! I'll wait until I know and then decide.
          • Seriously

            Well... you said [quote] " I DO NOT vote Liberal" so they're definitely out...right????

            And the other two main parties you (hypocritically considering you are sobbing childish) call Loony Loony and the worst gov. ever.

            Sex party perhaps, or don't you do sex ;)
          • Of course...

            Nats... done!
      • Yes, very serious...

        What is breath taking is the extent to which people have swallowed the "arrogant, incompetent and wasteful" narrative being peddled by a partisan media.

        The PM promised to implement a carbon price and did so. Promise kept. She also said it wouldn't be in the form of a tax and she was forced to break that promise. Promise broken. Why the hysteria?

        Contrast that with Abbott's record in government...


        Here is his excuse..

        “Well, Laurie, when I made that statement, in the election campaign, I had not the slightest inkling that there would ever be any intention to change this. But obviously when circumstances change, governments do change their opinions..."

        Its about time the Liberals stopped using a broken promise (which had to be broken given the political reality) as a way to whip up hysteria and avoid scrutiny.

        So where do the words "debacle" and "failure" come from? Out of Liberal Party press releases and faithfully reproduced by the the Murdoch media. What has the government done in the main? Presides over an economy that is the envy of the Western world - the only one not to go into recession. Launched major reforms (yes, Virginia, despite what they told you, this "unstable" government passed hundreds of Bills every year. A lot of solid competent governance. And despite the structural deficit (the product of Howard's recklessness and bribes) and the GFC (whose effects on revenue are still being felt) we've got a government still able to make hard decisions and push reforms such as the NDIS.

        Meanwhile, debacle? Pink batts? Nope, they're saving us electricity right now. BER? Billions wasted? No. 6%. Its all getting very tired.

        Here's a few links for you.




        No, I don't agree with everything they've done and yes they've made mistakes - all governments will do. But seriously? Not everyone belies the crap they read in the Daily Telegraph :)
    • Its deja-vu all over again..

      Its not that hard to predict what would happen under a Liberal government. They have form.

      Despite all the noise generated over FTTN, in reality its not going to happen.

      Turnbull has said he would use NBNco as a vehicle to build with FTTN. But in practice that means not just re-negotiation with Telstra but with the entire industry. It means more regulatory changes. It means NBNco has to re-design from scratch.

      A process that will take 2 to 3 years at minimum.

      The Liberals don't want to own such a disaster.

      Here's what they probably will do.

      Firstly they'll contrive a "study". And the purpose of the "study" will be to give the media something to feed on. Meanwhile they will make some cosmetic changes at NBNco and probably cause some disruptions in the process.

      In 2016 they will take a promise to sell NBNco to the election. As with the sale of Telstra, much of the proceed will be in the form of political bribes.

      The Liberals are very unlikely to win absolute control of the Senate in this election. And therefore they cannot undo the legislation on which the NBN is built. Nor can they keep their promises to "axe the tax" etc.. And despite Abbott's macho "I will hold a double dissolution" the reality is that a DD is a dangerous thing and will probably grant minor parties the balance of power in the Senate.

      A far safer strategy is to simply avoid political blunders (such as implementing FTTN) and then work on the strategy of winning control of the Senate - which will probably happen if they win again in 2016. Then they can let rip, flog off the NBN to Telstra, and get on with doing what they really want to do - lower wages.

      So the future of the NBNco is that whilst only a third built, it will be handed to Telstra along with weakened regulation (yes, the Liberals have form on this) and in the end your $49.95 plan will cost $89.95.
  • Cost Benefit Analysis

    I want to see cost benefit analysis for all of Tony's plans since he is such a great advocate for this process, particularly for his westconnex plan which is going to cost around $20,000-$30,000 per peak hour motorist per year.
    West Connex $10-15 Billion Dollars is the greatest white elephant ever proposed in the 10 years of it's construction world oil supplies are going to fall from 86Mbpd to 68Mbpd so there ain't going to be a lot of people on it. The real toll if users had to pay the full cost of the road would be over $15 per trip it's huge taxpayer subsidy to the elite 1200 people per hour per lane.
    Roads are the greatest misallocation of resources in human history.
    The NBN is going to cost around 3 times as much as the West Connex but will service the whole of Australia with greatly improved communications (eliminating all those expensive road trips) not just an obsolete road servicing a small pocket of defunct suburbia.
    The definition of insanity "Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results" Politian's have for over 70 years heralded new roads as the solution for traffic congestion, what they are is insane!
    Kevin Cobley
    • So, does that mean that you agree on a CBA for the NBN

      or do you only want a CBA on Liberal policies?
      • Amazing

        I recently read that the Collins Class submarines (all 6 of them) will soon be replaced with another 12 sub's for approximately $40 billion. We don't hear, read any complaints about this and I wonder whether we will get a CBA on it? It costs $630m annually to maintain the 6 sub's we have, of which 2 are only operational. Although the NBN will cost $37.4 billn at least the NBN will provide endless benefits to our great country, it's an investment because it will provide a return to the Government. Be great if the anti NBN crowd would jump on board, throw away their ideology, because if the private sector wanted to, they would have solved our broadband problems ages ago. Lets accept sometimes government need to intervene when the private sector fails.
        Mark S-8ff5e
        • The Collins class sub's

          seem to have been a disaster. I've read something similar to you. Most of the sub's seems to have had little operational time.
          • You've read something similar because ...

            They ARE a lemon. They never met specs, they never met costs and they never did what was required.