10 NBN questions to ask yourself before voting Liberal

Before you go to the voting booth on September 7, ensure you've weighed up the full implications of both parties' NBN strategies. In this instalment, David Braue looks at the opposition's policy.
Written by David Braue, Contributor
Image: Vote Laboral

If you're even marginally interested in technological issues, you've likely weighed the future plans for the NBN into your voting choice for September 7. And — despite Tony Abbott's efforts to paint the election as a referendum on the carbon tax and Kevin Rudd's efforts to paint it as a referendum on gay marriage — the respective parties' NBN strategies may in fact be the most relevant issue to you. They may even be a deciding factor in your vote.

However you ultimately decide, make sure that you go to the voting booth having weighed up the full implications of both parties' NBN strategies. Each has its weaknesses and its challenges, and each takes a lot on faith. Here, for your consideration, are 10 questions and answers to guide your decision making before you vote Liberal.

Our 10 NBN questions to consider before voting Labor is also available.

Will the Liberal NBN plan work?

Yes: For many of us struggling with outdated ADSL services, it will deliver improved broadband speeds, with a few caveats. Fibre to the node (FttN) is an established technology approach that is certainly capable of delivering broadband services, and Malcolm Turnbull's faith in it is not without reason. However, VDSL2 is also a highly unpredictable and inconsistent technology whose performance depends on a range of variables that are outside of any government's control. As even Turnbull discovered recently, FttN simply cannot deliver the same kind of predictable, manageable user experience as fibre to the premises (FttP). The real question voters much consider, therefore, is not whether FttN will work, but whether the compromises it presents are acceptable, given what Turnbull has promised is a lower cost of deployment.

How long will it take?

Given the complexities in the current rollout, the delays of the transition, and the many unanswered questions around the Coalition government, it's hard to imagine Turnbull's policy assertions — that the Coalition will deliver 25Mbps to most Australians by 2016 and 50Mbps by 2019 — as being anything but optimistic projections. Actual time to deliver will depend on how effectively a Liberal government can engage with Telstra, and what concessions Abbott and Turnbull are willing to make in exchange for a serious and enforceable commitment to help on the part of Telstra. These negotiations could take considerable time, which will delay the transition to FttN and certainly push back completion timeframes well into the 2020s.

How much will it cost?

The fact that the Liberal Party refused to have its NBN policy costed reflects the fact that the final cost of its policy — much like Labor's — is still very much up in the air. Just as Turnbull layered pessimistic assumption on pessimistic assumption to arrive at an AU$94 billion estimated cost for Labor's rollout, he has made optimistic assumption upon optimistic assumption to cost his own policy.

The challenges of execution could boost costs significantly, particularly because a Coalition-managed NBN Co would find itself negotiating with subcontractors on entirely different terms. In truth, nobody has ever done a rollout like this, and it's therefore hard to say exactly how much it will cost. Again, the real question is whether the estimated costs — of both policies — are worth the expenditure, and whether they will still be worth it when either party starts shaking the piggy bank for more money in the likely event that they blow past their budget estimates before the project is complete.

When will I get it?

It is too early to predict when specific addresses will get broadband upgrades under the official Liberal policy, which promises 25Mbps to 100Mbps speeds by the end of 2016, and 50Mbps to 100Mbps speeds by 2019. Whether this is feasible is another matter: There are still many unanswered questions around how the party will manage to both finish the current rollout and transition to its FttN policy in just three years.

In reality, given the sheer number of housekeeping and contractual challenges the Liberal policy faces, you should expect that any FttN rollout will struggle to begin before the middle of 2014 — and run through most of the rest of the decade. A more realistic timeframe should emerge after a Liberal government releases its updated NBN Business Plan 100 days into its term, as promised by Tony Abbott.

How will a Liberal government handle the Telstra and HFC questions?

The relationship of a Liberal government with Telstra remains a major obstacle to the successful execution of an FttN NBN policy. It took the Labor Party years of threats and negotiations to finalise its AU$11 billion duct-access agreement with Telstra, but Malcolm Turnbull has been extremely optimistic about the level of changes to that contract that would be required. He has also raised eyebrows with his dubious claims that Telstra will give the government its copper network for free.

The Liberal policy will not work without unfettered access to that copper network. Turnbull's confidence has therefore led to speculation that he has already organised an agreement in principle with the company, which would potentially speed the transition from Labor's FttP to the Liberal Party's FttN-based policy. However, Telstra is a significant legal and financial adversary, and would most certainly demand its pound of flesh in the form of a relaxed regulatory environment and other significant concessions. Any Liberal government would need to be careful in weighing the impact of these concessions against the potential deleterious effect on telecommunications competition.

Similarly, the question of hybrid fibre-coaxial (HFC) is one of the great unanswered questions of Turnbull's time in opposition. Although he has consistently pointed to the wastefulness of shutting down Telstra's and Optus' existing 100Mbps HFC networks, Turnbull has not yet specified how he would integrate them into his vision of the NBN. They would almost certainly be retained, but doing so would require a Liberal government to mandate the opening of those networks to other service providers; otherwise, the government would simply be gifting Telstra and Optus a perpetual duopoly (and, in most areas, a Telstra monopoly) that would further limit consumer options because the Liberal NBN won't, as Labor will, build a competing open network capable of HFC-like speeds.

How much cheaper is it, really?

Nobody knows, because the Liberal policy has not yet been independently reviewed through a formal process to test the assumptions in Turnbull's policy. Given that the figure is close to AU$30 billion, and not too far off Labor's estimate for a nationwide high-speed network, it's possible that the estimate is not too far off the mark. However, it is hard to say how much cheaper than Labor's policy this will be; what is safe to say is that there is no real support for the Liberal Party's contention that the Labor policy will cost AU$94 billion.

How long will FttN meet our needs?

FttP advocates have repeatedly argued that FttN involves spending tens of billions of dollars to build an antiquated network that props up Telstra's network for far too long. Even Turnbull has conceded that the FttN policy could turn out to be a run-up to a full FttP deployment, arguing that the plan nonetheless represents a better use of current resources, and that the savings can be diverted to other areas in the interim.

Just when that transition would need to be made really depends on how the Liberal NBN evolves. All indications are that end users are consuming more data than ever, and that this is not going to stop; therefore, some argue that even the Liberal NBN will be showing signs of strain within years.

However, a huge proportion of the people that either NBN will reach are still using a relatively small range of services — and many people will struggle to change their habits to keep up with the dizzying growth in data consumption. This could extend the usable life of a Coalition NBN, which will provide lowest common denominator services while those wanting higher speeds will gravitate toward other options that will likely be provided by private-sector operators.

How constrained would a Liberal government be by Labor's legacy?

Turnbull long ago conceded that Labor's NBN is too big to break apart, and has committed to honouring the contracts already in place. Since most NBN Co construction contracts run for two years, and the latest was signed just weeks ago, this means that Turnbull will be watching the construction of FttP nearly through to the end of 2015. Other contracts, however, will likely be transitioned to FttN rollouts when they come up for renewal, meaning the next few years would be a flurry of tendering, negotiations, and staff retraining by subcontractors that would all threaten to be undone should Labor manage a poll turnaround in time for the 2016 election.

Is the Liberal NBN plan guaranteed?

Tony Abbott launched the Liberal Party election campaign with a promise to release an updated NBN business plan by the end of his first 100 days in office, so it can be assumed that he is aware of the need to deliver on that promise — and to continue supporting the network (despite the curious disappearance of the NBN from campaign literature). However, the NBN is only one of numerous big-spending Liberal policies, and the pressure to perform to promises could well see the party rolling back its commitments to meet bottom-line budget requirements. It could also effectively hand the project back to Telstra, reducing public exposure in exchange for equity support and opening up the project to commercial cherry picking.

What is the Liberal Party's grander broadband vision?

While its NBN policy came out some time ago, the Liberal Party's broader ICT policy was only launched in the week before the election. It paints a cloud-heavy picture of government and restructures the responsibility structure for major government IT investments, with online interaction with the public the default position for government by 2017.

Although Turnbull took a swipe at Labor's digital-economy performance, he broadly supports the National Digital Economy Strategy that Labor released in June. This suggests that the broader digital economy strategy won't change dramatically with a Liberal government; certainly, it doesn't seem to be a major point of differentiation between the parties.

What could go wrong?

After years of grandstanding in opposition, a Liberal government will be under white-hot scrutiny and sky-high expectations to deliver. However, its success is far from assured. Its policy is built on one assumption after another — including assumptions about Telstra's helpfulness, the ability of its network to support FttN, the ready availability of suitable skills, and the speed of the transition from Labor's FttP to a Liberal FttN network. Shortfalls in any of these areas will push out the party's extremely short delivery timeframes, threatening the integrity of the policies and putting the party on the defensive. It's also important to remember the potential role of a Labor opposition, which is certain to drop the axe on Turnbull at any opportunity, and could very well undertake a stalling campaign to draw out its own FttP rollout for as long as possible.

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