Howard-era comms minister Richard Alston was famously labelled as an ICT Luddite — but Tony Abbott's anti-NBN campaigning suggests Alston wasn't alone. Yet as details of Abbott's alternative policy become clear and pushes many voters towards Labor, it appears Abbott may want to reconsider his position if he actually wants to win the election.
If there was ever anything worse than Tony Abbott's promise to axe the NBN, it was the details of the wireless-only plan that has reportedly become the sum total of the Liberal Party's thinking on communications infrastructure. If elected, Abbott will axe NBN Co and its forward-looking fibre roll-out for a $1.9 billion nationwide network of wireless and satellite services based largely on the once-promising Opel project — and, at the same time, confirm his status as the Liberal Party's biggest Luddite since Richard Alston.
Separated at birth, or just joined in policy? Abbott's fear of fibre puts him in questionable company — and could cost him the election(Richard Alston image by DAEaton, CC BY-SA 3.0/ Tony Abbott's Office)
The WiMax-based Opel promise of 12Mbps access may once have seemed like a lot, but in the harsh light of reality — and three years' progress, around the world, towards fibre-optic networking — it can now not be regarded as anything more than an anachronism. Steamrolling towards a wireless-based policy would make a mockery of Abbott's claims that the NBN is a risky proposition. Wireless should rightly be a complement to a robust fixed network, not a replacement for it — and there are no WiMax deployments globally having the size and scale that would be required for such a plan. Even Intel, a long-time backer of WiMax, is causing controversy after closing a WiMax program office in Taiwan, where a government-Intel partnership has produced the world's only near-nationwide WiMax roll-out.
The other option is Long Term Evolution (LTE), an emerging wireless technology that is showing great promise in delivering robust speeds over long distances and in the 1800MHz spectrum. However, Abbott can hardly claim he is risk-averse by jumping on the bandwagon of LTE, a technology that has only been commercially deployed in a handful of places, and never at the kind of scale that would be required for an Australia-wide roll-out. Sure, we have news this week that a privately-backed US$7 billion LTE network to be built by Nokia Siemens will apparently cover 92 per cent of the US population by 2015 — but that's so speculative as to be laughable if it's used to support an Opel-styled policy.
Abbott can hardly claim he is risk-averse by jumping on the bandwagon of LTE, a technology that has only been commercially deployed in a handful of places, and never at the kind of scale that would be required for an Australia-wide roll-out.
Even fundamental issues of available bandwidth would be a problem: Stephen Conroy's pronouncement that the government will reserve 126MHz of wireless spectrum for services like LTE was a major step forward — but that allocation is still years down the track. Abbott & Co. would be contesting the next election well before the spectrum was even available to start rolling out an LTE-based Opel replacement. On that schedule, Abbott's wireless alternative network would probably kick into commercial service in the 2015-2016 time frame — by which point the NBN will be substantially complete.
Notwithstanding all that, it seems wholly irresponsible to base national communications policy on a technology whose scalability and performance are inherently restricted by the laws of physics; 3G networks are already struggling to keep up with the demands of mobile services that are still only in use by about 5 per cent of Australians. Can we really expect LTE to perform effectively when it's the primary conduit into our homes?
The other two provisions of the Liberal Party's apparent policy don't offer much consolation either. Continuing the roll-out of backhaul to areas where Telstra is the monopoly provider is good policy, but it's exactly the same thing NBN Co is doing — and it would require a managing authority like NBN Co and many of the same massive construction contracts for which Abbott has been so loudly criticising Labor.
The third plank involves an increase in the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission's (ACCC) ability to quickly resolve disputes — a nod towards the chronic problems Telstra competitors have had in dealing with the telecommunications giant. Suggesting that the ACCC is the medium to encourage competition in the sector, however, carries with it the implicit suggestion that the Coalition's policy will return Telstra to a position of primacy in determining Australia's telecommunications direction. Heck, we already know Abbott will rip up whatever tentative deal Labor has managed to nail down with Telstra.
And why didn't the Coalition empower the ACCC during its previous 11 years of governing? Surely, there was more than enough time to make it happen, and save the entire industry a great deal of heartache in the process. If greater ACCC powers are being spruiked as a progressive policy, Abbott is kidding himself and letting down his party. Not even Telstra is counting on continuing to enjoy the kind of market power it once had — but it appears an Abbott victory would bring the entire industry back to the bad old days.
It's interesting to see the fallout as industry stakeholders gradually come to grip with just how bad the Coalition's alternative telecommunications policy is. Abbott has not committed to backing down on other contentious Labor policies, like the filter or the still-vague internet monitoring provisions, but his blatant opposition to the NBN has confused financial responsibility and bald-faced Luddism.
If greater ACCC powers are being spruiked as a progressive policy, Abbott is kidding himself and letting down his party. Not even Telstra is counting on continuing to enjoy the kind of market power it once had .... [Think of the] National Party, which promotes rural interests and may struggle to justify Abbott's bloody-minded determination to return the bush to the horrors of the Howard administration's rural infrastructure policies.
Abbott's policy certainly isn't winning the Liberals any votes: NSW Rural Affairs Minister Steve Whan came out this week arguing that he was "quite shocked" by the promise to ditch the network and that "any decision to ditch the NBN should be seen, and will be, as a huge blow to regional NSW and the potential of regional communities for economic development".
That's hardly going to augur well in the heartland of the National Party, which promotes rural interests and may struggle to justify Abbott's bloody-minded determination to return the bush to the horrors of the Howard administration's rural infrastructure policies. With early adopters crowing about their NBN connections, the network has already been pulled out as a key election issue in Tasmania, and ICT industry body the AIIA came out this week saying that Abbott's policies will basically see anybody involved in the IT industry voting for Labor.
"The current policy position of the Opposition doesn't recognise the critical position that the Digital Economy will play in the future," Birks told ARN. "The key issue is to understand the role technology has in underpinning a better society and economy and the Opposition doesn't really have that clearly as their platform at the moment."
They say you are the company you keep; if this is true, I'm sure most of us would prefer to be in the boat with countries like Japan, whose broadband leadership has long been unquestioned and with which Mike Quigley has reportedly secured some sort of agreement about broadband future. Fibre to the home has become a linchpin of economic development around the world, and Abbott is doing himself and his country a disservice by suggesting that anything less will be enough to suit our communications needs in the long term. If he thinks the Australian public doesn't care about the NBN and will buy into his claims that axing it is a step forward for financial prudence — and that the business community will sit idly by to limit their communications possibilities — all signs are that he's got another thing coming.