Australia's NBN a hell of an achievement: Malcolm Turnbull

'I am really proud of the achievement of the NBN in very, very difficult circumstances,' Malcolm Turnbull says. 'The way Labor went about it was insane, certifiably insane.'
Written by Stilgherrian , Contributor

Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull's effort to entrench his own narrative of Australia's National Broadband Network (NBN) into Australia's political history is truly fascinating.

"There is no country, comparable developed country, which has as ubiquitous availability of high-speed broadband as Australia," Turnbull told the StartCon conference in Sydney last Friday.

Freelancer founder Matt Barrie had just reminded the audience of the NBN's cost and performance.

"Despite spending AU$50 billion in Australia's largest infrastructure project ever, today we're ranked 62nd for global broadband speed, 40% slower than the global average," Barrie said.

Turnbull interrupted. "Those those statistics are absolutely BS, Matt. Absolute BS," he said.

He acknowledged that there are places in the US where gigabit fibre is available, "but there are plenty of places in the United States where you're flat out getting dial-up".

"Ubiquitous broadband is a really good idea. The way Labor went about it was insane, certifiably insane. The New Zealanders did a much better job," Turnbull said.

"I inherited a mess, and I had to make the best of it. And you know what? The project is nearly complete, and it will keep on getting upgraded forever," he said.

"Anyone that thinks there's a set-and-forget in telecom networking technology is as wrong as thinking there's a set and forget in government policy."

See also: ACCC decides NBN needs to cater beyond its layer 2 remit

Turnbull pointed to the fact that more than 10 million premises are able to access the NBN today, and there's 40,000 new customers coming online every week.

"That is a hell of an achievement ... Given the state of the challenge, given how well they have done compared to many other countries, I think they've got a lot to be proud of," he said.

"I am really proud of the achievement of the NBN in very, very difficult circumstances."

What fascinates your writer about Turnbull's version of events, though, is how much it diverges from the experience of everyday Australians.

Turnbull makes a bold claim about the NBN's place in world rankings, but it's full of weasel words. High-speed, but how high? And which comparable developed countries are we talking about, exactly?

As science communicator Dr Karl Kruszelnicki tweeted on the weekend, "In Buenos Airport, the **free** WiFi is over 400 Mb/s! In Mongolia and Tibet it was 175Mb/s. How did we end up with 2-10 Mb/s in Australia?!?!?"

Turnbull leaves out the fact that he'd promised to give all Australians access to 25 megabits per second download speeds by 2016, something that never happened, and that other targets were missed.

And whatever you do, don't mention the reliability, especially on the HFC network.

See also: Australian Christian Lobby thinks NBN or telcos should do age verification

Turnbull continued to assert that the NBN's speeds are fine as they are. His consistent message has been that regular folks won't pay a premium for higher speeds.

"I made a really detailed study of it globally, the economics of it," Turnbull told the conference.

In the early 2010s, Korea Telecom had two broadband products, 50Mbps and 100Mbps. The difference in price was "not very much at all", he said.

"People were churning from 100 back to 50, because they'd worked out they can get do whatever they wanted to do with 50 rather than 100."

He also told the story of a Japanese telco with a 2Gbps residential broadband product. Why two gig, asked Turnbull.

"He looked at me as though I was a complete idiot, and he said, 'Two gig twice as good as one gig'...

"The reality is for, you know, Mr and Mrs Watanabe, there is nothing they can do with two gigs that they can't do with one gig, and in all probability, nothing they can do with the gig they can't do with 100 megs."

There are issues on which Turnbull and I would agree.

One of his first policies as prime minister, the National Innovation and Science Agenda, led to the Cyber Security Strategy of 2016. That in turn led to investment in Australia's cybersecurity industry and the formation of AustCyber, with solid results.

"We have today a much stronger innovation ecosystem, a much stronger venture capital ecosystem than we had five or six years ago," Turnbull said.

"Five years ago, there was about AU$155 million raised for venture capital in Australia. In the last two years it's over 10 times that amount. And you all know that Australia is now seen as a centre for innovation."

Turnbull also talked about innovation at the highest levels of government. His enthusiasm is genuine, and even today he's critical of other approaches.

"There are plenty of people in the political environment who believe that the way to win is to trade off, prey on, people's fear of change," Turnbull said.

"But believe me, denying change, denying the importance of innovation is like denying climate change. It's denying reality."

This is good stuff. But the NBN as something to be proud of? Yeah nah.

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