Coalition NBN will be better for the bush: Turnbull

Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has said that through price caps and extending the fibre-to-the-node network, his NBN policy will be better for regional Australia than the current policy.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has rejected a claim by Labor and Independent MPs Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott that regional Australia will be worse off under his broadband proposal, saying fewer premises will be connected to the fixed wireless and satellite service.

Under the Coalition's policy announced on Tuesday, the network will be scaled back from being a 93 percent fibre to the home and 7 percent fixed wireless and satellite network to a 71 percent fibre to the node, 22 percent fibre to the home, and 7 percent fixed wireless and satellite network.

Turnbull confirmed yesterday that a ban on infrastructure-based competition would be lifted under a Coalition government if it wins the September election, and instead of setting a wholesale price for NBN Co, there would be a national cap on the wholesale price that NBN Co and other wholesale providers can charge for services.

Independent MP for New England, in regional New South Wales, Tony Windsor doesn't believe that this price cap will offer better prices for regional Australia.

"What the policy says is that the upper movement of wholesale prices will be capped; it doesn't say anything about the downward movement," he told the ABC this morning.

"Competitive forces would drive the wholesale price in the city down, and leave the wholesale price in the country at the upper cap level. So you create a disparity between country and city, not only in terms of price, but in terms of product."

But Turnbull rejected Windsor's statement, saying that the price disparity would be minimal.

"I think what Tony Windsor has got to recognise is that if you want to have a competitive market, there is always the possibility you'll get some areas — they won't be large areas — where [there] will be some facilities based competition," he said.

"I don't see that as being a significant issue because the areas for facilities-based competition, the areas where that is likely to occur with any degree of force are limited to some of the more densely settled areas close to the centre of the big cities."

The shadow minister said that the Coalition's policy aims to strike a balance between preserving competition and making sure people in the bush get a fair deal.

"People in regional Australia will have wholesale prices that do not reflect the cost of delivering the service to them, so that it will represent, in effect, a very considerable subsidy," he said.

The Coalition policy would also be better than Labor's, he said, because in the towns with less than 1000 premises, which would be otherwise served by fixed wireless or satellite services, the Coalition would look to deploy its fibre-to-the-node network.

"Plainly, if you've got a community with 500, 600, 700 premises within a kilometre, or a couple of kilometres from an exchange building which has got fibre into it, you could easily see that you could readily provide good VDSL either from that exchange, or from that exchange, plus a couple of nodes," he said. "It gives you another string to your bow in terms of providing broadband solutions to the bush."

But he could not commit to how many more premises would be covered by this proposal.

"Logically, it would increase the percentage of fibre to the node and decrease the percentage of fixed wireless and/or satellite," he said. "It may be of critical importance to a lot of communities, but in aggregate, it's not likely to add up to hundreds of thousands, in my judgement."

For Tony Windsor, however, the notion of not continuing with fibre to the premises was a step backwards.

"It's a dumbing down on the whole process. I just can't believe someone like Malcolm Turnbull would base this century's infrastructure, in terms of communication, on last century's copper wire," he said.

In his Communications Day Summit speech, Turnbull also flagged that the fixed-wireless towers could be shared to improve mobile coverage, which NBN Co is already investigating.

"There are some things we know we can do. We can make the NBN Co's physical infrastructure available to the existing wireless companies — Optus, Vodafone, Telstra — and also assist with backhaul. All that is very feasible. Beyond that, I'm not sure how much flexibility we'll have," he said.

Huawei ban to be reassessed

In other fibre-to-the-node deployments across the world, Chinese network vendor Huawei has been called on for the node technology, but the Australian government has banned Huawei from competing for NBN contracts due to security concerns. Turnbull told ZDNet today that the ban would be reassessed if the Coalition wins the election in September.

"We're not privy to the security advice the government was given on this. We had a briefing and got sort of the desultory stuff that oppositions get from governments," he said. "We will review all of that in light of the complete briefing and analysis that you can only get in government."

The news comes as Prime Minister Julia Gillard wraps up her visit to China, where she was meeting with both government and business leaders, including the global chairwoman of Huawei, Sun Yafang.

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