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Conroy's won a battle, not the war

Stephen Conroy must have been biting his tongue hard since receiving the NBN implementation study two months ago. Here he was, sitting on good news, while having to endure a constant barrage of criticism from every quarter. But now that the report is out, and supports the NBN, an emboldened Conroy has gained a new legitimacy. Can the NBN save Labor?
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Written by David Braue on

Stephen Conroy must have been biting his tongue hard since receiving the NBN implementation study two months ago. Enduring a constant barrage of criticism from every quarter, threats by the Opposition to axe the NBN if elected, an utter lack of clarity around his plans for the filter, and blow-back about something as relatively straightforward as the Do Not Call list, Conroy needed to have some good news to share — and sharing the finally-released implementation study has provided it.


Upping the 90 per cent figure to 93 per cent reflects a surprise bonus for the NBN strategy (click image to enlarge)
(Credit: Minister Conroy's office)

Not only can the NBN as envisioned be implemented within eight years for less than the $43 billion figure that has plagued Labor for the past year, the report concluded, but it can reach 93 per cent rather than 90 per cent of premises using fibre-to-the-home, 4 per cent using fixed wireless (hello, LTE and WiMax!), and satellite for the remaining 3 per cent.

All this, for an investment estimated at $26 billion by year six — a relatively manageable average of $4.3 billion per year, or a bit more than Labor's disastrous $3.5 billion insulation and insulation-checking schemes. With a per-premises cost ranging from around $1250 (in so-called 30-premises "mesh blocks" that seem to reflect the intended use of PON, or passive optical network, technology) to $3000 for 80 per cent of properties, costs can be recovered over time with relative ease: the amortised cost of a $3000 connection could be recovered over five years with a wholesale price of $50 per month.

For 80 per cent of properties, costs can be recovered over time with relative ease: the amortised cost of a $3000 connection could be recovered over five years with a wholesale price of $50 per month.

For a government that has been racked with one disaster after another in recent weeks, the implementation study is a much-needed lifeline. The report seems to have found no issues with NBN Co reaching competition objectives — as long as Conroy dispenses with the possibility of a potential NBN Co retail role, and keeps the company focused on providing Layer 2 services as its implementers have stated they will do. The report's authors also require legislative changes for "a healthy industry structure and appropriate regulatory regime" and work on the assumption that the NBN will become "the predominant fixed-line telecommunications infrastructure over time".

The implementation will not, of course, be easy: within the first 15 pages of the report, this is made abundantly clear by diagrams showing the complex boundaries between fibre-covered and non fibre-covered areas. Adding in a 2.3GHz-based fixed-wireless service requires a base station distribution with a maximum radius of 7km, requiring the establishment of a new wireless service specifically for NBN Co's usage (technical parameters could change depending on the government's eventual strategy for the digital dividend). And adequate satellite coverage depends on the availability of Ka-band satellites that are currently not available from Optus and will only be launched — in the US — by the likes of satellite giant Hughes by 2012.


Per-premises costs range from $1250 to $3000 for 80 per cent of covered properties(Credit: Minister Conroy's office)

The implementation review committee recommends pragmatism, flexibility and foresight as the key requirements to make the NBN happen. I especially like the last one: "foresight is called for in making recommendations that will withstand the test of time and serve the country's interests beyond short-term pressures"; Tony Smith, are you listening?

Of course Smith is listening — and, most likely, with Tony Abbott leaning in too, and their "people" combing through the report word by word to craft clever rebuttals for the nightly news broadcasts. After all, these guys have enjoyed a remarkable run in recent weeks, as Rudd's many backflips and policy axings have left a bad taste in the mouths of potential voters and, seemingly, closed the once-unbeatable margin Rudd enjoyed.

The political tide may be changing overall, but with the release of this report Abbott is going to have to reconsider his knee-jerk opposition to the NBN and everything it stands for. NBN Co's hell-for-leather Tasmanian roll-out has shown the network is technically feasible, but the report offers explicit support for the NBN that will be hard even for Abbott to refute.

NBN Co's hell-for-leather Tasmanian roll-out has shown the network is technically feasible, but the report offers explicit support for the NBN that will be hard even for Abbott to refute... Even if he is elected, terminating the program out of spite will simply seem like nasty, vengeful, irrelevant business.

Even if he is elected, terminating the program out of spite will simply seem like nasty, vengeful, irrelevant business. Predictable partisanship is one thing, but blocking progress for opportunistic reasons — and suggesting a retroactive, pointless alternative — can't possibly sit well with voters. Just as Conroy worked hard to portray filter opponents as advocates of child pornography, he will have a field day portraying the Opposition as anti-progress — and he would be 100 per cent right.

The release of the implementation report is about the best thing to happen to Labor for weeks. Whether or not it can counter Labor's recent series of missteps, is another thing entirely. But the report is a start, and legitimises continued investment in the NBN for at least the remainder of Labor's term. With the right legislative support; careful attention to make sure industrial and skills issues don't derail the effort; a clear outcome in its negotiations with Telstra; and success in securing private-sector funding; the NBN could be Labor's finest hour. But now that the secret is out, Conroy — to paraphrase the classic poem — has miles to go before he sleeps.

Should NBN opponents give into inevitability and fall into line, or are there still important unanswered questions to address? And can a legitimised NBN save Labor?

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