Don't count on Albo to change the NBN anytime soon

While the Australian telecommunications industry has put forth proposals for changes to the NBN, it's unlikely that we'll see any made in the near future.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

Since the return of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, everyone has expected a significant shift in a number of policies that were troublesome for former Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

The policy on how to assess asylum seekers who arrive by boat was going to lurch to the right, school funding reforms were going to get a bit more time to work, the carbon tax was going to be scrapped for the floating price, and so on and so on.

The new paradigm is that he's Kevin, he's from Queensland, and he's here to think differently.

The telecommunications industry was also pretty keen to get a change of policy on the National Broadband Network (NBN). New Communications Minister Anthony Albanese joked that he'd been asked whether he was going to change the NBN policy before he'd even been sworn in as the minister.

It's not all that surprising. Former Communications Minister Stephen Conroy's biggest strength as a minister responsible for the NBN was also one of his biggest flaws. He was so dead set and absolutely single-mindedly focused on realising the current policy design of the NBN — with 93 percent of premises getting fibre, and 7 percent getting wireless and satellite — that he wasn't open to the idea of any change at all to the network.

It's not like people haven't tried. The industry has made noises about alternatives for years. NBN Co itself, seeing what was happening on the ground with the difficulty in rolling out fibre into multi-dwelling units (MDUs), put forward a proposal for a fibre-to-the-basement (FttB) alternative for apartment blocks, but was rejected by the Cabinet. Quite likely on Conroy's advice.

When FttB became something that Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull began to consider as part of his own policy, there was no chance that Conroy would even think about it.

But we have a new PM and a new communications minister, and it is the opportune time to consider a revised policy without having any of the hangups about what came before it. Or it would be, if there wasn't an election due in the next few months.

I've lost count of the number of times people have asked me over the past few weeks about whether the Labor party is going to change the NBN, and, indeed, whether NBN Co will look at an FttB alternative for those apartment blocks and other MDUs that are tricky to install fibre into.

Anything is possible, I usually tell them, but I doubt it'll happen anytime soon. There's a couple of reasons for this.

Firstly, after NBN Co released its premises passed figure last week, that could be the very last time we get figures from NBN Co before the election. From Labor's point of view, it doesn't need to make changes to the NBN to boost that figure up now before the election if we're not getting any new total.

Secondly, an admission that any facet of the NBN policy is not right would play into Turnbull's arguments about the government taking the wrong approach for the entire project. Again, not something that the government would like to see happen before the election.

Thirdly, it would require a new corporate plan. NBN Co has been working on a new corporate plan for the government since before the change of leader. The company has spent months working on it, and the government would spend months assessing it. A critical change in policy would require extensive work on developing the processes for implementing the policy and working out the costs. Anything that would be ready before the election would not be relied upon.

This means that any potential change would happen after the election, but I'm already having my doubts about whether there would be changes at all. When Rudd returned, he highlighted that the NBN, climate change, and same-sex marriage are three key issues that are important to young people in Australia. Then, in Darwin last week, Rudd said that fibre is the only way for the NBN.

"For the future, it is fibre optic, every modern economy around the world is laying out fibre optic," he said. "In 10 years' time, we will look back on this day and say 'why didn't we do it 10 years earlier?' That is what we will say.

"If in 10 years' time, the other mob get in and they decide to go back to good old 19th-, early 20th-century copper, everyone will shake their heads in wonder as to how this pack of mugs in Australia, the alternative government of Australia, could think that this was a solution for the future."

Issues with delays for the NBN aside, the policy as a whole still remains pretty popular. Any shift in the policy after the election, even if it is pragmatic and would see the NBN rolled out faster, would likely alienate many of the people who back Labor. Pragmatism and a desire to get more premises passed quickly may ultimately win out, but I doubt we'll see a change over the next few months.

Editorial standards