Ed Husic: From first-term MP to Labor's NBN champion

Parliamentary Secretary for Broadband Ed Husic has had a meteoric rise through parliament in just three years to take on the role of selling the National Broadband Network to the Australian public.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

It almost seems hard to believe, but Western Sydney Labor MP for Chifley Ed Husic only became a member of parliament in the tumultuous 2010 election that resulted in a hung parliament.

Image: ZDNet

Had the Independent MPs sided with the Coalition, Husic would have been on the opposition backbench for a number of years. Instead, from the government backbench, Husic was able to build up a reputation in parliament for his keen eye for technology issues through the IT pricing inquiry, and for the National Broadband Network (NBN) through his work on the joint parliamentary committee investigating the NBN.

And when Kevin Rudd returned as the leader of the Labor party last month, and Communications Minister Stephen Conroy subsequently resigned, Rudd appointed Husic to one of four roles in the communications portfolio: The parliamentary secretary for broadband under new Communications Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.

Husic said that the decision to split Conroy's former role amongst four MPs will help sell the NBN to the public, and take on the huge workload that Conroy had single-handedly managed since 2007.

"Steve [Conroy] had undertaken a Herculean effort. When you think about how much he did, it was massive. It was phenomenal. He just performed magnificently, but the good thing about this arrangement is that it allows us to look at various aspects of the NBN, the digital economy, and the regional benefits," he said.

"The four of us can get out and about. People who are on the NBN or are familiar with the issues, they get it, they get the value, but the challenge for us is to get more and more people on board."

Husic admitted that much of his role will see him out at the various events for the NBN, where the ministers push a large button signifying the connection of the NBN in that area, but said that those events will allow the government to talk about the benefits that the AU$37.4 billion fibre, satellite, and wireless project will bring to Australia.

He said that the network take-up rate is at 33 percent, which is much higher than the uptake of ADSL was over six years in Australia, which sat at 28 percent. However, he said that more has to be done to get customers onto the network.

"In a short space of time, we're doing well, but we want to get it more and more, not just because it is a stat on a page, but because of what it's going to do in terms of changing the way people live and work," he said.

One of the difficulties facing NBN Co is the delays in construction that forced NBN Co to reduce its early targets for premises passed by fibre in the 2012 corporate plan, and then again in March, on the back of construction delays. Husic said that NBN Co has been trying to achieve what Postmaster General, then Telecom, and finally Telstra had close to a century been trying to achieve in rolling out a fixed network, but in a much tighter time frame.

Coupled with the Telstra structural separation deal, the competition regulator's decision to force NBN Co, against the government's wishes, to reach out to 121 points of interconnect rather than just 14 led to delays in building the network. But Husic said he expects it to get back on track.

"Those are big things we've had to go through. It's meant we can't move as quickly as we would like, but wait until we hit full throttle. All this debate will be gone."

He also said that the construction companies bringing in new skilled workers, and Telstra retraining its workforce on fibre, will also speed up the build.

"As the experience builds, as they put more people on board, as we train up people, as the training fund also kicks into place in Telstra, I think you will see that have an impact," he said.

When Albanese became the new communications minister, iiNet CEO Michael Malone told ZDNet that he believes the government should consider shifting from a fibre-to-the-premises (FttP) strategy for multi-dwelling units (MDUs), such as apartment blocks, to a fibre-to-the-basement model to save on time and money.

Husic said that he isn't too keen on making changes to the current government policy.

"We've got a commitment to deliver fibre to 93 percent. We're not having to reinvent the manual on how this gets done. A lot of this is about negotiating with bodies corporate about how we get access. Sometimes it'll be easy, sometimes it won't," he said.

"We're working to standards that a lot of the existing players in the telco space have had to deal with as well. MDUs will no doubt be tricky, but there are people who have done it before, and we'll find a way to do that into the future."

Husic said that if 93 percent of premises receive fibre, it would ensure that the network is done right the first time, and that unlike in the Coalition's policy, where most households will receive fibre-to-the-node (FttN) services, the government would not have to go back and build the rest of the network when the data needs require fibre.

He also questioned the Coalition's policy for copper remediation in areas that can't receive at least 25Mbps download speeds. He said that the remediation policy would ultimately be hostage to budget decisions from a Tony Abbott-led government.

"They're saying, 'If you want to pay, you can get the full fibre treatment, and if you're in an area where there is a problem, we'll get to it if we have the money.' Now you can't look away from the fact that they've said they're already looking for AU$70 billion in budget savings outside this," he said.

"If they're looking at that, how do we know that they're going to legitimately pay to fix the broadband problems that exist in different parts of the country? People know they'd rather get fibre than a patched-up copper network any day."

The connectivity virtual circuit charge for bandwidth on the NBN has been a constant source of criticism from the industry, particularly from Internode founder Simon Hackett, as it has the potential for customers to be charged higher amounts as they use more data over time. Husic said that in light of the gauntlet that NBN Co has faced in getting approvals from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) and the industry so far, he is wary of making changes.

"The problem with this debate is that the minute you accommodate one person, someone else is going to be upset," he said. "I do think we need to be listening to industry, taking onboard what they say, trying to do what we can to accommodate, but on this issue, we can't just be innocent natives. There has been so much that has been wrestled over."

The new ministers overseeing the NBN already have a lot on their plate, too, with NBN Co CEO Mike Quigley resigning shortly after their appointment. The NBN board will be on the hunt for his replacement over the next few months, but Husic said he doesn't think Quigley will be replaced before the federal election.

"It's going to be something that happens beyond the election. It's going to be a broad search. I think they've indicated that they're looking to do a global search for a new CEO, as it should be," he said.

"I'd rather them get it right than rush it."

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