Labor looking ahead on NBN while Coalition stuck at 25Mbps

Labor's pledged upgrade path for the NBN, while uncosted, shows it has a plan for the future, which puts it in front of the competition.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor

As Australia limps to the finish line of its eight-week election campaign, voters will once again receive the NBN they voted for: Stick with the current government, and the country will see the fibre-to-the-node rollout continue almost until the National Broadband Network is finished; or go with the opposition and its accompanying cornucopia of independents and Greens, and fibre-to-the-premises will return to the rollout.

The longer the election has gone on, the clearer each party's approach to the NBN has been.

Labor views it as infrastructure, while the Coalition thinks of it as something that needs to be got over with as soon as possible, preferably by 2020.

The official government line for what will happen after that, as told by a spokesperson for the communications minister to ZDNet, is nebulous at best, and non-existent at worst.

"The government has no plans to sell NBN, and the Coalition is committed to rolling out the NBN by 2020. There are legislative requirements in place that set out certain precursors to guide any changes to ownership of NBN," they told ZDNet.

"Under the Statement of Expectations, which sets out the government's objectives and provides guidance to NBN on the implementation of the National Broadband Network, the NBN has a mandate to find ways to innovate in terms of the network architecture and the wholesale products it offers, where commercially feasible or cost-effective."

Compare this against Labor's plans to ask Infrastructure Australia to look at options to transition non-FttP users to the FttP network after 2022, and the choice is stark.

It is made even more so when you consider comments from government ministers in recent weeks.

The ABC's Q&A program has become the forum of choice for conservative parliamentarians to tell the electorate that broadband connections in the range of 100Mbps and more, which are available today on FttP and hybrid fibre-coaxial (HFC) connections, are not really needed.

Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science Christopher Pyne told the program in May that the speeds offered by FttN, which, depending on the quality of the line used, could be as high as 100Mbps or flat-lining at 25Mbps, are "speeds that people want and need".

Similarly, Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce said 25Mbps is sufficient, because that's what the customers are buying.

These claims are backed up by statistics, as NBN proved in April when it released numbers showing that 89 percent of all FttN users are opting for 25/5Mbps plans or slower.

But it isn't as straight up and down as that. The real story around the NBN is a chicken-and-egg scenario, wrapped in a riddle, covered in a vest, thrown into a bag, and stuffed inside an onion -- suffice to say, it has many layers and interpretations.

NBN has been quick to reject claims that FttN is responsible for lower speeds and customer complaints, pointing the finger instead to a lack of provisioning by retail service providers, who haven't purchased enough capacity.

In turn, the industry hit back and said that the connectivity virtual circuit (CVC) pricing structure is the real handbrake on consumer uptake.

"As it stands, the CVC charging regime may be one of the biggest obstacles to the NBN delivering on what it was intended to deliver ... this is because of the Netflix effect, crudely," David Epstein, Optus vice president of Corporate and Regulatory Affairs, said in April.

"What is unfolding is an intersection of a change in customer behaviours and the product economics of the NBN."

Make no mistake, the CVC issue will remain regardless of who is in power after this election, but the current government appears totally content with having a network artificially stuck at 25Mbps.

Perhaps the most insightful comments from a politician regarding the NBN in the entire campaign appeared earlier this week thanks to independent New England candidate Tony Windsor, who warned what would happen to regional Australia if the Coalition's multi-technology mix plan is followed through.

"What's most likely to happen, when you look at the historical context of country representation, once fibre to the node is in, it's highly unlikely -- given that the current National party representatives are pushing for the second-best technology -- it's highly unlikely that someone's going to come along and say: 'Well, let's rip up what we thought was a great idea and reinstate it in Tamworth', for instance ... so the likelihood of having second-class technology relating to our city cousins is looming very large," he said.

"What I'm trying to do is ... apply the political pressure so that before a community like Tamworth is rolled out to the node, and probably will stay there for 20, 30 years until someone comes out here and changes that again. Before that happens, make sure that the correct technology is put in place to do it once, do it right, do it with fibre."

And here lies the delicious irony of NBN politics in Australia: Those who the market cannot and will not cater for, those who most need high-speed broadband from a government-owned entity, are the very same people who will most agitate about it, and then vote for candidates who offer more of the same.

Regardless of how the result goes on Saturday, it is regional Australia that will suffer the most, either through needing to wait longer for better connectivity under Labor or being stuck with an FttN network for decades to come under the Coalition.

But with Australian elections, it's not the case of needing to choose between the two major parties; there is a veritable menagerie of other parties, each with their own plans for the NBN -- ranging from only 5G to FttP absolutely everywhere.

However, at the end of the day, the actual plan on the ground that gets implemented will either be the one from Labor, or the one from the Coalition.

And in that two-horse race, Labor and its upgrade path is clearly the victor.

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