Labor's NBN election sweeteners may turn saccharine

Labor is naturally keen to paint its NBN strategy as offering the most for voters, but giving too much, too early could very well backfire on the party by empowering Turnbull's alternative in the election run-up.
Written by David Braue, Contributor

After a disastrous and chaotic week in Labor's internal politics, it seems almost farcical for the party's communications minister and newly elected Senate leader, Stephen Conroy, to go back to spruiking the National Broadband Network (NBN) and announce that fixed wireless and satellite services will run twice as fast as previously advertised.

That sort of thing may play well in election-strategy working groups, and it's only natural that the party should be seizing on anything it can to improve its palatability for voters over the next seven months. This urgency is compounded by what will be the inevitable efforts of the Coalition to discount the NBN as a disaster based on rollout statistics that can be easily manipulated to say whatever you want them to say.

A boost to baseline speeds, however, is a different kettle of fish. If Labor keeps trying to impress the Australian public with ever-grander NBN gifts — could the promise that Labor will deliver 1Gbps and not 100Mbps to every house be far behind? — even a coalition NBN could become such an appealing proposition for voters that it won't actually matter who's elected, come September.

Malcolm Turnbull's biggest problem has long been that he's trying to sell a different, and putatively less-capable, version of Labor's NBN to voters who are already getting it. He's pushing for change where many will feel no change is necessary. He is, in short, selling the electorate New Coke when all people want is the same old stuff they've become used to since Labor announced its NBN nearly four years ago.

If the party keeps trying to impress the Australian public with ever-grander NBN gifts ... even a Coalition NBN could eventually become such an appealing proposition that it won't actually matter who's elected.

We know how New Coke fared in the long term. Yet, despite its best intentions, Labor is similarly muddying its own message by toying with the speeds of its services.

Consider the announcement that the satellite service will now run at 25Mbps download and 5Mbps upload speeds — double those previously suggested. Set aside the mind-bogglingly awful latency of a satellite solution for a moment, and those speeds are a huge jump forward for rural and regional Australians.

There are political, if not technical, downfalls. One is that pushing speed parity between satellite and fixed wireless will attenuate the urgency with which NBN Co has been pursuing local councils around the country to allow the construction of wireless towers.

The unspoken (and sometimes spoken) threat behind this rollout — that communities will receive slower satellite services if they don't approve NBN Co's tower installations — will hold far less sway if those satellite services run as fast as long-term evolution (LTE). You and I know there's a big difference between the two (latency again), but try explaining that to council ward representatives who see opposition to the big, bad Labor government as a sure-fire vote getter.

Labor's bigger problem in offering such election-time promises, however, is that it may permanently improve its NBN model to the point that Labor itself is no longer needed to ensure NBN outcomes.

I've already contemplated the possibility that the Coalition is simply maintaining its vociferous opposition to Labor's NBN as a ruse until it can perform a full cost-benefit analysis, seize the moral upper hand, and then resignedly shout that the fibre NBN rollout is already too far gone to stop now.

That strategy would be based largely on claims that Labor's contracts are too binding, and with too many punitive clauses, to justify cancelling them. One school of thought will have Labor committing to as many contracts as possible before the election to ensure the NBN's survival — witness the recent issuing of contracts for multi-dwelling units (MDUs). In conventional political parlance, this would be the poison pill that Labor uses to make the Coalition's life harder if it wins government.

If a coalition government decides Labor contracts for the launch of a Ka-band satellite cannot be broken, Stephen Conroy will have just made the Coalition's own NBN platform that much stronger by closing the satellite-LTE divide.

Yet the Coalition could prove quite immune, politically, to the poison. If a coalition government decides that Labor's contracts for the launch of a Ka-band satellite cannot be broken, Stephen Conroy will have just made the Coalition's own NBN platform that much stronger by closing the satellite-LTE divide.

Malcolm Turnbull has previously (and incorrectly) slammed Labor's satellite strategy as frivolous and unnecessary — but with the discretion to selectively preserve the contracts behind it, Turnbull will be free to cherry pick anything he wants from Labor's contracts.

Improving fixed wireless too much before the election could also be a Labor own-goal for another reason: It will give Turnbull's alternative NBN plan, which is based primarily on fibre to the node (FttN) but also on fixed wireless and fibre in new developments, greater legitimacy.

After all, if NBN Co's LTE towers can deliver a guaranteed service far better and more predictably than ADSL over Telstra's decrepit copper, what's to stop Turnbull from dialling back the percentage of premises where fixed infrastructure will be upgraded, and replacing them with fixed wireless that Conroy has just made ADSL comparable?

The ability to deliver 25/5Mbps services over fixed wireless, with its quite reasonable latency, could significantly elevate the status of the Coalition's NBN alternative in many voters' eyes. Spectrum permitting, Turnbull could easily specify fixed-wireless services in ADSL black spots, even in metropolitan areas — quickly fixing the most egregious broadband deficiencies.

It will also do away with long-running talk of a 12Mbps floor speed for NBN services; 25Mbps is the new 12Mbps, and if Turnbull runs with that promise, many voters will decide that's a good enough result — and a small price to pay for the removal of a Labor government that, despite its best efforts, cannot seem to stop stepping on its own toes.

Coca-Cola learned quickly not to mess with something that people don't want changed. But if Labor continues to build the NBN's value proposition based on improvements that can be just as easily implemented by a Coalition government, by election time it may find that it has already done all the hard work for a Tony Abbott-led government. And, when it comes to the NBN, most people will have no problem with change at all.

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