NBN connections should be mandatory

The Tasmanian Opposition is right to propose that Australians should have to opt out from having their houses connected to National Broadband Network fibre cables — not have to opt-in as the process currently stands.

commentary The Tasmanian Opposition is right to propose that Australians should have to opt out from having their houses connected to National Broadband Network (NBN) fibre cables — not have to opt in as the process currently stands.

Last week, Liberal MP Michael Ferguson asked Tasmanian Premier David Bartlett in an estimates committee why this wasn't already the case. Bartlett hummed and hawed but really couldn't give Ferguson a good answer. Instead, he passed the buck — stating that it wasn't for the government to answer the question but promising to take the question to the Tasmanian branch of the NBN Company.

However, there are already plenty of good reasons why all Australians should have to actively opt out from having their houses connected to the NBN, rather than having to opt in.

The first and most obvious one is efficiency.

As Ferguson pointed out in a later statement, doing a cable drop to all houses in a suburb while technicians are in the area would make the whole process tremendously more efficient. If you're connecting thousands of homes over a period of months, after all, you're going to get pretty good at it — and the amount of time you spent on each one will decrease.

Economies of scale will kick in and the whole process will become something that is quite automated and predictable as technicians work out the various categories of trouble cases and sort out standard solutions for them.

This approach also plays into the idea that telecommunications should be seen as a utility. Do Australians need to request that electricity is physically connected to their premises when they move in? Or water? Or sewerage? Or the roads that we drive on? Of course not. These things are basics that run right to our door and have for some time. Telecommunications — in the future fibre paradigm — should be treated just the same.

The argument becomes even stronger when you take the converse case.

One of the main problems with the roll-out of hybrid-fibre coaxial (HFC) cable by both Telstra and Optus (which can be taken as an example of how NBN Co should not roll out its fibre network) is that the HFC cable didn't run to all premises. Apartment blocks, particularly, were left out of the cable broadband gold-rush because of the difficulties of getting notoriously argumentative strata authorities to agree on anything — least of all whether the whole apartment block should be expensively wired for cable.

Mandating an opt-out model for the NBN would solve many of these issues right from the get-go. You don't want the NBN fibre to run right past your front door — but be unable to access it because your penny-pinching strata secretary just doesn't see the value in the technology.

There are also other strong sociological reasons for the NBN to be rolled out on an opt-out model.

If you have been watching the Greens in parliament recently, you will note that the party has been making various noises about what it terms the potential "ubiquity" of online services in the future. In the Senate Select Committee on the NBN this year, Greens Communications Spokesperson Scott Ludlam noted the following comments by the Northern Territory's ICT minister:

The fundamental value proposition of the National Broadband Network isn't so much its speed (although important), but its potential ubiquity... It could connect the 25 to 30 per cent of homes that are not internet connected and enable a whole range of services, including some government services, to be delivered to householders regardless of whether they have subscribed to a retail broadband service or not.

In essence, what the Greens appear to be saying is that if all premises were to have NBN fibre connected virtually as a mandatory imposition, it would allow governments and other public interest service providers to provide basic services and information to them — regardless of whether they were paying for full internet access.

For example, even if you didn't pay for a full NBN internet connection, you might still be able to use your free access to pay your taxes, access information on government websites, access educational resources and maybe even — at some stage in the future — vote.

Essentially, the idea is that at some level, essential government services — potentially from your local council, State Government, hospital, public school, Federal Government and so on — would become similar to iiNet's Freezone. You wouldn't need to pay to access them — they would just be bundled as part of the ubiquitous fibre broadband.

Leaving this door open could even be what the Federal Government had in mind when it decided to make allowances in its NBN legislation for NBN Co to supply services directly to some users, going against its stated aim that the company would only provide wholesale services.

And it would make sense.

Now at the moment the Federal Government has not signalled that it will go down the "opt-out" path for the NBN, although we've put the question to both NBN Co and the office of Communications Minister Stephen Conroy this morning, to ask what the pair think of the idea.

Our current government appears to see the NBN as much more of an enabler for the commercial telecommunications sector, rather than as a key piece of government infrastructure.

Overall, its approach is more consistent with the American capitalist notion of driving better services through competition, and letting the market provide the best outcome, rather than the somewhat Scandinavian notion of ubiquitous access and better services for all, often from the government purse.

But I think it's about time we at least had the debate. Let's stop talking about whether 30, 40 or 50 per cent of Australians would opt in to NBN fibre services straight away when the network is rolled out. Let's start talking about how we can make sure this network is fully utilised, and that by default it's available everywhere and to everyone.