NBN hearing descends into design sledging

Malcolm Turnbull has today used a public hearing into the National Broadband Network (NBN) to once again criticise the network's cost and objectives, lambasting the government and NBN Co's chief Mike Quigley.
Written by Luke Hopewell, Contributor

Malcolm Turnbull has today used a public hearing into the National Broadband Network (NBN) to once again criticise the network's cost and objectives, lambasting the government and NBN Co's chief Mike Quigley.

Turnbull took the swipe at the government and NBN Co via his blog after putting questions to a panel that included Quigley and Peter Harris, secretary of the Department of Broadband Communications and the Digital Economy.

Senator Doug Cameron asked Quigley and Harris whether or not there had been a recent analysis undertaken of different technologies — such as wireless — to power the government's NBN.

Quigley answered, "We looked at a range of technologies, but we haven't, however, done recently an extensive analysis."

Quigley did say, however, that NBN Co is very well aware of alternative and emerging technologies that could be used to speed up or optimise the NBN.

"We need to keep ourselves aware of other technologies," he said.

Turnbull, in a blog post entitled "Quigley makes it clear that NBN design all about politics", stirred the situation by writing:

In the NBN Joint Select Committee today, NBN chief executive Mike Quigley confirmed that he had been instructed by the Labor Government to deliver a broadband network that would deliver 100 megabits per second to at least 90 per cent of the population by fibre to the premises.

When I asked him if he had been asked whether there were any other technologies that could deliver 100 megabits per second, he said he had not been asked. I then queried if he had been asked whether 100 megabits per second was the appropriate bandwidth requirement for households, and he said that he had not been asked about that either — it was part of his brief.

In these answers, Mr Quigley has emphatically confirmed the Labor Government made no effort to determine the most cost-effective way of delivering a national broadband network, did not consider any alternative technologies to fibre (or re-using current networks) and did not investigate whether 100 megabits per second was an appropriate speed to target.

Harris sought to defend the network against Turnbull's sledging, saying that it is impossible for the public service to design a policy that suits both the agenda of a sitting government and the opposition.

"The [public sector] will advise the government of the day the benefits and risks [of plans] that the government chooses. You can't design policy for an alternative government as the public sector. You can only design policy for the government of the day.

"If you take that template and apply it to policy in the other areas, you end up with the public sector building policy to anticipate the democratic process. It's not plausible, and in my view it's dangerous for the public sector to design policy ... for a party that's not the government of the day," Harris said.

Labor MP Ed Husic also got on the front foot, asking the Productivity Commission later in the day how many of the Coalition's alternative national broadband plans had been submitted for a cost-benefit analysis.

"I have seen none," Mike Woods, deputy chairman of the Productivity Commission replied, which led to Husic posting the exchange on his Twitter page.

"Just asked Productivity Comm'n how many of the Coalition's 19 broadband plans were referred to it for "cost/benefit" analysis. Answer? None," the MP tweeted.

Meanwhile, Turnbull has agreed to take a meeting with Quigley so that the two can chew the fat over the network design, and build costs after Senator Cameron asked about the progress of talks between the two.

"Mr Turnbull raised, at the last hearing, the issue of technology choices. I think you offered him a briefing on tech choices, that hasn't been taken up?" Cameron asked.

Quigley answered in the negative before Turnbull hastily responded, "I'm very happy to sit down with you. At lunchtime!"

The hearing is set to continue until tomorrow.

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