Some of that ol' NBN religion

Discussions about Australia's National Broadband Network (NBN) has long since departed the realm of rational existence to become purely symbolic--and it'll stay like that until the election in September.
Written by Stilgherrian , Contributor

In a rational world, something as important as a political party's policies for the nation's broadband infrastructure would refer to objective facts and measures.

There'd be no talk of "super-fast broadband," as if that were actually a unit of measurement. There'd be no lumping of different technologies with widely different performance characteristics under this or any other generic label. We might not necessarily go into the fine details of bonded copper pairs or GPONs versus other kinds of optical fibre distribution, but we'd at least have the decency to talk about actual upload and download speeds, about theoretical maximum speeds versus those that are likely to be obtained in real life, and maybe even about capabilities.

We might even discuss the relationship between upload speeds and download speeds, and the ability for individuals and businesses to be creators and participants in the digital economy and culture, rather than merely consumers.

Opposition communications spokesperson Malcolm Turnbull was spot on the money when he spoke on ABC Radio this morning.

"This is not a religious issue. It is a question of being business-like and getting the balance right, as I said. The problem with this debate is that it is proceeding in some quarters as a quasi-religious debate. It is not.

"This is just about business, it's about engineering and it's about balancing, as I said, the service to be delivered, the cost of delivering it, and the time that it takes to deliver."

You might think that having called for an end to "quasi-religious debate" on the NBN, Turnbull might then have offered something more than an appeal to faith. But no.

"The total cost of our project, I cannot put a dollar amount on it, but it will be much less than what Labor will spend," Turnbull said. "We will tell voters that it will cost substantially less."

Now should the Coalition win the election, as seems likely at this stage, it will indeed be very easy for them to build the NBN for "substantially less." They'll just deliver substantially less.

Their Real Solutions policy document devotes four whole bullet points to broadband policy out of 50 pages--surely an indication in itself of the priority given to digital infrastructure.

"We will, for the first time, do a fully transparent cost-benefit analysis of the National Broadband Network to find out the quickest and most cost-efficient way to upgrade broadband to all areas where services are now unavailable or sub-standard," reads the first point, before having a dig at Labor for not doing a cost-benefit analysis.

The others say that they'll roll out "super-fast broadband using whichever is the most effective and cost efficient technology" using existing infrastructure where possible; that they'll "roll it out faster to high priority areas"; and without "billions of dollars of wasteful spending" on the NBN.

But none of these hand-wavey terms are defined anywhere.

What constitutes "sub-standard" broadband? What is the standard? If it needs upgrading, to what capability will it be upgraded? What is a "high priority area"? What are the target dates?

This isn't a policy. It's empty political rhetoric.

Now this isn't intended to give the government a free kick. I've long maintained that as Australia's largest-ever infrastructure project, the NBN needs to be as open with its financial arrangements as it is with its technology plans. Wrapping things up in a government-owned company shrouded in commercial confidentiality has the potential to hide incompetence and corruption a'plenty, should there be any.

Turnbull claims that rolling out fibre to the node first and then fibre to the home later would cost less. He has a powerful argument involving opportunity costs and the relative value for money spent now versus money spent in the future. Is he right? Well, until he practises what he preaches and shows us some spreadsheets, then it's something we have to take on faith.

It is, in other words, a quasi-religious debate.

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