The dilemma at the heart of Labor's NBN policy

Labor's promise of increasing the fibre-to-the-premises footprint is great on paper, but what about those on substandard connections who have waited for years already?
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor

Ever since Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and Shadow Communications Minister Jason Clare unveiled Labor's National Broadband Network (NBN) policy earlier this week, the talking notes from the opposition have featured tales of internet connectivity woe.

"I've run into families running around the country that take their kids to McDonald's every night, not for the food but for the Wi-Fi, because they can't get the speeds that they need at home for the kids to do their homework," Clare said earlier this week.

Shadow Assistant Treasurer Andrew Leigh also chimed in with a story of a small business owner in Burnie.

"He says that sometimes, he has to go down to the shops and get a coffee and come back because he's waiting so long for his file to upload to the server," Leigh said. "That's not a pro-business measure."

However, the story symbolises an issue that Labor has to deal with, one offered by the shadow communications minister.

"In some places, people can't even get ADSL. They might buy a house where it's got ADSL and then by the time they move in, the ADSL port has been allocated to somebody else. And so they find that they are left to access the internet via a dongle," Clare said.

"I met a nurse the other day who has to climb onto the roof of her house in order to download her roster with a laptop and a dongle. That's the sort of problems we are finding right across the country."

At the centre of what the Labor party is offering to voters -- to double the fibre-to-the-premises footprint -- is a trade-off to extend the rollout by two years.

There are many things similar between the Coalition's NBN plan and the new Labor plan: Satellite, fixed-wireless, hybrid fibre-coaxial, seeing out all signed fibre-to-the-node (FttN) contracts.

Clare has said that Labor expects the current multi-technology mix rollout to be delayed until 2022, but he concedes it is not because of FttN.

"That's not because of fibre or because of copper; it is because of the delays with the rollout of the HFC," he said on Monday. "We will keep and use that as well."

So Clare is not disputing the idea of FttN being completed by NBN's 2020 deadline -- he is proposing to delay the fixed-line rollout by two years in exchange for fibre.

For those people waiting to be connected to the NBN in metropolitan areas, complaining that 6Mbps on their ADSL connection is too slow, it's a trade they could be willing to make.

But is Labor ready to tell those they say are climbing on roofs across the country each night that they have to continue the ritual for up to another 24 months?

People are already red hot about not having the NBN connected seven years after Kevin Rudd and Stephen Conroy announced the mostly fibre-to-the-premises NBN, and now Labor is suggesting that some users wait another six.

And that is a best-case scenario under the Labor plan.

One thing supporters of FttP have to concede is that is takes longer and requires more labour and capital layout than the current government's approach, and that in the quest for speeds of over 1Gbps, they are prepared to deny other Australians any form of decent connectivity for over half a decade.

"Fast broadband should be as taken for granted as a good electricity connection in modern Australia," Leigh said.

Which sounds fine and dandy, if the frame of reference is a non-rural property, because it turns out connecting a rural property involves a few more loops, and a lot more cost, than the phrase "taken for granted" would imply.

At least truly remote areas will be able to receive a 25Mbps connection via NBN's satellites, even if they need to power up a diesel generator to run the modem, dish, and internet-using devices.

Should it attain government, Labor will have the unenviable task of deciding which areas are to be the big winners from its policy, and which ones will be the losers.

And unless those making the decision are prepared to put up with an intermittent, expensive internet connection operating at less than 2Mbps for up to an extra 24 months, it will rightly seem unfair to those impacted.

For a party that likes to trade under the banner of fairness, it is a large ask for those in society who are on the wrong side of the digital divide to remain there on the promise of a large payoff far down the track.

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