The ghost of policy past will haunt the Coalition's broadband future

At the 2010 policy launch, Tony Abbott was nowhere to be seen. In 2013, he was the beaming, awkward sidekick.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor on

When then-Shadow Communications Minister Tony Smith and Shadow Finance Minister Andrew Robb announced their $6 billion NBN alternative plan just a week out from the 2010 election, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott was nowhere in sight.

Image: Screenshots by Josh Taylor

As Robb explained at the time, Abbott was in Sydney making an announcement about "boat people". It wasn't a good look. The two MPs were also barely across the detail of their own policy. The AU$6 billion policy at the time included AU$2.75 billion for an open-access fibre backhaul network to be built with the private sector, AU$1 billion for a wireless network in outer metropolitan Australia, AU$1 billion for regional wireless networks, AU$750 million to fix exchanges so that more people could get access to ADSL2+, and funding for satellite services.

The Coalition policy would be to, ultimately, sell off the National Broadband Network (NBN) and let the private sector fix broadband in Australia.

"The private sector is quite capable of identifying where there is a demand for fibre to the home," Robb said at the time.

The announcement contained a few heated exchanges with journalists over the policy, and wasn't helped by Smith then having to directly go to a debate with Communications Minister Stephen Conroy and Greens communications spokesperson Scott Ludlam, where the policy looked incredibly weak against the NBN fibre-to-the-premises project already under way.

Abbott himself didn't assist things that night when he appeared on The 7:30 Report, where, while trying to sell the policy, he uttered the immortal words: "I'm no Bill Gates here, and I don't claim to be any kind of tech head in all of this."

The Coalition proposal was blasted by the industry, and the party was branded as luddites by many. When Independent MP Tony Windsor sided with Labor after the election, he said the tipping point for him was broadband policy. The party's post mortem of the 2010 election showed that broadband was an area where the Coalition had been very weak.

But close to three years later, with a new Shadow Communications Minister in Abbott's former leadership rival Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Abbott was only too happy to stand — albeit awkwardly — next to "Mr Broadband" as he announced the Coalition's $29 billion NBN-alternative, which is in reality, just a hybrid of Labor's 2007 fibre-to-the-node policy and Labor's 2009 fibre-to-the-premises policy.

"We believe in a National Broadband Network and we will deliver a better National Broadband Network faster and more affordably than this government possibly can," Abbott boasted. And Tony the Tech Head was born.

"Under the Coalition, by 2016 ... there will be minimum download speeds of 25 megabits, and up to 100," he said. "By the end of our second term, should we get one, by 2019, the vast majority of households will get access to 50 megabits, or 10 times current speeds.

"We will be able to do this because we will build fibre to the node, and that eliminates two-thirds of the cost."

Gone is the talk of making it all private investment and getting government out of the business of broadband. NBN Co will remain off-budget, and the government will keep owning it for quite a while under both parties. At this point, it even seems like the Coalition will keep the NBN name. While there is a fair amount of disagreement between the two parties over the cost and going with fibre right to the premise, it is a submission to Labor that it was onto something about the need for all this superfast broadband business.

But their policy would deliver what they call adequate speeds of at least 25 megabits-per-second by 2016, and at least 50Mbps by 2019 over fibre to the node, rather than as much as 1 gigabit-per-second over fibre to the premise by 2021.

The — for lack of a better word — derp on social media when the Coalition announced its policy was not totally unsurprising. The memes came thick and fast. "It's #fraudband!" they cried. A picture of a floppy disk representing Coalition policy, and the old lines about the number of computers needed in the world and the amount of RAM required were some of the more common ones.

Fraudband, amusingly, was what Conroy labelled the Coalition's 2007 broadband policy while promoting his own fibre-to-the-node policy.

The debate over the last few days has largely been over what is an acceptable speed for internet in Australia. The Coalition now argues that the average person won't really need more than 25Mbps in 2016, so the more cost-effective plan makes sense. Labor argues that demand will grow over time, and doing fibre to the premises now at a higher cost will save having to go back to do it in 10 or 20 years time.

Compared to its 2010 policy, the Coalition's 2013 policy is very thorough and well-researched, albeit with questionable methodology that puts Labor's policy at up to AU$94 billion in costs. But no matter how much work Turnbull has put in on his policy, with its lengthy background document to go with it, the Coalition is still branded as being luddites, in large part because of just how badly the party stuffed it up at the last election.

But while Twitter seems to be maintaining the fraudband rage, I suspect that in the wider community, people are much less concerned. In reality, NBN Co's own projections show that the company expects a lot of people to be taking up the lower tiered plans on the NBN for the first few years of service. In FY2016, NBN Co has forecast that over 70 percent of users will be on plans at 25Mbps or less, while by 2028, slightly under 50 percent will be on plans at 50Mbps or less.

Of course, that could be very conservative. Early uptake rates show users are by and large opting for 100Mbps plans. Though, NBN Co has said that this is likely an early-adopter issue, and it expects the ratio to more align with the company's forecast as customers switch over from the copper network.

There are many things in the Coalition's current policy that, had it been the 2010 policy, could have easily swung many voters, or perhaps even enough of the independents over to their side to have secured government. Whether that will be the case in 2013 remains to be seen.

But Turnbull announcing the policy close to five months out from the election can only be a good thing. Voters now have two defined and distinct policies to choose from. When all the invective and hyperbole from both sides this week dies down, there will be plenty of time for rational discussion and debate about the best broadband for Australia.

This is a fight that both Conroy and Turnbull can't wait to have.

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