Turnbull must now prove himself on the NBN

After three years of opposing and criticising the NBN project, it's now the problem of incoming Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

The heir apparent to the federal communications portfolio, Malcolm Turnbull, will need to quickly turn the National Broadband Network (NBN) project around and get some runs on the board with his fibre-to-the-node alternative in order to maintain credibility after his three-year-long campaign against the NBN.

Following a decisive election victory on Saturday, Prime Minister-Elect Tony Abbott is expected to announce his new Cabinet later this week, and be sworn in early next week.

Turnbull has said that he expects to retain his communications portfolio and become the next communications minister to succeed Labor's Anthony Albanese.

Far from immediately setting about to destroy the NBN as Abbott had originally stated three years ago, Turnbull's plans (PDF) are much closer to the existing NBN project than anyone could have conceived just three years ago.

The Coalition went to the election promising an AU$29.5 billion NBN, which would shift away from being fibre to the premises for 71 out of every 93 premises that were due to get it under Labor, and will now instead get fibre to the node, with the Coalition aiming to use Telstra's existing copper line between the node and each premises to provide services.

But before all that happens, the Coalition has promised to conduct three reviews into the NBN. Firstly, a 60-day NBN Co strategic review, which will outline the progress and cost of the project so far, and estimated time to complete the current NBN design versus the Coalition's proposal. The result will include recommendations on how NBN Co should be restructured under the Coalition.

There will also be an independent audit looking at the process that led to NBN Co's establishment, and the decision why the last government decided to go down the path of a fibre-to-the-premises project without conducting a cost-benefit analysis.

And finally, Turnbull will get his cost-benefit analysis at long last, looking at exactly what technology and what regulatory environment best suits Australia when it comes to broadband.

While the Coalition has made large promises around what sort of NBN we can expect under an Abbott government, these three reviews could potentially radically change the project.

Turnbull has said that he expects the reviews will vindicate his position, and they well could, but as incoming governments are sometimes known to do, the reviews could encourage a radical change in policy against any sort of NBN on the grounds of a "budget emergency" or some other inexplicable reason that justifies a change in policy.

It is optimistic at best for NBN fans to expect the reviews to suggest that the existing network design should continue.

Either way, Turnbull has a lot on his plate. There will no doubt be a period where he publishes a whole bunch of previously confidential documents that will make the last government look bad. He'll probably cull the headcount in NBN Co, replace the board, and pick a new, more Coalition-friendly CEO. But after that, he doesn't have a lot of time to get momentum building on the project.

The Coalition has promised that by the end of 2016, all Australian premises will have access to download speeds of at least 25Mbps. The Australian public has all too clear a memory of all the criticism Turnbull unleashed on Labor for failing to meet its NBN targets, so we'll all be watching how the NBN is tracking over the next three years to see if the Coalition's plan was more than just talk.

Turnbull also said that transparency would be the new watchword for NBN Co. Hopefully this means that the company will provide much more data about how it is reaching its targets, and how much the project is costing, rather than just paying mere lip service to transparency once all the Labor shaming has been done.

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