Will Abbott's Real Solutions include real NBN costings?

Honest pre-election costings would finally put a price on Turnbull’s FttN plan. Will the Coalition follow through, or will it use a post-election cost-benefit analysis to worm out of its long-held opposition to Labor’s network?
Written by David Braue, Contributor

It can be no coincidence that Tony Abbott kicked off this year's election season just days before Gillard's formal announcement of the election. It can also be no coincidence that the National Broadband Network (NBN) gets few mentions in the Coalition's Real Solutions manifesto; its relatively light-touch approach to the NBN is a significant departure from its 2010 election strategy--and a suggestion that it'll use the vaunted cost-benefit analysis (CBA) as a get-out-of-jail-free card.

They're promising Real Solutions in broadband and elsewhere--but will the Coalition follow through on its promise to cost them?(Screenshot by David Braue/ZDNet)

The jail to which I refer, of course, is that untenable position in which a stubbornly on-message, technically illiterate Tony Abbott has maintained by continuing to rail against the NBN. This has created troubles for Malcolm Turnbull, who has impressively parried a profoundly interested media in a war of words that started out as policy dogma but has increasingly become an uphill battle against the reality of today's NBN.

Turnbull, in his uncomfortable role as both an advocate for high-speed broadband and a nemesis of Labor's plan to deliver it, has been scooching toward a middle ground that would appease both his taskmasters and the progress-minded supporters of that party's project.

First came his significant back flip on separating Telstra; then, the admission that the Liberals were not in fact sleeping with their pickaxes at hand in anticipation of digging up the fibre laid to date; and now, efforts to paint the Liberals' fibre-to-the-node (FttN) broadband as delivering nearly equivalent services to Labor's fibre-to the-premises (FttP) version.

"We will roll out super-fast broadband using whichever is the most effective and cost-efficient technology, and we will use existing infrastructure where we can," the Real Solutions document stated. "We will roll it out faster to high priority areas...We will end billions of dollars of wasteful spending on the NBN and deliver more of the modern infrastructure we urgently need while encouraging competition wherever possible to put downward pressure on prices."

That's a big change from the Liberals' 2010 election platform (PDF), which promoted HFC, DSL, and fixed wireless, and didn't even mention the possibility that the Coalition would support FttP as part of its solution.

That policy committed AU$2 billion to building fixed-wireless broadband networks, pushed for "100Mbps down to a minimum of 12Mbps peak speed" broadband, and threatened, in writing and in rhetoric, to "cancel" Labor's NBN. The old policy--which, because it's still posted at the Coalition's policy website, is apparently still its official policy--called Labor's project "reckless and expensive," and channelled Abbott's obsession with blanched pachyderms.

Turnbull has been scooching toward a middle ground that would appease both his taskmasters and the progress-minded supporters of that party's project.

These days, Turnbull has dispensed with the 12Mbps figure, focusing on what he claims will be up to 80Mbps peak speeds through the magic of VDSL. He continues to provide scant detail about how this will happen, how the party will negotiate its way to take over a copper network it doesn't own, and what kind of costs will really be involved in bringing his plan to fruition.

Indeed, it is getting harder and harder--in a political sense--for the Liberals to carelessly slam Labor's NBN plan, as they said in their 2010 manifesto, as "reckless and expensive." The real costs of the network are better known now--and much lower--than they were three years ago; its slow ramp-up is now finally showing signs of gaining momentum; and eager support from those who can get the network shows that the NBN is a pretty sure vote winner. The Coalition doesn't want to squander this.

Clarity may finally come later this year, after coalition manager of opposition business Christopher Pyne said that the Opposition will release its policy costing "sometime after the budget, and before the federal election."

Given that even a coalition-led FttN network would still be the most significant and expensive single government project currently being undertaken, it follows that these costings must include a detailed assessment of the cost of the party's NBN alternative--and by "detailed," I mean one that evaluates the real cost of implementation in the current market, and not just reiterating Turnbull's fanciful AU$15 billion figure.

Turnbull has long refused to offer such detail, but he may be painting himself into a corner. If the Coalition's NBN is costed at last, we'll have some real numbers with which to weigh this particular Real Solution against Labor's own solution.

If the Coalition decides not to cost its NBN alternative, it will be all but admitting that it cannot, in fact, deliver the NBN at an appreciably lower cost than Labor. Given the mind-numbing rhetoric of the past three years, this would be a significant admission.

There's no telling whether Quigley has circled September 14 in red on his calendar as the last date of his employ, yet with a date confirmed at least the company can make some accurate predictions as to exactly where it will be come election time.

In the meantime, however, we can expect Turnbull to provide as few answers as possible to difficult questions, and keep pushing the party's "Real Solutions" official line--which is to "deliver broadband faster, sooner, and at less expense to taxpayers and consumers than Labor's NBN"--until he's blue in the face.

Costings or not, the Coalition's endgame may well lie with its much-vaunted CBA. If that CBA suggests that continuing the FttP rollout is more cost effective than switching canoes in the middle of this particular stream, the Coalition will throw its hands in the air, blame Labor for tying its hands, and wash its hands of the whole thing while Abbott starts building his precious highways.

I suspect that this is the real agenda behind Turnbull's intransigence and the party's new policy: It's a get-out-of-jail-free card that will allow Turnbull and Abbott to deliver the broadband outcome the country wants without compromising their long-held opposition to the project.

There's no telling whether NBN Co CEO Mike Quigley has circled September 14 in red on his calendar as the last date of his employ, but, with a date confirmed, at least the company can make some accurate predictions, based on the current run rate, as to exactly where it will be come election time. Whether even the most optimistic modelling can save Labor from the electorate's wrath remains to be seen.

What do you think? Will we be kissing the NBN goodbye on September 15? Or will the Coalition use the CBA to extricate itself from years of unsubstantiated rhetoric? And, more broadly, how big a factor will the NBN be in the election?

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