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Labor faces reality on NBN but the dream died long ago

Liberal party may crow that its version of the NBN won out, but that's because it oversaw the network for most of its life.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor
(Image: NBN)

It's quite fitting that it took ten argumentative years since the National Broadband Network kicked off on April 6, 2009, for Labor to finally make do with what is in the ground.

The network is pretty much done -- either the build is complete, or designs and contracts have been signed off across the nation, and the Turnboolean NBN has won out, warts and all.

Anyone expecting the Labor party to descend from the skies and present a plan endorsing the return to a full fibre rollout where possible has ignored the one topic that has constantly dogged the project: Cost.

By the time the NBN is done, the project will cost somewhere in the range of AU$50 billion.

To turn the boat around now, especially given the history of how bad the Turnbull-induced first turnaround was, would increase the cost of the NBN by a few more tens of billions.

What was Labor meant to do in this situation? Come into government and sink any chance of delivering a first surplus since the 80s because it needed to give NBN an extra AU$20 billion to switch every fibre-to-the-node connection in the country to fibre-to-the-premises? That sort of thinking is to ignore political reality.

Should Labor be successful in the May election, history will show Labor and the Coalition split the difference in time served overseeing the project, but critically, Labor will be at the ends of the timeline, and not in the middle.

It would have been much easier for an incoming Labor government to have come in after the Coalition was responsible for the opening six years of the NBN, to then add more fibre into the project.

Last time: Australia voted for the FttN NBN, again, and that's what we'll get

Even in the 2016 election, Labor was forced to concede that some of the Coalition's multi-technology mix would remain. It promised to shift two million premises back to full fibre, but that was all it could manage.

We are now three years further down the road, and the die has been well and truly cast by this point.

"Labor's NBN policy released today is the final admission the Coalition's plan .... has worked," Communications Minister Mitch Fifield crowed.

"Labor's announcement today is a complete capitulation."

Contrary to Fifield's assertions, Labor's plan will be to play around the edges because that is all there is left to argue about.

Australia had two elections to decide whether it wanted FttN or not, but the topic is just not a vote shifter. Now the consequences of those actions are showing themselves and they must be dealt with.

The NBN has an economics problem -- its wholesale prices are too high and retailers are beginning to flee the network. The ACCC is questioning the fairness of NBN's plans as it chases returns to hit its targets, and the network will need to refinance its government loan sooner or later.

The economics gives the company a technology problem as it prevents any widespread upgrade path on the network to remedy the faults that users have already found with FttN and cable connections.

Not to mention the issues with fixed wireless congestion and the need for satellite capacity and voice services that have been baked into the NBN since the day Stephen Conroy and Kevin Rudd announced it.

Six years ago, prior to talking up his role as Communications Minister, Malcolm Turnbull steadfastly refused to commit to an upgrade path for the NBN beyond FttN.

"The man who claimed once that John Howard broke the nation's heart is about to take the NBN and embark on a Tin Man impression of his own," I wrote at the time.

We now live in a world where that scenario has come to pass, and it will be left to the brokenhearted, if Labor is elected, to pick up the pieces.

If you were going to start the NBN today, you would not begin at this point. Labor's new NBN plan is an admission of the world as it is, not as people lovingly looking back to a decade ago it wished it could be.

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