Which NBN Will We Get?

The election campaign is well into its final week – that period characterised by the political advertising blackout, and, coincidentally, as the moment when opposition parties traditionally choose to release their policy costings for scrutiny. Debate over the NBN has risen to a feverish pitch. It sounds exciting, but it turns out even tedium can be dialled up to an unbearable intensity.

This is understandable, since in a few days the entire matter will be decided either way. Anything one can useful say about Labor’s NBN policy (and reality) should probably be got out of one’s system now, since it seems entirely likely that the Coalition will win.

Perhaps quixotically, tech journalists are still tilting passionately at the Coalition’s broadband network policy. According to broad industry consensus this new policy is considerably better than their equivalent policy from the last election, which was so simplistic that even Tony Abbott could almost talk about it. (Almost.) Nonetheless it is also far worse than Labor’s NBN from a purely technical perspective.

I do wonder whether there has been too much of a focus on the technical perspective. Adam Turner has persuasively argued that the real point behind the NBN – fairness of access and limiting the crippling monopoly of Telstra – has been lost recently amidst constant chatter of technical matters and access and speeds (and cost). He further argued that the Coalition’s plan would merely serve to propagate this issue, since despite its apparent safeguards it still advocates a heterogeneous approach to broadband infrastructure.

Despite it being obviously inferior, and despite the fact that his party with almost certainly be in government by this time next week, Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull continues passionately to defend it. For all that this election is not being fought over tech issues, there probably remains some vestigial concern given the putatively decisive role the NBN played in the last federal election. Not even a landslide is a sure thing until it has occurred. Turnbull will continue to push his alternative FttN solution until the polls close on Saturday evening. (Indeed, Turnbull - or whoever ghost-writes the blog on his website - even took the time to rebut Adam Turner’s article.)

Whether he continues to spruik it much beyond that has been a subject of some debate. There is a school of thought that holds that the cloud of vagueness surrounding the Liberal’s NBN (let’s not pretend the National Party had much to do with it) is there in order to ensure that a predominantly FttN network can be gracefully abandoned once it becomes clear that it must be. Abbott has claimed that the policy is bullet-proof, and in a way it is, in the same way anything constructed from smoke and wind will be. Like most policies formed in opposition, it will be severely altered once the realities of governing kick in, and once better information is available. That’s one of the apparent disadvantages of opposition – they don’t have access to the same figures as the government, and are obliged to make a lot of assumptions. At least, it would be an issue in a country where elections are fought over policy.

Anyway, many assume that the Liberals will discover once they take office that the NBN is already so far along, with too many contracts already signed and so much money already invested, that they’ll simply have to build an FttP network anyway, or something close to it. Time will tell. I suspect they won’t quite go for a fibre-based approach as near-universal as Labor’s, but they’ll be obliged to get closer than their current policy indicates. (For what it's worth I agree with Turner's assumption that this hodgepodge approach will disadvantage many consumers, and leave Telstra with too much power.) There’s also little chance any new network will be finished in the time-frame they’ve given (25Mbps for everyone by 2016). Overall the policy has sufficient wriggle room that it can be amended without wearing too much egg. Really, that's a good thing, though it will inevitable be described as a 'backflip'.

I think the only certainty – assuming that the Coalition takes office – is that any eventual NBN won’t look much like the one in their current policy documents, and it won’t take as long as they say it will, and it what cost what they say it will. It will quite possibly be a bit better - with more fibre over the last mile, and fewer nodes - but it won’t be as good as it should be.