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Opinion: Australia Voted, Don't Mourn For The National Broadband Network

I’m seeing a lot of people wailing on Twitter, Reddit and Facebook this evening, saying that the National Broadband Network is “dead”. “Goodbye, NBN”, one of my friends wrote. Here’s why you should stop being so dramatic.

Counterpoint: Actually, You Should Mourn The NBN… Here’s Why

This evening, Tony Abbott looks set to be promoted by the majority of the country into the position of Prime Minister-Elect of Australia. He’ll be sworn in soon, and with him will almost definitely come Malcolm Turnbull into the job of Communications Minister after all those years firing potshots from the shadows. With Turnbull and Abbott comes a big shift in the deployment of the National Broadband Network.

The Liberal-National Coalition policy for high-speed broadband, as you probably know by now, doesn’t involve running fast fibre straight to the home at huge cost, it involves running it to nodes at the ends of streets all over the nation, with the last mile between the node and the house to be covered by the existing copper network.

More: Turnbull’s Revised NBN Schedule May Take A Year To Start

Turnbull and Abbott have predicted that the policy of fibre-to-the-node would save approximately $14.6 billion compared to the Labor Party’s strategy. To put that in perspective, that money is just shy of funding the now-previous government’s National Health Reform Agreement program, designed to review and refocus Australia’s healthcare system.

Further perspective: the previous government’s Gonski school reforms were to cost $9.8 billion over six years, while the National Disability Insurance Scheme would cost $19.3 billion over three years.

All of these are big problems that still need fixing, and as you can see, a lot can be done with roughly $15 billion. And that’s the whole point of Turnbull’s FTTN scheme: why are we paying for theoretical possibilities today when we could be paying to fix tangible problems instead?

The chicken vs egg debate in the Australian broadband arena comes down to this: if we build a super-fast network, will the as yet intangible research, scientific and economic dividends show themselves in the next decade or two? Or should we build the network when there’s a real demand for it, like the real demand for more physical infrastructure in the nation? Turnbull and the Coalition have chosen the latter which is disappointing to not back the country’s research and digital development future, but that’s not to say that nobody can ever have fibre again.

Where the copper isn’t reliable enough to run a decent service between a node and a premises, the Coalition plan will see it replaced with fibre. That makes it a case by case thing, which means that not all the money needs to be spent right now. That’s on top of the fact that select areas like universities and research facility will get the fibre service they need to do this important work.

So how tangible are savings garnered from saddling the nation with what looks to be a second-rate, two-speed broadband network for the medium term in order to throw cash on other problems?

In a doorstop interview during the campaign, Turnbull said that a conservative estimate to connect fibre to the node would be about $900, while the cost of connecting a home to fibre to the home would be $3600.

More: Turnbull: Our Broadband Plan Could Cost Same As NBN, But With A Catch

Turnbull argues that because the average household doesn’t need more than 25Mbps right now, the company deploying the network isn’t going to see a return on investment on the FTTH roll-out for some time, and the extra few thousand dollars per home can be invested somewhere it’s actually needed first like hospitals, schools and roads. And therein lies the rub.

That’s what Turnbull is: a businessman. It’s about developing and quickly executing a strategy that will return the best dividend for the most amount of people at once.

So don’t mourn for the NBN we once knew. Sure, the Coalition network isn’t the 100Mbps network we were promised, but now that Lord Abbott is on his way to being the next supreme leader of the nation, we need to accept that the Labour NBN is a dream we’re well and truly being shaken out of.

The bright side is that Malcolm Turnbull accepts the need for fibre broadband and sees the benefit of a national internet infrastructure. He just has a different idea of how to roll it out than the rest of us.

Even if that is cold comfort, take solace in knowing that when the Coalition’s NBN plan does go wrong, you can tell everyone who voted for him that you told them so.

Update:
Alex has written a counterpoint to this piece, and it’s worth noting something quickly: yes, the NBN was going to be paid out of debt rather than a loan with interest and repayments, etc, but the Abbott government is all about smaller public service and a smaller national debt. Tony Abbott ran on a campaign of shrinking the national debt while increasing tangible nation building projects. While it’s a slight misnomer for the Abbott government to say that a direct saving on the NBN is an opportunity to spend more on roads and hospitals, it’s still the campaign that they run and we’re following the same rhetoric by referencing it as such here.

Fast Facts: The Difference Between The Labor and Coalition NBN Plans


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