If there's one thing we can say with confidence about the National Broadband Network (NBN), it's that its opponents will never let the facts get in the way of moaning about it, especially if there's an apparent political advantage in doing so. And so we come inevitably to NSW Deputy Premier Andrew Stoner, who has claimed that the NBN would result in higher power prices for NSW residents. WTF?
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In a widely reported comment, Stoner argued that the need to access power poles for some NBN infrastructure is not being adequately compensated for by NBN Co. AAP reports that Stoner argues there's a $400 million shortfall in the current plan, and that this will ultimately result in higher power prices:
I call on Julia Gillard to listen to the residents of Sydney who are suffering as a result of the high cost of electricity which is due to a number of state but also federal policies of the past.
There are plenty of reasons to assume this claim is a pile of horse excrement. For starters, as even Stoner has acknowledged, the privatisation of electricity in NSW is already viewed as a disaster that hasn't helped consumers and has driven prices up. That actually happened under the previous government, so Stoner doesn't even have to take responsibility for it. But that wouldn't be as politically convenient as blaming a current Federal government of the opposite political persuasion, would it?
Secondly, we don't have any detailed discussion of how these access costs have been calculated. Stoner doesn't want to offer details, but he has taken care to drop Julia Gillard's name into his statement. Good for headlines, not so good for reality.
The bigger issue, however, is that Liberal governments in every other state haven't found any basis for a similar objection. Comms minister Stephen Conroy was quick to latch onto that, and he makes a fair point:
Every other state and territory has finalised sensible commercial arrangements with NBN Co for access to power poles, but the NSW Government wants to charge almost six times as much. NBN Co has negotiated in good faith with the NSW Government for almost two years, but from the moment Barry O'Farrell became Premier, they have been frustrated at every turn.NBN Co is seeking to rent access to the poles only and will cover all design, preparation and installation costs. If NBN Co were to accept what was on the table, it would cost Australian taxpayers an additional $175 million over the life of the NBN, almost six times what utilities in other states and territories are charging.
NBN Co CEO Mike Quigley makes a similar argument:
Putting fibre cables on power poles in NSW brings in more money for the state, not less. Where we have an issue is that whereas we‟ve negotiated fair and reasonable terms with other utilities in other states, the NSW Government wants to charge us far in excess of anybody else. That's unfair to taxpayers. Sharing infrastructure is meant to save taxpayers money. It avoids us having to build more of it. It allows us to roll out the NBN more quickly. And it lessens disruption to communities.
Undoubtedly, it would suit any state government to be able to blame power prices on something other than the realities of how power is priced in its own state. But as a reasoned argument, it just doesn't stand up. Setting a national infrastructure argument up in parochial state-based terms is weak and lazy.