Ed Husic And The War For Australia's Broadband Future

On a battlefield drenched in derp like rainfall drenched the Somme, a war has been fought for four years now and, from all reports, it's a stalemate. Grenades are lobbed over sandbags in an effort to weaken the resolve of the opposing faction on a daily basis. Nobody is ceding ground and neither side will give up. It's a war for the trenches of Australia: the pits and pipes and what should be routed through them and, in a bid to break the stalemate and win the war for Labor, there has been a change in leadership on all levels. Meet the new Three-Star General: Ed Husic, Parliamentary Secretary for Broadband, and get ready to take your orders.


This is the first of our features on the key broadband players in the lead up to the 2013 Federal Election. At Gizmodo, we're for truly fast broadband delivered in the fastest and most cost-effective way possible, and believe that the best thing we can do in the lead-up the hotly contested race for the nation's top job is inform the electorate as best we can about technology issues.

We'll bring you more from both sides of politics in the coming months.


So how do you know Ed Husic? If you've been a Gizmodo reader for a spell, you know that his name has been tossed around in unison with the Australia Tax Inquiry. He wanted to know why Aussies pay more for gadgets, and decided to get a Parliamentary Inquiry together to get to the bottom of it. It's already saving the government money, and in time, it might just save us a few bucks too.

In his former role as Chief Government Whip (a role that sees the Member coral other MPs to make sure they're present for votes while issuing voting instructions) Husic sat on the Inquiry panel, quizzing the heads of Adobe, Apple, Microsoft and others about why they're allegedly gouging Australians.

"Aussies are wasting so much money unnecessarily when it comes to these gadgets," Husic says of his decision to act on the so-called Australia Tax.

Now that he's been moved up the food chain, he's not allowed to be on the IT Pricing Inquiry panel any more, but that doesn't mean it hasn't done wonders for him to make a name for himself in Parliament.

Until last month, Kevin Rudd had been relegated to the backbenches, but he managed to pull Ed Husic aside for a quick chat on his Australia Tax work before the latest leadership spill.

"The [then-former] PM told me before the second spill that some young people came up to him in his electorate to talk about the inquiry. He spoke to me about it because he knows first hand the importance of an inquiry like that, but to be honest, I was still pretty chuffed," Husic beams.

"Other MPs told me that their sons and daughters were also asking about [the inquiry]. This is what gets people going. IT Pricing adds so much waste and inflationary fat that's holding Australia back," he adds.

Through his passion for IT pricing, broadband has always been another area of interest to Husic, and now he's been elevated to a job underneath Deputy Prime Minister and new Communications Minister Anthony Albanese after the resignation of Senator Stephen Conroy recently.

Conroy was ousted as Communications Minister during the leadership spill that saw Kevin Rudd returned to power as Prime Minister of Australia.

It took four people to replace Stephen Conroy as an effective Communications portfolio unit: Deputy Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at the top, with Ed Husic MP, Senator Kate Lundy, and Sharon Bird MP serving underneath him as Parliamentary Secretaries and Regional Communications Minister respectively.

Conroy's old job, according to Husic, was massive. He had to navigate the minefield of deals with Optus, Telstra and NBN Co, while continuing to keep the ACCC and Parliamentary Inquiries satisfied that he wasn't, in fact, building the nation's largest white elephant in history.

Amidst all the paperwork, a chorus began to rise from both the opposition and even the NBN-faithful that Labor wasn't doing a good-enough job at selling the $37.4 billion network to the people. All they saw was vitriol on their televisions and in their newspapers about something presumably only geeks cared about. That's where Ed Husic has to pick up the ball and run with it.

He's here to sell the network.

In a way, Senator Stephen Conroy was the bulldog-like opening act to Husic's brand of fibre-broadband salesmanship. He's not here to take your money or swindle your vote out of you, he just wants you to know exactly what you'll get under Labor. He wants to sell the National Broadband Network to Australia better than Conroy ever could.

"Conroy made sure that the NBN would be able to roll out successfully [from a regulatory perspective] now we can go out and sell it, and it's only when you take a step back and look at the Communications portfolio that you realise the mountainous task that fits onto one pair of shoulders," Husic says in awe while sipping a coffee in Sydney yesterday.

No matter where Husic is sitting, however, his mind is back in his electorate of Chifley [PDF], covering parts of Western Sydney. It's a hard-fought battleground in Western Sydney: elections have been won and lost based on outcomes in the electorates inland from the CBD. Healthcare, education and employment are all high on the list of priorities for voters in the West: problems that Husic believe can be solved with the NBN.

"Western Sydney can't wait for the NBN. It's going to save businesses in my area. We had an NBN sign-up event recently and Telstra had people queuing out the door. These customers are getting faster speeds, more data and they continue to consume content, going on to take up higher plans with more service down the line.

"Previously, businesses in my area had been condemned to dial-up. They really want the NBN. It's actively saving jobs in my area," he says, his eyes lighting up as he told the stories of the locals.

This is what Ed is in the ParlSec chair for: he's here to tell others what it's like to have the NBN, and what they can do with it once it passes their house. For the tech-savvy like you and I, seeing the benefit of fibre is as simple as getting hold of a Speedtest.net screenshot and marvelling at the result, but for others, it may as well be written in hieroglyphics. They need to be told what the NBN is doing in their area before they believe it's probably good for them thanks to the ongoing vitriol sprayed across the populace via the news media day-in-day-out.

Until now, Labor has done a crappy job selling the NBN, but that's about to change according to Ed. He's not alone in his job as the new face of the NBN. He has the help of the very capable Senator Kate Lundy, and new Minister For Regional Communications, Sharon Bird MP. Using a three-pronged attack, these crack politicians will sell the NBN to the bush and the city.

"My role is about working with Kate and Sharon to reinforce the possibilities of the NBN, working with councils and communities in their local areas," Ed says. Back to the grass roots of the electorate to tell them what's what with the fibre in the neighbourhood's diet. Don't scoff at an NBN Co booth at local markets on the weekends: they're part of the initiative. Every bit of advocacy counts in Husic's books.

The trio of left-wing broadband pollies know a storm is coming, however. They know their appointment comes at a crucial time, and they must rise to the occasion or risk letting the side down. The fiercest challenge, of course, comes in the lead up to the next Federal Election.

Depending on what you read these days, you'll know that the Federal Election of 2013 is roughly less than 100 days away. Better start moving your canned goods into the shelters now, because the fight will be tough, and broadband will be one of the key weapons both sides will try to hit each other with.

Husic, Lundy and Bird under Supreme Commanders Rudd and Albanese will go to the mat for their more expensive, platinum-grade fibre-to-the-home service, while opposition Generals Turnbull and Abbott will fight to prove its too expensive, incorrect and a fibre-to-the-node service will do, claiming that it's cheaper and will roll-out sooner.

So what happens to the Labor team of three if they fail? Husic doesn't want to think about it, or at least he doesn't want to appear to have given it serious thought.

"We'll either get it done right the first time, or get it done half-baked under the Coalition," Husic claims. Another grenade lobbed over the sandbags. Husic doesn't want to be tossing grenades or catching those from the Opposition. He just wants to be talking to his people about what can be done with fast broadband. He wants to share stories and do what he thinks is right.

Husic went on ABC Radio Darwin this week, he tells me at the last minute, to debate Malcolm Turnbull over the National Broadband Network versus the Coalition alternative, and tried not to be roped into the "he said, she said" politics of the network. He was there to share what he'd seen so far, but decided he couldn't let what he saw as "blatant inaccuracies" slide.

It's a skirmish we're likely to see repeated between now and September.

So if Labor is voted back in, I ask Ed, will we start to see the NBN start rolling out at an astronomically fast rate? That's the question I have been asked more times than not by non-techie friends and family, and one I wanted a straight answer on.

The simplest answer to give is 'no', says Ed.

"There's a corporate plan already in place for the National Broadband Network: what we're going to do when, where and how we're going to do it. Right now, there are no major changes in direction, and anyone who thinks my appointment to Parliamentary Secretary For Broadband will bring one with it, take a breath.

"The rollout speed will increase gradually over time as planned, and setting artificial targets isn't in anyone's interests.

"We just have to get through the election. We know now that the political environment in this country is more competitive than ever, but the message I want to convey in my new role is simple: places expecting the NBN now have something to hope for if they vote Labor. A durable fix is on the way," he says definitively. No matter the grenades being lobbed over the sandbags, Husic firmly believes that he can work to make Australia better, smarter and faster with fibre.

There's very little to do in the war now that will break the deadlock between FTTH and FTTN. All both sides can do is share their stories in the remaining months before letting the people decide what they want. After all, it's a network for the people at the end of the day.

Choose.

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