Australia's New Communications Minister: 'We're Technology Agnostic' About The NBN

When leadership changes, there's always the potential for certain passion projects to be brought to the fore. In his previous role as communications minister, Australia's current prime minister's history as a founding face in Australia's internet was at odds with the decision to rationalise and roll-back the rollout of high-speed fibre to the home NBN. That might change. The new Turnbull-led, Liberal goverment is being just a bit cagey about how the NBN might evolve in the coming weeks and months.

Speaking to new communications minister Mitch Fifield, RN Drive host Patricia Karvelas asked about the new ministry's attitude to the NBN rollout — whether new changes are on the way, whether we can expect more fibre to the home:

On RN Drive, my guest is Victorian Senator, Mitch Fifield, the Minister for both Communications and the Arts, in his first interview. What do you make of what the Minister is saying? What changes would you like to the approach that the Minister takes on Communications and the Arts? Now, you’re responsible also for the NBN rollout, are you currently considering further changes to the NBN? 
There are reports from telco analyst, Paul Budde, who apparently received a call just before the leadership spill that a bigger rollout of fibre to the home may be on the cards. Is that on the cards?

And Fifield's response (emphasis ours):

Well Patricia, I’m barely 24 hours into the seat of Communications Minister but look, Malcolm Turnbull has done an incredible job, in turning the NBN around. It was headed for an incredibly expensive rollout, Malcolm has identified a way to deliver broadband to Australians at a much lower cost. The NBN as an organisation is continually learning, They’re continually adapting. 
We’re not fixated with any particular technology to roll out the NBN. In a sense, we’re technology agnostic, and what that means is that over time, there’s the capacity for an evolution in terms of where the balance of technological solutions lies. I’m not indicating anything by that other than to say that we’re technology agnostic and where the business leads, is where the business will go in terms of the solutions that it provides to the community.

As time goes on, we'll learn more and more about any changes that might be occurring, but taking some inference from Fifield's comments, it's a steady course for the government and for the NBN for the time being. There might be some change to the rollout structure, and common sense would suggest that changes would likely see a slight lessening of the build-out prioritisation of fibre to the node over fibre to the home.

A fibre to the home network would allow theoretically faster speeds and more future expansion of the network's maximum throughput versus fibre to the node, which still uses the Telstra-owned copper network to deliver the "last mile" of connectivity from street corners to homes in metropolitan areas. Here's analyst Paul Budde's thoughts (as referenced by Karvelas) on Australia's need for a gigabit-based national broadband network — excerpt below.

...Very few people, if any, will ever make continual use of gigabit networks. However it is very handy if you do need extremely high-speed access – in that 5% of cases. And it will also be appreciated in times of high traffic, in the same way that we appreciate 4-lane freeways during peak hour traffic. 
As only fibre networks will be able to deliver such a quality, neither the former Minister for Communication (now Prime Minster) nor the NBN management talk about the need for such networks. But it is being talked about in places where broadband is not such a politicised issue, and several cities in the USA are building gigabit networks for that purpose.

Karvelas and Fifield also talked about the imminent anti-piracy regime and copyright. Responsibility for developing and enforcing copyright in Australia, including through policing the internet and pushing for anti-piracy reform, has now transferred to the Department of Communications as part of the cabinet re-shuffle. Karvelas:

Now you’ve not only taken the Arts Portfolio from George Brandis, you’ve also taken copyright and internet piracy from him. One plank of the Government’s anti-piracy policy will see internet service providers or ISPs as they’re known, to send copyright infringement warnings to illegal downloaders. That was meant to start on September the first. Why has that stalled? Is it because you can’t decide who should pay for it or because you and Minister Turnbull are keen to get rid of the plan entirely?

Fifield:

You’re right – copyright and classification responsibility has transferred from the Attorney General’s Department to the Communications Department. And part of the rationale is so that you have the Communications Portfolio looking at issues of content, looking at the broad issues of intellectual property, and I’ll confess Patricia, I have not sat down to closely examine the copyright issues in the last 24 hours but that’s certainly on the agenda for the next day or two.

[ABC Radio National]

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