Waleed Aly Is Right About The NBN

Opinion: The government's NBN roll-out is running behind schedule. At least, that's according to leaked documents quoted by The Project and Waleed Aly, in last night's "Something We Need To Talk About" segment. Who to blame? Tony Abbott, Aly says, and "the guy who he says invented the internet", Malcolm Turnbull.

Waleed Aly is right, inasmuch as he's saying that the NBN -- in whatever form it has taken since the Rudd government created NBN Co -- has always been just as much about politics as it has been about connecting Australia to the world with universal high-speed broadband wherever possible.

Fibre image via Shutterstock

A lot of people seem to forget that the NBN first started as a purely fibre to the node proposal by Telstra -- just Telstra, with no political party backing. When that failed to raise approval from the ACCC, it stumbled, Telstra backed down, and the NBN was later rebirthed by the G9 group of carriers. That, too, didn't get off the ground. These proposal were relatively straightforward, and purely commercial.

Then when the first iteration of the Rudd Labor government took power in 2007, the NBN became political. It was a key part of the then-government's election platform, and constituted a plan to build a FTTP, FTTN, fixed wireless and satellite network -- a mix of multiple technologies already, if not a multi-technology mix -- to cover 98 per cent of Australia's population with speeds of 100Mbps or 12Mbps.

That network was initially pegged at $43 billion to construct, with completion in 2021. Costs fell, costs rose again, delays blossomed, plans were altered along the way. Then the 2013 Federal election happened, the Liberal Party took governmental power, and the then-Communications minister Malcolm Turnbull requested NBN Co change its network design to a mix of fibre to the home, fibre to the node, existing hybrid fibre-coaxial networks from Telstra and Optus, and existing fixed wireless and satellite.

Waleed Aly's six-minute video is a simple explanation of this. There are some oversimplifications along the way, though -- for example, the Labor NBN's "speeds of up to 1Gbps" were a promise that never properly eventuated with mainstream fibre to the premises.

Aly's argument hinges on the Liberal Party's April 2013 announcement of its alternative to the then-NBN, a statement from Opposition leader Tony Abbott that "under the Coalition, you'll have much, much faster broadband, much more quickly, and much more affordably than under the current [Labor] government." (It's at 1:30 through the video, if you want to watch it.) That multi-technology-mix "mongrel network" -- as described by Greens Senator Scott Ludlam -- is the subject of Aly's rant.

The MTM NBN focused (and focuses) more heavily on fibre to the node, not fibre to the premises. With on-screen graphics, the Project host says the FTTN network "bottlenecks" to a maximum speed of 25-50Mbps on copper wire between node and home. This isn't entirely accurate -- FTTN can reach speeds up to and beyond 100Mbps, when the right technology (like VDSL2 with vectoring) is used.

The promise of the MTM NBN being finished by 2019 at the government's 2014 announcement is absolutely worth criticising, though -- especially when the Liberal Party lambasted the Labor Party for its own delays and cost blow-outs. Similarly, the recalculated $41 billion figure for the MTM NBN's construction neared that $41 billion proposal for a mostly FTTP network, and later ballooned further to $56 billion. Now, the Labor Opposition attacks the Liberal government for NBN delays, costs and failings.

This is politics.

We can't say how much the fibre to the premises NBN would have cost if its roll-out continued without stopping. We can't say when it would have been completed, either; what we can guess is that it's unlikely that it would have been the figures and dates used by The Project for this segment, based on the cost-and-time trends that we saw before 2013 and that contributed to the change of government.

Gold Logie bullshit aside, The Project's segment is right to criticise the 2016 rollout of the NBN. It hasn't been smooth sailing in the last nine years for either political party. But the segment is a political whipcrack at the Liberal-run MTM NBN when it's likely the other guys would have done much the same in the long run anyway.

We don't know whether the old NBN would have changed to FTTdp, as the new one suggested by the government probably will and the potential one proposed by Labor probably will too. Technology evolves, plans evolve with it, and anyone looking back at the Labor FTTP NBN has rose-tinted glasses on if they think it was the perfect solution to the problem of Australia's national internet crisis.

Australians are using more data -- 40 per cent more in June of last year than the year before it. That naturally suggests we'd ideally choose a network with more bandwidth and more potential for future bandwidth. But not when politics get in the way -- and they have, and will continue to. I've written before that the NBN debate will never be over, and don't expect that this segment will change the argument.

Aly finishes by talking about national infrastructure projects -- the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Snowy Mountains Scheme. These cost a lot of money, took a long time, and made a lot of people unhappy throughout their construction. The NBN will continue to be rolled out, whichever government is in power. But if you think it was ever going to be the perfect silver bullet for our internet woes, that idea should have gone right out the window when politics got involved.

(By the way -- for what it's worth, I don't think that anyone with an ounce of sense thought for a second that anyone was reasonably suggesting that Malcolm Turnbull invented the internet when Tony Abbott said those words. But that's unimportant, and beside the point.)

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