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Fibre broadband is good for you, Conroy tells Aussies

Slams 'white elephant' remarks

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If anyone thought for even a moment that Australia’s beleaguered communications Minister, Stephen Conroy, would be treading more lightly after an election in which his policies came in for strong criticism, especially on the proposed internet filter, think again!

In the month or so since the Labor re-administration was re-elected, Conroy has not been slow to take on the new opposition communications spokesman, Malcolm Turnbull. Last week, he was out and about in New York and Brisbane declaring his government’s commitment to a national broadband network (NBN) – and urging the opposition to get out of the way.

The issue is simple. Does Australia want a fibre-to-the-premises broadband network providing download speeds of up to 1 Gigabit per second to around 93 per cent of Australian homes and businesses – at a cost to the public purse of AU$43bn? Or is this project a white elephant, based on mistaken thinking by government, and likely to be a burden on future generations of Australians?

The business model involves the creation of a government business enterprise, NBN Co Limited, whose job it will be to build this network. However, key legislation that would enable a deal between one of Australia’s leading telecomms suppliers, Telstra, the NBN Co and the government to go ahead has been stalled in the senate for the last eight months.

In the last few weeks, however, the debate has been heating up, with accusations and counter-accusations flying around between government and opposition.

The tone for the debate was set a fortnight ago, as the new Coalition communications spokesman Malcolm Turnbull argued that rolling the National Broadband Network in from the regions, as the government was proposing, rather than building out from urban areas would require more upfront capital and drive up the overall network cost.

Attacking the Gillard Government for a lack of honesty over this issue, Turnbull further lambasted the Department of Communications for not putting forward a proper business case for the NBN, for not developing the policy and implementation plan in a transparent fashion – and for the certainty that the current plan will cost more than it delivers.

Blogging publically, he said: "What little we know of the economics of this network is sufficient to assure us that the NBN as currently conceived will destroy billions of dollars of taxpayers' money.

"In other words, the asset constructed for $43bn will be worth a fraction of that amount."

Stephen Conroy has a reputation as a tough negotiator, and as someone who is not afraid of a fight. Since Turnbull’s remarks, he has most definitely come out fighting.

During the recent election campaign, Conroy responded to remarks by Turnbull’s boss and opposition leader Tony Abbott that the NBN was likely to prove a "white elephant" by describing Abbott as a luddite.

Two weeks ago, Conroy responded to Turnbull’s criticism of NBN plans by questioning his credentials in this area. Suggesting that Turnbull's experience was based on involvement with dated technology, Conroy said: "Let's not overcook this cake here. Malcolm Turnbull was chairperson as a merchant banker of a dial-up company, so he was involved in a dial-up company."

Last week, Stephen Conroy made it clear that the time to act was now. First in New York where he delivered a broadband report as a member of the UN Broadband Commission, then before a meeting of the world Computer Congress in Brisnbane - it's clear his patience was wearing thin. Quoting the Broadband Commission report, he claimed an urgent need for governments to take the lead, arguing that "investments in broadband are simply too important to be allowed to become a casualty of bureaucratic rivalries or changing policy priorities".

Finally, contributing a statement today to Business Spectator's debate about the economics of the national broadband network, Stephen Conroy makes it clear that although he welcomes the debate, he would much rather Malcolm Turnbull sticks to the facts.

These, he claims, include the facts that NBN is a sound investment for Australia, the private sector won’t build broadband for all Australians, wireless is not a substitute for fibre, and that increased competition is good for consumers.

The gloves are off: the debate is on. ®

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