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No need for speed, says Oz communications shadow

Blasted for blasting A$43bn broadband plan - is he right?

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It's been a bad week for Australia’s Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who has taken quite a drubbing across the blogosphere after suggesting that Australia's cities did not need home connection speeds of up to one terabyte per second.

According to the Delimiter’s Renai LeMay, the internet was awash with insult, ranging from claims that Turnbull was anything from a "lying luddite", to "living in the dark ages".

All this, as a result of a simple interview with Sydney’s Radio 2GB over the weekend. But when the dust finally settles, it may be that Turnbull has a point.

The shadow communications minister began by responding to an observation made by interviewer Jim Ball that the take-up of the government’s much-vaunted National Broadband Network (NBN) in areas such as the Melbourne suburb of Brunswick were only around 45 per cent, as opposed to the 77 per cent or higher needed in order for it to be a commercial success.

According to Turnbull: "A lot of people who do have internet access now are not interested in taking up the NBN".

Brunswick, he claimed, was exactly the sort of area where take-up should be high and therefore "the NBN is only ever going to be able to achieve significant penetration at all if competition is eliminated".

The main driver for the NBN appears to be IPTV. Yet IPTV providers such as Fetch TV, which is currently being rolled out, were able to provide the service over bandwidths of much lower speeds – perhaps as low as "four-and-a-half megs download speeds".

The basic problem, he claimed, was that "there’s been no case made or evidence made that there is any benefit from having a speed higher than what we can get now in many of our cities, at least, from ADSL 2+".

Despite this, said Turnbull, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy had pressed ahead with “one of the most irrational, poorly thought out Government policies imaginable”. There is no doubt that Australia needs to make progress on broadband. The Third Annual Broadband Leadership study, published by Said Business School Oxford University in 2010, shows Australia lagging much of the west at 20th place.

The real issue, according to Turnbull, was not that Australia does not need faster internet access – it does. He said that what the Liberal Party is opposed to is the Labor Party's solution to this. Turnbull said that instead of prioritising areas where there was a real need to improve internet access – particularly in more remote rural areas – the Labor Party had gone ahead with a wasteful, exorbitant one-size-fits-all scheme, committing up to A$43bn to rolling out fibre optic cable to the home.

The cost had been driven up by a decision not to opt for fibre to the node, but aiming, over time, to decommission the copper network and replace the telecomms network in its entirety. At the same time, the government had pursued anti-competitive measures such as "preventing Telstra from selling broadband services over its cable network".

Far from the luddite technophobe Turnbull has been accused of being, following this interview, he appears to be abreast of the issues, and a strong proponent of allowing a range of technological solutions – including WiFi – to evolve in parallel.

He didn’t say so explicitly in the interview, but the implication was clear: Australia may be investing in its technological future, but it may simply be sinking a significant amount of its GDP into what could prove to be an enormous technological dead end. ®

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