Turnbull leaves Australia's broadband blackspots in the dark

New Statement of Expectations to NBN Co offers get-out clauses for blackspot builds

Malcolm Turnbull

Australians without broadband are no closer to being able to understand when, or if, the nation's National Broadband Network (NBN) will make fast data connections available, after Australia's Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull issued a new Statement of Expectations document to NBN Co, the entity charged with building the network.

Turnbull campaigned on an NBN plan that would address blackspots as a matter of priority, arguing forcefully that those without broadband should be prioritised.

Last February, the Broadband Availability and Quality Report offered the following language on the matter of blackspots:

“the analysis has found that there are areas of inadequate access to infrastructure across the country, including areas distributed as small pockets of poor service in metropolitan and outer metropolitan areas. It will be difficult for NBN Co to deploy in these areas but the objective is to prioritise the areas of greatest need where this is logistically and commercially feasible.”

The new Statement of Expectations (PDF) has adopted very similar language, as follows:

"NBN Co will prioritise areas identified as poorly served by the Broadband Availability and Quality Report published in February 2014 (including any subsequent refinements arising from additional data) to the extent commercially and operationally feasible.”

Vulture South takes that to mean that if a blackspot will be expensive to address, or require lots of engineering work, NBN Co can feel free to put it on the back burner.

No detail of criteria that will be used to assess commercial and operational feasibility have been provided.

The new language is decidedly at odds with Turnbull's previous statements on the need to address blackspots. Back in December 2011, for example, Turnbull said the following in this speech:

“One of my concerns is that as the rollout confirms the NBN to be logistically daunting and financially untenable, NBN Co and the Government will try to obscure this by focusing on the easiest areas, not those most in need.”

The speech goes on to say that such a rollout plan “would be a travesty of social justice”.

The Statement of Expectations also signs off on the government's plan to use “the technology best matched to each area of Australia”, rather than rely on fibre-to-the-premises. That it does so without the cost/benefit analysis of the NBN being complete is remarkable given Turnbull spent years calling for such an analysis to inform the NBN's construction and technology choices.

The document also backs away from an election promise to deliver 25Mbps connections to all by 2016. The new document offers this language instead:

“The design of a multi-technology NBN will be guided by the Government's policy objectives of providing download rates (and proportionate upload rates) of at least 25 megabits per second to all premises and at least 50 megabits per second to 90 per cent of fixed line premises as soon as possible.”

The “as soon as possible” is new.

+Analysis

It's possible to howl that the last change is a broken promise, a betrayal and a sign of terrible political mendacity.

A more charitable view would suggest it is evidence, as if any were needed, that governing is far harder than opposing.

As we've noted, innumerable interlinked dependencies such as the capabilities of the construction industry make the NBN an extraordinarily complex and ambitious project. Few footfalls can be assumed to be safe.

But giving an “out” to NBN Co when faced with especially expensive or difficult blackspot remediation jobs is harder to explain politely.

Vulture South expects that many blackspots will get the attention they deserve. But those that fall on the wrong side of the “commercially and operationally feasible” test deserve to know they do so as soon as possible, for two reasons.

The first is so they can make better-informed choices. The second is to hold Turnbull to account, because having campaigned long and loud on blackspots as deserving priority he needs to explain, as a matter of urgency, why some Australians won't get what they think they voted for. ®

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