Turnbull says no need to future-proof NBN
And yet the Intergenerational Report calls for us to leave a better future for our kids
Those who feel Australia should invest in a future-proof National Broadband Network (NBN), and that a fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) network offers the best long-term investment, have new reason to take umbrage with the nation's communications minister Malcolm Turnbull after he yesterday said a quick-and-cheap approach is the best way to deliver broadband.
Turnbull's remarks are recorded in Hansard (PDF) in response to a soft question from colleague and member for Bennelong John Alexander, who asked “Will the minister update the House on the steps the government is taking to ensure Australia has the strong and viable communications it needs to take advantage of the opportunities the future will present?”
Turnbull's answer refers to the release of the 2015 Intergenerational Report (PDF) which he says shows Australia “... cries out for innovation, for science, for technology and for productivity.”
“The reality is, if we are to win the opportunities that the future offers us and seize the future in the optimistic way … then we need to be able to embrace the future,” Turnbull continued. “We need to be able to embrace volatility. Volatility has to be our friend not our enemy.”
Turnbull's next paragraph was as follows:
“The future is not something we proof ourselves against. It is something we embrace. To do that, we need to be nimble; we need to be agile. We must never approach problems in a rigid, ideological way harking back to the past. The NBN is a classic example. We have been focused from the outset on what the customer needs. What does the customer need? Very good broadband. What technology should be used? Whatever technology is most cost-effective at the time.”
“And what that is today may be different tomorrow,” the minster added, criticising the previous government for being “driven by ideology into locking itself into one slow and expensive platform.”
That the previous Labor government's stewardship of the NBN was not successful is not in doubt: NBN Co, the entity building the network, missed numerous deadlines. That higher construction costs may have made the NBN impossible to construct under the build-it-then-sell-it-off model both sides of politics advanced also needs to be acknowledged. Higher construction costs would mean NBN Co would face interest payments at levels that would make it hard for it to be profitable, and it's hard to sell unprofitable assets!
Also worth acknowledging is that the mixed media NBN currently under construction does offer upgrade paths. NBN Co recently revealed a roadmap for DOCSIS 3.1 adoption, bringing with it the possibility of gigabit-per-second connections. G.fast, the heir to xDSL, promises similar speeds.
So is Turnbull's “most cost-effective at the time” statement worth hyperventilating over?
In the context of yesterdays's release of the intergenerational report, perhaps.
Pre-launch rhetoric around that report suggested today's Australians have a responsibility to ensure the actions we take today don't unfairly burden future Australians.
Does “Most cost-effective at the time” pass that test if overbuild is necessary? FTTP will let us “win the opportunities that the future offers us and seize the future in the optimistic way,” perhaps more slowly than a mixed media NBN but almost certainly imposing future overbuild or upgrade expenditures.
The Intergenerational Report also has this to say:
“Government policy development is heavily reliant on available data. There is huge potential to modernise and better manage Australia’s national data infrastructure, with appropriate data sharing and access arrangements that take advantage of new technologies, and make the best use of existing data and scarce resources. Improved data quality and the ability to respond more quickly to emerging trends and issues will better inform policies for the benefit of all Australians.”
All of which sounds great, except for one small wrinkle: funding for the national Research Data Storage Infrastructure has lapsed. The project says it has established its goal of building a network of linked nodes to store research data, so the lapse does not mean the government has backed away from the idea. But it is a sign that the Intergenerational Report may not have been written with full knowledge of existing efforts, which is unfortunate. ®