Labor's broadband policy decides 39% fibre is healthy NBN diet

Decides not to throw bad money after good dismantling hybrid-fibre coax

ALP NBN policy outline
The guts of the ALP's NBN policy

Australia's opposition Labor Party (ALP) has released its national broadband network (NBN) policy (PDF) the centrepiece of which is a pledge to replace as-yet-unbuilt fibre-to-the-node sites with fibre-to-the-node.

Labor's policy does five things.

Firstly it's an attack on the incumbent Libera/National coalition government's performance as stewards of the NBN. Labor asserts that construction has slowed and that economic growth has suffered as a result. The stewardship attack element of the policy also gets stuck in to the coalition for paying too much for the hybrid-fibre-coax (HFC) networks and then failing to get them up ready for operations. More on HFC later.

Secondly it's an attack on the coalition's innovation policy, as the Labor document argues that “You can’t have an innovation boom while you are still buffering” and that the current multi-technology-mix NBN plan puts Australia behind fibre-to-the-premises-rich rival nations. Slow broadband, the Labor policy argues, can't sustain an innovation policy.

Thirdly, it's an industry plan: the policy repeatedly refers to broadband as a job-creator and harbinger of new-age services jobs.

Fourth, it's the beginnings of an alternative financial plan for nbnTM, the entity building and operating the NBN. The plan outlines how nbnTM can increase its rate of return on capital, by changing the carriage media it uses. In the Appendix, the ALP policy also delves into the Strategic Review into the NBN and recent Senate Estimates to make a case for FTTP build costs falling to levels at which the policy's build cost envelope of AU$49bn to $57bn is achievable.

Lastly, the document outlines the ALP's own plan, which as we've described above includes a call for FTTN to be replaced with FTTP in places where FTTN builds and/or planning haven't started/

But the policy says HFC “will continue, recognising the contracts in place, the substantial capital expenditure already sunk, and the constraints placed on future governments by Mr Turnbull in the revised Definitive Agreements.”

The policy also hedges on fibre-to-the-distribution point, saying “ This is a new technology which has not yet been rolled out at scale. Labor will further explore the potential of this technology in government.” There's also a pledge to explore, through Infrastructure Australia, ways to upgrade FTTN in futue.

The ALP says all this is doable for no more than $57bn, by the year 2022. That's just a billion more than the current plan, but taking FTTP from 22 per cent of the build to 39 per cent.

The government quickly criticised the plan, labelling it a product of “fantasy economics” and alleging that it will create rollout delays. The attack also returns fire on the stewardship issue, saying “The NBN has met all its rollout targets under the Coalition, having connected more premises in the past four weeks than Labor connected in six years.”

Analysis

The ALP plan's decision to adopt more FTTP is not unexpected. The decision to retain HFC is a surprise, as it has not been excused the criticism that the government's NBN plan means a “second-rate NBN.” So there's some odd logic here as the ALP will keep second-rate elements of the NBN even though it thinks the rest of the network needs upgrades.

There's also precious little explanation of how the ALP will ensure construction of FTTP will be achieved without delays. The 2022 completion date is compared to an assumed completion date for the government's plan, without any mention of how those currently struggling to access broadband at all might fare under a build that stretches to 2022.

But the document is hard to fault for detail: at 33 pages it's much more than many bullet-point “policies” you'll encounter in this election. That the government's attack is currently long on emotion and history and short on specifics shows the ALP has done a good job of its homework.

Australia votes on July 2, so not long afterwards we'll know if the ALP's efforts resonated with voters. ®

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