The 2013 election should have been fought on the back of the significantly different approaches to building the NBN. Almost no other election issue will effect the entire Australian population at some point in their life and as Australia’s largest infrastructure project with significant taxpayer costs, everyone should have been paying attention. Unfortunately you get one vote and of all the issues on the table, the NBN was allowed to slide in the background.
Last night on The Project, a prime time news program finally covered the NBN, something that surprisingly again in 2016 was flying under the radar. Sure there’s the regular attacks and finger pointing in both houses of parliament, but in terms of resonating with real people, real future users of the NBN, the Project’s 6 minute segment achieved a lot.
Co-host Waleed Aly delivered a great, factual analysis of the history of the NBN. The time-frames, the stated (not artificially inflated) costs were discussed and for the most part it was a great segment that should open the eyes of many who weren’t paying attention. Of course there were some embellishments for the sake of comedy at prime time, like Abbott buffering, but the biggest mistake was the end where Aly ends the segment with finger pointing at Abbot and Turnbull. Blaming people won’t change people or policy, but will win you views online.
As a supported of the build it once, build it with fibre supported by, well basically the rest of the world, the cost has never been an issue for me. See this government investment is just that, an investment, not an expensive like health or education that never delivers returns back to the government. Internet is like air to people in 2016 and when you have secured demand for the long-term, the cost recovery for the build will arrive, all that’s left to debate is how long that return takes. As the NBN is made available to more customers, that means more paying subscribers to help pay back the debt of creating the infrastructure, but there will come a day where the build is paid off and the NBN will make profit and lots of it.
There is no question about which technology is better, even the Coalition agrees FTTH is the best solution, but they went with a mixed-mode, piece-meal solution that was politically convenient when the best approach was already taken. To help fund the predominantly FTTN network, the Coalition went to private industry. Had they kept the technology and simply debate the ratio of public and private funding, consumers and business would have won. Australia could have the best technical solution to our telecommunications infrastructure, while letting politicians and privates sort out the balance of funding.
Ultimately the decision to roll out anything but FTTH is done and we can’t go back from that without major expense and that’s not something either party is willing to talk about. While people on the slowest speeds who are now on the NBN may indeed be happy with faster speeds, that happiness is only temporary. as we see our thirst for internet sky rocket by more than 40% from June 2014 to June 2015, its just a matter of years before or requirements outstrip the capabilities of the network.
It is such an injustice that we ever moved away from FTTH as the opportunity to never be constrained by the connection type running into your home and simply pay more to get more speed was on the table, but now lost forever. The best we can hope for is that somewhere between now and the election, the politicians can decide to sit political point scoring aside and decide to roll fibre, even if its skinny fibre, to the remaining Australians who don’t yet have the NBN. Even if that happens it won’t be anywhere close to the 93% originally planned under Labor’s roll-out and that is a national shame.
I think of services that only make sense when you have a addressable market of X and Australia is Y. In terms of possible and average connection speed profiles, Lets take a 4K, or 8K in the future, or a virtual reality streaming provider looking at an Australian offering. If Australia has 10 million households they could sell to, then the business model may work, but if that number is 1-2 million, capable and the company believes they’d be able to attract 10% of that as customers to their service, it may be determined the Australian market isn’t worth offering the service to and would look internationally instead. We already face the 24 million problem, being to small to count on many global stages, but the thing that saves us often is our love for technology.
The solution to the price tag of the NBN build, should never have been to change the technology approach and almost every single international example Malcolm Turnbull pointed to has now changed from FTTN to a FTTP approach as they come to the same realisation that you get to ask the public to fund this project once and not go back to them in 5 years and say we got it wrong, can we have another $50 Billion please because the answer will be no.