Feelpinions on the Coalition NBN Policy

Malcolm Turnbull’s – and therefore the Coalition’s – alternative policy for a national broadband network was finally released this morning.

As a policy, not a bad one. In fact, it was a good policy way back when John Howard’s government proposed the same thing, Fibre to the Node.

It is also markedly better than the Opposition’s idea early in Abbott’s tenure which was to rely heavily on wireless, a policy that Turnbull knew – proven in this FTTN-reliant policy – to be flakey.

The problem is, FTTN was something we should have had some time ago and any responsible national telco should have done it. We know Telstra had that responsibility removed from it some time ago via the magic of privatisation and the systematic failure of both Labor and Coalition governments to enforce structural separation on Telstra before privatisation.

The fact there is just one single copper network means that the incumbent doesn’t have to do anything. So they don’t.

In fact, one of Turnbull’s older arguments about broadband is that the market will sort it out, which we know to be false. The philosophically similar hybrid fibre cable (HFC) networks of both Foxtel and Optus were halted before passing a really meaningful market penetration, with Foxtel in particular opting for satellite for cable television delivery.

Just so we’re clear, FTTN means that fibre will be rolled out from the existing telephone exchanges in both party’s policies. The Coalition’s policy will terminate the fibre at the node, or one of those green boxes or barrels you see around the streets. From then, your existing copper strand to your premises remains. However cruddy that might be, which in my case, is very.

Labor’s NBN brings the fibre to your home, meaning a far more stable, robust and inherently faster connection. No attenuation, so silly jiggery-pokery to fool the line into thinking it’s much fatter, it just works, because it’s not a radio signal down the line, it’s light.

The Coalition is playing a lot of silly games with this policy release. They say FTTN will cost significantly less than the $70bn-$90bn they say the Labor NBN will cost, and therefore are running with fantasy rather than reality.

They say their FTTN will cost just a tick under $30bn which is interesting because Howard’s FTTN was just over 20% of that, so attacking Labor for cost blowouts feels a little hollow.

They are asserting that broadband prices will rise by 2021 somewhere in the order of 50% when the market history defies that trend. My 500Gb plan is half what it was two years ago.

Crucially, the Coalition are not saying whether the wholly inappropriate line rental charge will still be charged on a FTTN connection. On the NBN it will not, so their price comparisons are dodgy for two reasons 

1. they’re made up; and 

2. ignore reality

So they don’t even make the grade as a decent deception let alone as a policy.

The policy also states that there will be no change between the plans users choose now (12mbps) and in 2021. That is rubbish and requires no explanation at all. Most of us get that on ADSL2.

The policy claims that Labor’s NBN destroys competition in the infrastructure, which is kind of true, but there isn’t any now because of the patchy HFC network and the wholly Telstra-owned copper network and exchanges. 

The difference is, the Labor NBN makes the providers compete on price rather than infrastructure, which is what consumers care about. In the real world, people just want to switch it on and make it go, they don’t care how they get it, as long as it’s good. FTTN is good but FTTH is better.

The Coalition also scraps the wholesale price limit, meaning that if you’re outside metro areas, good luck seeing either better broadband or lower pricing.

Turnbull has gone on television and radio today to sell the policy and keeps telling us how there’s plenty of life left in copper and with VDSL technology with vectoring, we can get to 100mbps.

 Great. The Labor NBN can and will easily hit 1Gbps, which not many of us need now, but it will be Something Many of us Need before too long. Oh, but if you live in a greenfield site, you’ll get the glass because it’s better than copper.

 Yeah, I know. Consistency is not a strong point in this policy either.

The other bit that sticks in my craw is that if you want FTTN in a place like mine, you can pay for it yourself. I’d say that this will cost somewhere in the region of $2000-$4000 and if you’re not getting it to run a Telstra service across it, heaven help you getting it before the continents return to the formation of Gondwanaland.

But what it comes down to for me is this: the overall situation for broadband users in this country will not improve. The vast majority of us get somewhere around 12mbps already and pay the same on ADSL as we would on fibre, less the Telstra line rental of $35.

The Coalition’s mix of technology ensures a fundamental inequality. If I’m further away from the node than next door is, I get a lesser service for the same money.

If my strand of copper is awful, but next door’s isn’t, I get a lesser service for the same money. If I live in a greenfield site, I get 100mbps on fibre. If I don’t I take pot luck with VDSL and vectoring voodoo.

Let me put it another way. In a race car, grip is important. The FTTH policy, the Labor policy, gives the race car all the grip it needs to go fast for the ENTIRE track. It’s a brand new, FIA approved Formula 1 track, if you’ll pardon the awful analogy.

What FTTN does is provide a half tarmac, half dirt track. It’s a road all right, but you can’t run an F1 car over the dirt bits, so that’s the end of your fun, so you have to go back to driving something higher, slower and less capable of going really damn fast. And on that dirt bit, where the grip is low, not only can you not go as fast, you’re still fare more likely to crash.

 That’s FTTN. A dirt road over the last mile. It actually doesn’t matter if it’s a mile or a foot – copper constrains the bandwidth. And if you compare financial reality – $42bn versus $30bn, there’s no genuine contest.

The trouble is, the Coalition are much better at selling a bag of poo and telling you it’s a bag of lovely chocolate. The Labor government has proven itself incompetent in every way in effectively selling the NBN. The fact it was an election issue last time around was because the Coalition didn’t *have* a policy, so Labor’s looked great by comparison.

Australia is an undoubtedly difficult place to do broadband equitably. The Coalition have abandoned the idea that 93% of the country should get the same and are happy for the status quo to remain. 

It’s not good enough for a modern economy increasingly reliant on services delivered across the internet where we need quality, stable, fast and less lop-sidedly asynchronous connectivity.

The Coalition policy is here. Let me know if I’ve got anything (genuinely) wrong:

http://lpa.webcontent.s3.amazonaws.com/NBN/The%20Coalition’s%20Plan%20for%20Fast%20Broadband%20and%20an%20Affordable%20NBN%20Summary.pdf