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The National Broadband Network is a future we must embrace

By Colin Jacobs - posted Tuesday, 17 August 2010


It's 2010 and the Internet is now front and centre in the election. We often hear about the good and bad sides of using Twitter and Facebook to get the word out, but more serious issues are also getting considerable scrutiny.

The Government's plan to censor the internet has proved extremely unpopular with the more plugged-in segments of the population and has dogged them for years, damaging Minister Conroy's reputation amongst the digerati at home and abroad. Although they tried to get it off the radar by delaying it until the next term, with first the Greens and now the Coalition saying they will vote against it, this has become a clear difference between the parties, and one unlikely to favour the ALP. The Coalition's own cyber-safety policy (1.94MB) is more measured, focusing on empowering parents with tools and education.

The difference between the parties is even larger when it comes to infrastructure. The Government is placing broadband right alongside water, roads and rail as crucial infrastructure for the nation. The Coalition, on the other hand, still sees it as a sideshow, and their policy reflects this view.

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Labor are betting big on the importance of telecommunications in Australia's future, with up to $43 billion committed to the National Broadband Network in what amounts to the largest ever infrastructure project in Australia's history. The plan involves laying fibre optic cable to 93 per cent of Australian homes, with minimum speeds of 100 megabits per second (upload and download). Just recently, NBN Co, the government-owned corporation managing the rollout, announced that they would exceed this by a factor of 10, enabling speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second. Other Australians in areas where the fibre cannot reach will be provided with either wireless or satellite service at a minimum of 12mbps.

Under the ALP’s plan NBN Co will remain government-controlled until 10 years after the rollout is completed. This entity will have monopoly control over the national fibre network and will give equal wholesale access under the law to all service providers ensuring a level playing field and more competition for consumers.

Although a fraught relationship with Telstra threatened to derail the NBN in its early stages, a deft combination of carrot and stick has ensured that the NBN is set to go ahead with Telstra as a partner rather than as an obstacle. Although $9 billion will change hands to grant the government access to Telstra's existing infrastructure, it will be value for money as wasteful duplication will be avoided. Telstra will become NBN's largest customer.

Concerns about the NBN are that no rigorous cost-benefit analysis has been made public, and the potential costs to consumers. With wholesale prices floated at about the $40-$70 a month it has been suggested that end users could end up paying up to $200 a month for a fast connection that takes advantage of the new network.

The Coalition's plan is much less ambitious. Clocking in at $6 billion, the main aims of the policy are to scrap the NBN and spend $1 billion on fixed wireless networks in outer suburban areas, $700 million for new satellite services, and $2.75 billion for a new fibre backbone.

The most glaring difference between the two plans involves the "last-mile" connections to homes and businesses, which under the NBN plan will be fibre optic cables capable of speeds beyond the gigabit range. Under the Coalition's plan, existing copper and coaxial cabling will remain the predominant connection from the local exchange to the premises. With these technologies already pushed close to their theoretical maximum, it will be left to the market to upgrade this crucial infrastructure. If you live outside the inner suburbs of the capital cities, you'll probably be out of luck.

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The practicality of duplicating the fibre backbone infrastructure is also questionable, and the Coalition do not explicitly address Telstra's role in their broadband world.

There appears to be little in this alternative plan for Australian businesses, which will suffer even more than end users by having to “make do” with what can be squeezed out of the legacy copper network for the foreseeable future. The only beneficiary is the short-term bottom line of the budget. Industry has described the Liberal plan as a "grab-bag of measures from the past" and it is hard to disagree.

The Greens have promised to support the NBN project, although they too have called for the business case to be released. They most notably differ with the government in that they want NBN Co to remain in public hands rather than be privatised after the network is in full operation sometime in the 2020s. By backing the NBN and opposing internet filtering, the Greens seem determined to stake out a position as an internet-savvy party.

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This article is partly adapted from content posted on the EFA's web site on October 13, 2010.



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About the Author

Colin Jacobs is chair of Electronic Frontiers Australia.

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