Pulling the NBN debate out of the gutter

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The National Broadband Network (NBN) debate between the communications minister, Stephen Conroy, and the opposition communications spokesman, Malcolm Turnbull, has devolved into a slanging match.

And if you needed proof of this, look no further than last week’s OurSay communications debate. The two turned up to argue the merits of their respective NBN plans, and ended up throwing mud at each other.

“How did that FAI-HIH deal go Malcolm? That was a cracker!” Conroy said.

To which, Turnbull replied: “…such a grub Stephen. You’re such a sad figure.”

A full transcript of the sordid affair can be found here, on Malcolm Turnbull’s website.

What both ministers seem to be forgetting is that the NBN is a nation building project. And it’s for this key reason that both Conroy and Turnbull both need to endeavour to pull the debate out of the gutter.

In order to do this, both sides have to realise that there are pros and cons to their respective NBN plans.

Labor’s NBN pitfalls

The debate has so far centred on whether the copper network’s life should be extended by utilising Fibre to the Node (FTTN) or replaced using Fibre to the Premise (FTTP).

Labor left the door open for the Coalition to propose FTTN by failing to adequately define what the NBN should achieve and by when. This failure is one of the most important problems with Labor’s NBN plan.

A mission statement for the NBN should include “the NBN will deliver 1 Gbps or higher connections to all Australians in urban and regional centres and 100 Mbps or higher connections to the three per cent of Australians in remote regions by 2021”.

Conroy’s advisors made a significant mistake in 2010 when they advised launching the NBN with a promise of 100 Mbps connections by 2021. Turnbull has been quick to argue that by 2021 copper, wireless and satellite should be able to provide 100 Mbps connections and he should be correct. The much discussed vectoring technology is one example of how technology advances can increase copper connection speeds.

Conroy is also on shaky ground with the Australian public because the NBN legislation deficiencies have become a focus for discussion. A lack of competition in access networks will stifle future access network technologies, innovation and entrench vested interests, especially the unwarranted protected status provided to the mobile network operators.

The Coalition’s NBN hardsell

On the other hand, there is no doubt that Turnbull is on the back foot in the wider debate, with every NBN related poll overwhelmingly endorsing Labor’s NBN plan. Turnbull has been given credit for moving the Coalition to its current position but is this enough to justify a NBN plan that fails the nation building test?

Being given the communications portfolio was a poison chalice for Turnbull because the Australian public will not forgive him for the decision to introduce FTTN into the mix and making the promise that the Coalition NBN would provide universal access to a minimum download data rate of 25 Mbps by 2016.

Turnbull’s response to the How Fast is the NBN website had an element of panic and rightly so. For Turnbull the website could not have come at a worse time. Recent media appearances, including the OurSay debate, have reinforced Turnbull’s capacity to put a plausible position.

Conroy and NBN Co have failed to explain the NBN to the Australian public and to demonstrate why the copper network should be replaced. The How Fast is the NBN website provides relief to the embattled Conroy now that the deficiencies with Labor’s NBN plan are being openly discussed.

The way forward

The Coalition and Labor should focus attention on the major differences between their NBN plans excluding the selection of infrastructure technologies.

Turnbull is right to focus attention on connection costs and a lack of future competition – even though he is actually thinking about utilising the existing cable networks and has not mentioned future access network technologies.

The NBN should provide all Australians with a connection and a basic free service. Participation in the digital world is a logical extension of the universal service principal that has underpinned telecommunications policy for the last eighty years.

The Coalition and Labor need to provide answers to questions that have been asked. Failure to do so will prevent an open and informed debate about the NBN.

Mark Gregory is a Senior Lecturer in Electrical and Computer Engineering at RMIT University.

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