Matthew Reddin

The NBN: Our white elephant that keeps on eating

In its original form, the NBN was a sound plan grounded in logic. However, the execution is what we struggled with. Fixing the problem is no longer on the cards.

 

 

This is one for the “those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it” files, which (for the last handful of governments we’ve been blessed to have) is becoming more of a whole filing cabinet, rather than just a file on its own.

As you may know, or recall from previous missives of your author, the NBN seems to have been a cock-up, mashed with a misfire, wrapped in incompetence, and dipped in financial extravagance. To recap: the idea of the National Broadband Network stems from 2006, when the Federal Labor Opposition of Kim Beazley (remember him?) committed to a “super-fast” national broadband network if they ended up getting elected.

They did; Kim didn’t. Kevin Rudd led the Labor Party to victory in 2007. The bold plan was to have fibre to the node (FTTN) technology installed in 98% of Australian households; added to this was a guaranteed minimum speed of 12 megabit per second. The remaining 2% of households would have what the then-government called “improved broadband services”. This idea lasted until morning tea, when the plan was scrapped in 2009 when the Rudd Government announced it would bypass the existing copper network and construct a new national network combining fibre to the premises (FTTP), fixed wireless and satellite technologies.

It was a $30 billion investment in 2009, with the plan being that by 2021 it would be generating $23 billion in revenue. So far, so ambitious, and—on the surface—a pretty good idea. Make things easier for remote and regional net users; make it easier for people to work from home; make things faster to download or stream. Kind of something of a win-win-win. A good plan, as it seemed.

That was the plan. But as we all know, the best way to make God laugh is to make plans. As is the nature of democracy and the major parties’ propensity to kick staggering numbers of own-goals, the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government was summarily taken out the back and shot, for the inglorious rise of the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison triumvirate. They, of course, opposed the Labor plan, for what seems like no bigger reason than it was a Labor plan.

After the 2013 election, then-PM Abbott, and then Communications Minister and future-former PM Malcolm Turnbull announced that the FTTP rollout would continue in the short term, with the probability that the rollout will be downgraded to “alternative technologies” such as fibre to the node after a review was completed. Initial responses to the NBN included such words not fit for the press release including “shambolic” and “abysmal”.

The version of the NBN the Coalition conceived was going to cost more and work less than the one the Labor party was working on. Long story short, a bad, expensive decision was made by the Coalition government, and one based out of partisan spite rather than stemming from an actual good idea. Who’d have thunk it?

They thought it was better to do something worse and more expensive, and have done so much work and dug up so many nature strips and footpaths to do the work, that we’re past the point of no return.

Now, on the eve of an election campaign one presumes will return the ALP to power, the communications spokeswoman for the now-opposition has said that fixing the problem isn’t really on the cards. “Labor’s policy requires the honesty to acknowledge there are realities we cannot undo, whilst knowing that with the application of will and initiative we can try and make the best of the NBN and position it for the future.”

So, they had something that was going to work, it got replaced with something that wasn’t going to work as well, and now they’re stuck with a massive infrastructure project that’s so far down the line that all they can do is pledge $185 million in making the kind of cosmetic upgrades that will improve some connections.

These are what the ALP are calling “entrenched realities” which the party won’t be able to overcome. The government has already spent waaaaaay too much money to make a dog’s breakfast of the process by throwing their bastardised version of the NBN in with the old copper network, for reasons which nobody with any kind of technological insight thought, for a second, was the best way to move forward.

But it’s a capitulation, and this kind of irks me, but the now-current communications Minister Mitch Fyfield has said as much. “For years we were told by Labor that using a range of technologies…was not an option. Today, the coalition’s policy has become Labor policy.”

In fairness, the GST was also Coalition policy which Labor didn’t do anything to dismantle, thus it becoming their policy by default as well. It doesn’t mean they were wrong to oppose it when it was first announced in the lead up to the 1998 election (a GST having been something that the Howard government would “never ever” implement back in 1996), but when you want to alter a massive part of the government’s tax system, income stream and fiscal structure, you can’t just undo what was done and then expect to carry on as usual. Same thing here.

They’re doing what they can to do as much as they can to make minor improvements to a project that would have been better, more efficient, more profitable and more widely used, praised and optimised had Turnbull et al just bitten down on their tongues and gotten on with it in the first place. But they didn’t do that, because of course they didn’t, because they thought it was a better idea to do something that was worse and more expensive, and have done so much work and dug up so many nature strips and footpaths to do the work, that we’re past the point of no return.

But you should, as those on the right will do, feel free to blame Labor, specifically Bill Shorten when you’re watching Netflix and it starts buffering for the fifth time that evening in the middle of an episode of The Crown. Because everything will be Bill Shorten and Labor and the ACTU and Get Up’s fault. Because the only thing shorter than our collective attention spans these days are our memories.

And no amount of cosmetic infrastructure spending will improve that hot mess.

 

Matthew Reddin

Matt Reddin has been writing nonsense about film, TV, books, music and live theatre for a touch over 20 years. He’s gone from the halcyon days of street press in Perth, to regional dailies, national magazines and major metropolitan newspapers. Now, in between bouts of sporadically yelling at clouds, he vents his creative spleen at www.lessercolumn.com.au

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