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Australia’s National Broadband Network project up in the air

As Australian voters go to the polls this weekend, the future of the country's National Broadband Network is up in the air

Australia goes to the polls this weekend in an election that will determine the future of the country’s much bedevilled, A$50bn National Broadband Network project.

The choice for voters boils down to keeping the NBN status quo under a re-elected Coalition or doubling the number of fibre to the premise (FTTP) connections – at more cost – under a Labor government.

Coming into the 2 July election, Labor has been light on the detail for its revised NBN plan. The shadow communications spokesman Jason Clare has promised only “more fibre under Labor”.

The party unveiled its plan late in the election, saying two million more homes would get FTTP connections than under the Coalition plan.

At the 2022 finish line for Labor’s NBN roll-out, about 39% or around five million Australian homes and businesses would have access to FTTP, compared with 20%, or 2.5 million, under the Coalition, which says its NBN scheme will complete by 2020.

Costings for both sides have been heavily argued, but are estimated to be between A$46bn and A$56bn for the Coalition NBN, and A$46bn and A$57bn for the Labor plan.

Marathon

Getting to this weekend’s decisive moment has been a long and sometimes comedic journey for voters, two governments and the NBN project itself.

Born of a previous Labor government in 2009, the original NBN plan offered more than 90% FTTP connections – an architecture that would have future-proofed the network for a generation.

The Coalition, which won power in 2013, modified NBN to a mix of FTTP, fibre to the node (FTTN) with existing copper to the premises, and hybrid fibre-coaxial (HFC). The HFC networks were rolled out to some areas of Sydney and Melbourne by local telcos Telstra and Optus in the mid-90s, originally just to carry pay TV.

The Coalition argued at the time that its version of NBN would be built cheaper and faster, albeit many homes would miss out on the high speeds and future-proof upgrade path offered by a mostly FTTP network.

After castigating Labor for cost and roll-out timing blowouts, the Coalition then fell into the same trap with its version of NBN.

Hit by leaks

In February 2016, the Coalition was rocked by a series of reports based on documents leaked from the government-owned network builder NBN Co.

A leaked progress report revealed NBN was behind by about 60,0000 connections for the FTTN portion of the network as at February and the cost per connection for each FTTN premise had ballooned by more than $200 above the target price of $1,114 per premise.

During the election campaign, the Australian Federal Police raided the offices of Labor senator Stephen Conroy as well as the house of a Labor Party staffer after being called in by NBN Co, six months before the raids, to investigate the leaks. Conroy, the communications minister in the former Labor government, was responsible for the initial, fibre-heavy NBN plan.

An NBN employee with the powers of a special constable accompanied police on the raid, photographed documents and sent them on to NBN Co. The photos were later destroyed after protests from Labor.

Read more about Australian government IT investments

The leaked document soap opera continued when NBN chairman Ziggy Switkowski weighed in with a lengthy comment piece in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age newspapers arguing the merits of the current plan and savaging those responsible for the leaks.

The problem for Switkowski was that his comments came during a live election campaign. Critics argued he had breached the caretaker provisions of government during a campaign, given that NBN Co is a state-owned enterprise. It later emerged that Switkowski had ignored public service advice that he could be breaching the caretaker conventions.

Mike Quigley, the former Alcatel Lucent executive who ran NBN Co under the Labor government, then weighed in with a presentation delivered at the University of Melbourne.

Not surprisingly, he was scathing of the Coalition plan.

“To spend billions of dollars to build a major piece of national infrastructure that just about meets demand today, but doesn’t allow for any significant growth in that demand over the next 10 or 20 years is incredibly short-sighted,” Quigley declared.

“It is such a pity that so much time and effort has been spent on trying to discredit and destroy the original FTTP-based NBN plan. and equally a pity that the Coalition has put their faith in what has turned out to be a short-sighted, expensive and backward-looking multi-technology mix plan based on copper.”

Tech agreement

While Labor and the Coalition have beaten themselves black and blue over NBN, they are close on other technology and innovation-related policies.

Both support measures such as equity-based crowdfunding and tax breaks for startups, increased collaboration between university tech research and business, strengthening the country’s cyber security and cyber security related research and development, and forming innovation hubs to nurture tech and entrepreneurial culture.

Both support encouraging more women into STEM-based careers, and helping fintechs through measures such as the national business regulator ASIC creating a regulation-lite sandbox for proving fintech products and services.

As to who will win on Saturday, betting odds favour the Coalition, although polling is around the 50/50 mark on the two party preferred (preferential voting system) vote. As with the 2010 election, a hung parliament is also a possibility.

Read more on Telecoms networks and broadband communications

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Either Australia is smart enough to understand the incredible value of country-wide broadband or it will vote to stay firmly planted in the 20th century, kindly remembered as a lovely, quaint little backward country.... And then there's the patchwork US system but we're not talking about that here....
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