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Monday, 12 May 2014 04:46

Turnbull's pride the NBN's biggest problem Featured

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Malcolm Turnbull has published a detailed rebuttal of the Senate’s criticism of his plans for the NBN. It contains an admission that he is committed to most of Labor’s spending.

Malcolm Turnbull has published a detailed 31 page rebuttal of Senate Select Committee on the NBN’s interim report, released late March.

It is an extraordinary document, addressing in detail the criticisms which the Committee, dominated by Labor and Green senators, made of NBN Co’s December Strategic Review. It is available on Turnbull’s blog here.

It sure to provide much ammunition for the Committee’s final report, due in a month’s time. Will the war of words never stop? No, it won’t.

The document is pure Turnbull. His hectoring tone can be heard on every page. Of course, the Senate Committee’s report was itself pure Conroy, the former minister’s aggressive self-righteousness heard on every page.

Turnbull and Conroy seriously don’t like each other. Their two massive egos are locked in a gargantuan battle for the moral and factual high ground in the NBN debate. The problem is, so defensive are each of them about their respective positions, both of which have some merit, that the facts get obscured and it is impossible to divine a middle path.

Turnbull attempts to refute, in great footnoted detail, each of the seven major points outlined in the Committee’s report. He succeeds to some extent, but he reluctantly admits that Labor’s NBN was so far down the track that in many cases he is forced to follow it. And he gets caught up in minutiae, and doesn’t seem to understand the big picture.

The most revealing thing about Turnbull’s rebuttal is his admission that $34 billion to $38 billion of Labor’s planned NBN spending has been “locked in” – the Coalition cannot turn it back and is committed to it.

So that is the base cost of the Coalition’s NBN. He treats this as if it is a major crime, but it makes sense – from Labor’s perspective – to have done so, so as to prevent as little rollback as possible if it lost the election, as everybody could see it was virtually certain to do.

The Strategic Review said that Labor’s NBN would have cost $73 billion to $78 billion to complete – considerably less than the $90 million figure Turnbull went to the election with. It also said that this could be reduced by $32 billion by leveraging existing infrastructure – i.e. Telstra copper and Foxtel and Optus HFC cable, which means that his NBN will cost – best case – at least $41 billion. This is $10 billion more than he went to the election with.

The timeframe for the Turnbull NBN is also slipping. He promised during the election that 90% of Australian homes would be connected at speeds of at least 25 Mbps by 2015, but that slipped very quickly, and is now “as soon as possible.”

The fact is that Labor’s fibre to the premises (FTTP) NBN and the Coalition’s ‘multi technology mix’ (MTM) NBN are converging, in both cost and timeframe. Turnbull also says they are converging in speed, and that technology like vectoring will deliver fibre-like speed over copper. Remember, he promised sooner, cheaper and almost as fast.

The issue now is how much sooner, how much cheaper, and at what speed. Meanwhile, the move from FTTP to MTM is so disrupting than what Labor had put into place that it threatens to be an even bigger mess than Turnbull so roundly criticised Labor for creating.

Yes, there were problems with Labor’s rollout, but it relied on a consistency of technology – and of vision – sadly lacking in the Coalition’s bastard scheme.

The most logical thing to do would have been to take Labor’s FTTP plan and finish it with Turnbullian efficiency. But Turnbull’s determination to have it his way, and the Coalition’s bloody-minded determination to rip up everything that Labor created, has cruelled any chance of that happening. Turnbull is great on details and on arguing the small issues. What he lacks is vision.

We will be left with a sub-optimal network, a mishmash of technologies, at a time when the world is increasingly going fibre. It will end up taking nearly as long and costing nearly as much as the all-fibre network it is replacing. The industry – and many around Turnbull – is increasingly realising this. But Turnbull will not budge.

Australia is the loser – all because of one man’s pride.

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Graeme Philipson

Graeme Philipson is senior associate editor at iTWire. He is one of Australia’s longest serving and most experienced IT journalists. He is author of the only definitive history of the Australian IT industry, ‘A Vision Splendid: The History of Australian Computing.’

He has been in the high tech industry for more than 30 years, most of that time as a market researcher, analyst and journalist. He was founding editor of MIS magazine, and is a former editor of Computerworld Australia. He was a research director for Gartner Asia Pacific and research manager for the Yankee Group Australia. He was a long time weekly IT columnist in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, and is a recipient of the Kester Award for lifetime achievement in IT journalism.

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