COMMENT: Fifield will be the minister for good NBN news

Posted on: Monday, 21st September 2015

If Malcolm Turnbull hadn’t become prime minister last week and won a by-election over the weekend he still would have been lauding a beautiful set of numbers today. Because today is the long-planned day for NBN to release its results from its FTTN trial in the Hunter region and commercially launch services based on the platform. And a beautiful set of numbers, ones which effectively vindicate the multi-technology mix policy, are in.

Remember all those warnings about copper which was “literally rotting?” How Australian copper was smaller in diameter than overseas and thus overseas FTTN performance results would be irrelevant locally? How vast swathes of Australians would be stuck on 25Mbps forever? Well the trial results show that those within 400m of a node will get their full 100/40Mbps. Those within 750m or so will get 50Mbps. That is pretty much everyone in urban areas. The best estimates are that 60% of all Australians are within 400m of a copper node and 80% within 600m.

And as Alcatel-Lucent global president of fixed line networks Federico Guillen tells us today, the “gains” from VDSL vectoring are actually greater in the Australian context than have been observed overseas.

The new communications minister Mitch Fifield could not hope for a better first day on the job. He inherits a fully-developed policy which is now at mid-execution stage and has largely made good on its technical promises even if a little delayed. 2016 will prove to be a great year to be in the retail politics game as far as communications is concerned, as NBN brings a succession of mass market products to commercialisation and larger swathes of the population are connected to the 25-100Mbps grid.

Although this is a column which deals with telecommunications more than psephology, the NBN is ultimately about politics as much as technology and Fifield’s appointment should be seen in this light.

As a close ally of Turnbull, Fifield promises continuity in the portfolio—something not only reassuring to industry but also politically pragmatic for the new PM who would like to see the job he started in the portfolio finished to his satisfaction.

To my mind, the fact Fifield is from Victoria is most important—the Coalition trails the opposition badly in that state in polls and part of its problem there has been that its national leadership has under Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey, and continues to be under Turnbull and Scott Morrison, closely identified with Sydney. Fifield will be the good news minister, with the NBN long term satellite, HFC and FTTN services all set to deploy in a big way under his tenure. In addition, the fixed wireless service will be upgraded to 50Mbps and a cell site access service will be introduced—allowing the government to tie the NBN to its mobile blackspots program for the first time. This gives him a tremendous opportunity to gain a high media profile and help correct the Sydney-centric bias that attaches to the Coalition currently.

Finally there has been a meme going around the tech press this past week that Turnbull is a closet FTTH zealot & secret ALP NBN lover and will re-institute Stephen Conroy’s old universal FTTH policy. This is just utter hogwash for anyone paying the smallest attention to communications over the past two years. Turnbull has gone to the great empirical lengths, both through his own research and policy efforts and the results of myriad inquiries, to establish the economic credentials and validity of MTM. It would be a massive repudiation of his own credibility and integrity to reverse that.

As he wrote just several weeks ago, the latest NBN corporate plan showed that 93% FTTH would still cost $30 billion more and take 6 to 8 years longer than MTM. He opined “This means that a full FTTP deployment such as Labor has advocated would leave millions of Australians trapped with inadequate connectivity – or no fixed line connection at all, in many cases – for more than a decade. Delays of that length are simply not acceptable for the Government. We cannot afford to leave large numbers of Australians behind as we seek to accelerate the nation’s productivity and global competitiveness in an age of digital disruption.”

Turnbull and Fifield aim to have the NBN essentially completed by the election after next. Right now it looks like everyone bar the 3-4% on satellite and maybe another 4-5% at the fag end of FTTN copper loops will be able to obtain 50Mbps speeds at a bare minimum and 100Mbps in the main. Forget the comparisons to city-states such as Singapore or a place such as South Korea, where half the population live in one giant city. When a country with such dispersed rural settlements and comparatively low urban population densities as Australia can deliver 50Mbps minimum to 90% of the population and 100Mbps to 74% of the population at an affordable cost, it will be a powerful basis on which to mount the case for a prime ministership attuned to the opportunities of technology disruption and 21st century government. Pertinently, this case will be able to be made in the present and not the future tense.

GRAHAME LYNCH

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