Opinion: Smith is out of his depth

Concerns the shadow communications minister is struggling to keep his head above water

Watching the Opposition party announce their alternative broadband policy and the performance of shadow communications minister, Tony Smith, during a debate on ICT issues at the National Press Club was at times excruciatingly painful.

The Coalition may win over a number of people simply because they opposed the government's National Broadband Network (NBN) plan on the basis of cost, but there is a real concern among many in the industry that the Liberals have got the wrong man for the job with the industry and, by default the economy, suffering as a result.

The reason is not just that the Opposition's broadband policy fails to deliver on several key desires of the majority of the industry, such as ubiquity or telecommunications reform - some privately suggest Smith is swimming out of his depth.

Unlike both senators Conroy and Ludlam, who were as comfortable talking about market structure as they were technologies, Smith battled to articulate coherent and sound arguments to questions. It may have been his way of dealing with questions, but it wasn’t a strong performance and he looked uncomfortable.

Interrupted by a belligerent Conroy, and saving several jabs at sporting allegiances between the opponents, Smith wasn't able to retort with any kind of certainty what spectrum he would use to deliver the wireless portion of the Coalition's $6.25 billion broadband policy.

Smith replied that the Coalition would take a “pro-active approach” to the issue, hinting that telecommunications companies would be allowed to more easily trade required spectrum between each other.

“If need be, we will quarantine a portion of that spectrum to ensure that these services can be delivered and when companies bid they’ll be bidding for that spectrum,” Smith said.

He also said the Coalition would make use of available ex-analogue television spectrum from 2014 onwards. However, Smith was unable to detail how additional spectrum required to deliver wireless to outer metropolitan, regional and rural areas in the four years until that point would occur, despite expectations it would spend up to $825 million on the technology during that period.

“There’s tradeable spectrum and useable spectrum today but as you know, when the analogue signal is switched off, and the new spectrum comes online, we’ll be making use of it,” Smith said.

And then faced with question from my colleague at CommsDay about the strange and oxymoronic commitment to a minimum peak speed of 12Mbps, Smith was simply unable to show why this was an intelligent declaration.

The Liberal's commitment is to give you a minimum service that might, at the very best of times reach 12Mbps but at other times could drop to any speed below that. So really, it's not the minimum level.

His response: “We are saying this is a minimum floor, but this is technology that is improving and evolving all the time. We’ve said 12Mbps peak speed quite deliberately; we’re not over promising.

“These speeds will continue to evolve, there will be new benchmarks going forward.”

Unfortunately, while the Liberals do have former Optus man, Paul Fletcher, and a former leader that is familiar with the industry, Malcolm Turnbull, in the wings - they have failed to stamp any kind of legitimacy on the Opposition's policy. Instead they have toed the party line and sacrificed a grand opportunity. And that has sent shivers down the spine of many in the ICT industry.

One industry expert even offered Paul Fletcher a lesson in wireless technologies after the Liberal used the “minimum peak speed” terminology during the follow up to the ICT debate.

And as for using Andrew Robb to talk about telecommunications – judging by his performance that’s probably as low as it goes. He even had the nerve to slander some very good people at NBN Co.

Not a good day all round for the Opposition. Someone throw Smith a life buoy.

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Tags broadbandFederal Election 2010CoalitionNational Broadband Commission (NBC)

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