Opinion: Pulling in different directions — The NBN debate

The horn calls are loud, but some are holding tubas

Since the National Broadband Network (NBN) entered the spotlight sometime around the Federal election, it has become the darling of some and the fiery target of others. It has been put on a pedestal and hauled down in the same breath, as critics from all corners of Australia grapple with the consequences and ramifications of what is undoubtedly a large and expensive undertaking.

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But if there’s one thing clear at all about the debate surrounding the network, it’s that there isn’t much very clear at all. At least, in what people are debating.

For the most part, the major parties involved appear to be pulling in different directions. While communications minister, Senator Stephen Conroy, waxes poetic about smart dishwashers, his opponent Malcolm Turnbull, repeats the phrase “cost benefit analysis” so many times, it appears branded on his tongue. That isn’t to mention the seemingly manufactured debate conjured by certain mainstream media outlets.

Like a horde of cats scrambling to get their piece of string, the debate is pulling in different directions with no solution in sight. What’s missing is a common ground.

Turnbull, to his credit, used his address to industry experts at the Commsday Summit in Melbourne this week to establish “a framework for what will become a rational and responsible debate about the provision of broadband in Australia”.

The framework, he said, was based on a couple of important tenets:

  • That governments “should not go into business in areas where the private sector is capable of providing the necessary services”,
  • That debate centre on a free market and “competition between firms is the best way of delivering us the things we want at the best price”, and
  • That government focus on the one policy objective of providing fast broadband services at affordable prices to Australians.

And there lies Turnbull’s problem: His debate relies on the age-old Liberal mentality that free markets do everything best. Whether that is true or not is, of course, up for debate, but is the NBN the forum for this debate?

Conroy has of course addressed the issue with one of the five or six soundbytes he uses whenever he is asked an on-the-record question: Telstra wouldn’t do it, so we have to. Beyond that, though, the debate here is yet to progress.

Or anywhere else for that matter.

The man at the centre of it all, Mike Quigley, used his own speech at the Commsday Summit to address the media “hysteria” surround some of the network’s aspects, namely what would be done without a copper network, and the possibility of rewiring one’s home.

That same day however, The Australian led with a front-page piece warning NBN costs would blow-out by as much as $1 billion since NBN Co decided to hook fibre from the footpath to the premises. Unless a certain announcement lies waiting in our spam filters, we’re fairly certain NBN Co always intended to run fibre directly to homes where the person accepted (or in Tasmania’s case, whether they liked it or not). After all - it is called fibre-to-the-premises.

Conroy ceded some ground when he shifted communication from the IT industry, who are all-but-convinced, to the business arena where the cries for a cost-benefit analysis run loud and retreats to Hayman Island are seemingly where the most important decisions are made. The numbers flying out of the likes of Business Spectator or Bloomberg where previously NBN news was scarce only serve to prove the point that the battleground and debate has shifted.

Yet we remain without am understandable forum on which to base coherent and rational debate. It’s difficult to compete on the field when everyone is playing a different sport.

There is no doubt that the NBN is a huge and extremely complex project which can’t be summarised or encapsulated in a single, coherent debate. But any coherency at all would be much appreciated, and a common ground is ultimately what is necessary for the battle to be fought - if not won - by one side or the other.

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Tags NBNMalcolm Turnbullnbn conational broadband networkSenator Stephen ConroyMike Quigley

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