View from The Hill

Opposition broadband: is second best good enough?

Malcolm Turnbull is more tech-savvy than Tony Abbott. AAP/Lloyd Jones

The opposition’s broadband policy argues that achieving the good is better than hanging out for the perfect, especially when you have to pay more and wait longer for the latter, which you don’t really need anyway.

The government replies that the Coalition’s approach is like building the Sydney Harbour Bridge with only one lane.

Tony Abbott didn’t turn up to the launch of the Coalition’s 2010 policy but he was on hand for the 2013 version, though one still felt that heavy drilling on the fine detail might have left him in an awkward space.

But Malcolm Turnbull was there for the grunt work. Turnbull has plenty of expertise but his fuse is short. One provocative questioner got Turnbull’s sarcastic tongue.

In an echo of the Coalition’s old refrain about interest rates, Abbott and Turnbull say: “Basic broadband plans will always be more affordable under the Coalition than under Labor”.

It’s the difference between the gold and silver services.

The NBN is too far advanced - and too politically popular - for the opposition to throw it out. It had no choice but to accept the basic structure while modifying its form.

The Coalition proposes a fibre to the node network (taking fibre to the end of the street or wherever) rather than Labor’s fibre to the premises.

Under the Liberals, the existing copper network would be used for the connection between the node and the premises, which cheapens things considerably.

There would be some exceptions – the fibre would go to homes in new suburbs, for instance, or be installed where the copper wire was in bad repair.

The critics home in on the problems of the copper.

Under interrogation about how long the copper would be fit to deliver fast internet, Turnbull defended its effectiveness and said its life would depend on technology.

Labor was kidding itself when it said it had a future proof technology. “There is no technology that is future proof. If you haven’t learnt that you have been asleep for the last 20 years”.

The Coalition estimates its rollout out will cost in total $29.5 billion. Labor says its plan will cost $44.1 billion but the Coalition claims the real cost of the Labor plan is likely to be more than $90 billion. This is based on various assumptions, and is rejected by the government.

The opposition claims prices under its scheme, to be completed by the end of 2019 (earlier than the ALP plan), would be $24 cheaper a month by 2021 than the Labor plan. The download speed would be slower than Labor’s scheme and patchier.

The NBN would be got into shape – the Coalition is highly critical of its present state – and then sold off to private enterprise.

While the Coalition is presenting its plan as firm, it is also giving itself some wriggle room. It promises no fewer than three inquiries.

One would look at the NBN’s current commercial progress and options to meet the Coalition’s policy objectives; another would audit how Labor’s plan was designed with no cost-benefit analysis or consideration of other options (a blame exercise); the third would review the long-term structure and regulation of telecommunication.

The results of the inquiries presumably would feed into how the Coalition carried out its policy.

While on the face of it the Coalition’s more modest policy appears to make sense, it would come with a good deal of uncertainty. The first class option will still have a lot of appeal for many voters, especially in regional areas.

Country independents Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor condemned the Liberal plan with Oakeshott calling it “faster, cheaper and nastier”. The Australian Industry Group sat on the fence, saying it had long supported the need for a cost benefit analysis “to determine the best approach to the rollout and to answer broader questions about what this investment means for Australia’s future economic and social development”.

The time for such a cost benefit study was before the NBN policy was launched, and it was a major lapse of good policy formulation that it was not done.