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The NBN: how a national infrastructure dream fell short

The national broadband network promised by the incoming Rudd government was politicised from the start. Lukas Coch/AAP

The NBN: how a national infrastructure dream fell short

Eight years into the Australian government’s National Broadband Network (NBN) project, the nation has an average internet speed50th in the global rankings – that lags well behind many advanced economy countries.

Ongoing secrecy around the NBN, a project that’s likely to cost more than A$50 billion, makes it impossible for the public in most cases to know when and what quality service they will receive. Further, new research shows the NBN rollout was politically motivated and socioeconomically biased from the beginning.

It is perhaps time to remind ourselves of the ups and downs of the project that was once announced as a dream national infrastructure project for the 21st century. This requires a ten-year journey back in time, before we can figure out what needs to be done next.

The ups

In November 2007, after 11 years of Coalition government, Labor was elected on a policy platform that promised a national broadband network.

The NBN company was announced in April 2009 to provide terrestrial fibre network coverage for 93% of Australian premises by the end of 2020. Fixed wireless and satellite coverage would serve the remaining 7%.

Looking back, it’s hard to deny the influence the NBN has had on Australian politics. Perhaps the peak influence was when three independent MPs cited the NBN as one of the key reasons why they supported a Labor government over the Coalition when the 2010 federal election produced a hung parliament.

The final 60 early NBN rollout locations were then announced. The plan was for the first stage of the large-scale rollout to follow, connecting 3.5 million premises in 1,500 communities by mid-2015.

The downs

The early NBN rollout experienced significant delays. This attracted a great deal of “overwhelmingly negative” media coverage. Public opinion polls reflected growing dissatisfaction with the national project.

This dissatisfaction and the September 2013 federal election result changed the fate of the NBN. In 2013, the new Coalition government suspended the first stage of the large-scale fibre-to-premises NBN rollout to reassess the scale of the project.

In 2014, the government announced that the NBN rollout would change from a primarily fibre-to-premises model to a multi-technology-mix model. The technology to be used would be determined on an area-by-area basis.

This change of direction resulted in a prolonged state of uncertainty at the local government level. As it was rolled out, the NBN was widely criticised for being slow, expensive and obsolete.

Current state of play

Delays continue in the construction of the Coalition’s NBN. What can only be described as a downgrade of the original national project is now seriously over budget.

In September 2016, a joint standing committee of parliament was established to inquire into the NBN rollout. The inquiry is continuing.

The bleak status quo only gets worse when the on-the-ground reality of the NBN rollout is considered. While fibre-to-premises rollout is supposed to be limited in the Coalition’s NBN, disturbing examples of misconduct in the NBN installations are highly concerning.

The image below shows one example of many in which heritage-listed buildings (in this case also public housing) are disrespected to the point that suggests an absolute lack of communication between NBN contractors, local government, or heritage agencies.

One heritage-listed house with two NBN installations (Judge Street, Woolloomooloo, NSW). Image: Stacey Miers, Author provided

Who misses out?

In the Coalition’s NBN, the provision of universal high-speed capacity – as envisioned in the original NBN – has been transformed into a patchwork of final speeds and different quality of service. This leads to an important question about equity. It also puts the 60 early rollout locations in the spotlight as these could potentially be the only ones across the nation that enjoy fibre-to-premises NBN.

My new research points to the political motivations in the selection of these lucky 60 sites. Voting patterns in these locations were compared with all electorates in the federal elections from 2007 to 2013. The analysis shows the selections were skewed for potential political gain.

ALP-held seats were the main beneficiaries of the early NBN rollout; safe Coalition-held seats were the least likely to receive the infrastructure.

Tony Windsor, one of the three influential independent MPs in 2010, famously said of the NBN:

Do it once, do it right, and do it with fibre.

He secured priority access for his regional electorate to the early NBN.

Tony Windsor: ‘Do it once, do it right and do it with fibre.’

However, most regional localities were not that lucky. Indeed, research on the sociospatial distribution of the early NBN rollout shows the limited share of regional Australia.

What to do?

It is convenient to blame one political party for the state of chaos that the NBN is in right now. However, politicisation of the project has been part of the problem since day one.

Instead, we call for telecommunication infrastructure to be considered for what it really is: the backbone of the fast-growing digital economy; the foundation for innovation in the age of smart cities and big data; and a key pillar of social equity and spatial justice.

In reality, however, in the age of big data and open data, the lack of transparency around the NBN is shocking. In evidence to the parliamentary committee inquiry in March 2017, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission expressed concern about the lack of transparency on NBN performance.

Policing the leaks of NBN data is not going to clean up the mess. Quite the opposite: the Australian government needs to share the NBN data, so the exact nature and scale of the problems can be determined. Only then can we talk about finding a way forward in this long journey.

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