Does Australia need a proper nbn?

Here we go again with more useless debates about whether the country needs a first-class national broadband network or a second-rate one; and again there are discussions around what other flavours of the multi-mix technology can we now add to it to strengthen the brew. By now we have lost most of Australians in this useless debate, and we are making very little progress.

Of course we need a first-class nbn, and that is what we would expect those in charge, both in government and in the nbn company, to deliver to the Australian people.

Rather than addressing the core of the problem those involved in these debates pick on certain elements; and often, yes, there are two sides to such detailed issues. But in this nitty gritty debate everyone involved misses the bigger picture – or perhaps deliberately avoids addressing it.

In such situations I have always argued for going back to the core – why we are building an nbn in the first place. Given all the government money spent, the answer has to be ‘in the national interest’, and if you dig deeper you get into the social and economic benefits we have been talking about for a decade (healthcare, education, national productivity, digital economy and so on).

So if we look at the nbn with the national interest in mind what sort of infrastructure is needed to deliver those national outcomes?

There is little argument about this from all of those involved in these endless debates. Such an infrastructure needs to deliver the following: capacity, robustness, security, low latency and ubiquity. Once we agree on this I think nearly everyone will say that the answer is FttH.

The real question then is how do we get there?

If we don’t build an infrastructure based on FttH we will get into trouble, and the endless arguments are a clear indication that the nbn in Australia is in trouble.  For example, looking at the patchwork nbn we are getting right now – because of its reliance on old technologies the mixed technology might work in one area but not in another; or better here and worse there.

Roughly a quarter of nbn users have complaints about the quality of their service. It could well be that one house has a perfect connection while the next one has an abysmal service. And there are many possible reasons for that, which sometimes makes it very hard for the nbn company to fix the different problems.

For national services such as e-health, education, government services, finance or business, a network with consistently good characteristics nationwide is necessary. If such an infrastructure can’t be delivered then the institutions that need to build those digital services simply won’t do it. It is a chicken-and-egg situation. So if you don’t build a first-class network you won’t create the supply, and when you don’t have a good supply of services you won’t get the demand.

However, it is totally wrong to then claim that because there is no demand Australians don’t need a proper nbn.

If, as Prime Minister Turnbull maintains, at this point in time we can’t afford such a network it would still be necessary to build an nbn with that end goal in mind – and to very clearly communicate the vision and provide the right strategies for it. So far neither the government nor the nbn company has provided such a vision or strategy.

Talking about money, building an nbn is one thing. Making sure that people can afford it is another. So, apart from the infrastructure characteristics that are mentioned above, an important inclusion in the business model of the nbn needs to be recognition of the reality that people will only buy what they can afford. So building any infrastructure that will result in unaffordable prices for the users is also not the right thing to do. The Government is the only one who can take the national economic and social benefits into account; commercial organisations can’t do this, as these benefits don’t show up in any financial format on their P+L.

Regrettably it appears that on both counts – proper infrastructure plans and the need for affordable services – the government and the nbn company, despite spending something like $50 billion, have failed to come up with the right solution for Australia.

Paul Budde

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