Reviving OPEL – is this the best the Opposition can come up with?

Why kill a plan that is internationally recognised as world-class?

It is quite astonishing that the Opposition has chosen to fight the National Broadband Network as a major election item. 

The NBN has widespread support from consumers (voters), business, unions and the broader ICT, content and applications industries. It has propelled Australia onto the world stage – this time not because of sheep or minerals, but because of a leading international ICT project. 

This is a first for Australia and it will have far-reaching economic benefits. The NBN has been used as a model for subsequent policies introduced by the Obama Government; elements of the Australian plan can be found on the European Union’s Digital Europe Agenda; and Australian leadership has been instrumental in the formation of the ITU/UNESCO Broadband Commission for Digital Development. 

The world’s two most serious international economic forums, the OECD and the World Bank, have both applauded the plan and are supporting the trans-sector benefits that this project will deliver in relation to healthcare, education, energy, environment and transport. 

Is the rest of the world wrong? Does the Australian Liberal Party believe that it is the only one who has got this right? 

Interestingly, close to the 2007 elections the then Minister for Communications, Helen Coonan, also started hinting at more far-reaching telecoms industry reforms, and this was applauded by the industry – at that time the industry believed that it could work with both parties, whichever won the election. 

However, it appears that the Liberal Party has moved back from even that position. 

If the Opposition wins the upcoming election, by all means let them work with the industry – which, under the leadership of hundreds of experts, has (mostly on a voluntary basis) transformed the current government policies into practical and workable implementation plans, all of which are featuring on the telecoms world agendas of their peers. 

 Let them bring their own flavour to the NBN. Let them put their own stamp on it. But, for heaven’s sake, let’s not go right back to the beginning again. 

Opposition shows lack of vision

Why would you want to kill such a project? 

The only reason can be a complete lack of vision and this is what quickly becomes clear, given that so far the only solution the Opposition can come up seems to be a revival of their 5-year-old OPEL project. 

This would bring a wireless system to regional Australia. 

Every single telecoms engineer in the world will tell the Opposition that the future of high-speed broadband infrastructure is fibre. Wireless is no alternative. Fibre is the answer, except in relation to approximately 7% of the population, of which the last 2% can only be serviced by satellite, leaving 5% of the population with wireless. 

Providing a wireless service to a larger proportion of the regional population would unnecessarily relegate those people to the status of second-class broadband citizens. 

So where is the coalition partner, the National Party, in all of this? 

Engineers will also tell the Opposition that the ongoing maintenance costs of a wireless network are considerably greater than those incurred for a fibre network. So a short-term saving might result in long-term higher costs and, over time, an obsolete infrastructure that needs to be overhauled by fibre anyway. What are the chances of regional Australia obtaining new broadband infrastructure twice – initially one based on wireless, which later has to be largely replaced with fibre? 

Opposition taking the country back to the Dark Age of Telecommunications

When it was in power the Opposition had ten years to come up with a proper broadband plan for Australia and they failed to do so. In 2004 their Minister for Communications, Richard Alston, argued that Australia didn’t need broadband. At that time the Coalition Government was unable to stop Telstra’s aggressive monopolistic behaviour under its previous CEO, and its lack of political vision and action on this matter became part of the reason for the Coalition losing the elections in 2007. 

Why do they think they will win the forthcoming election by leading the telecoms market back to those dark days? 

By scrapping the NBN and starting again from scratch we would need to go through the same lengthy processes of discussion papers, submissions, reviews, tenders, proposals, new regulations and possible legislation. This would take another three years, at least, and by that time – somewhere around 2014 – we would still not have progressed from where the Opposition introduced its original OPEL plan in 2006. 

One of the reasons the OPEL and the NBN plans were launched was to address the fact that the country had fallen significantly behind in the international race to provide affordable high-speed broadband. A delay of another three years would only increase that gap. 

At the same time the irony is that other countries are following Australia’s NBN plans and will be implementing their versions of high-speed roll outs. Those countries will reap not just the social and economic national benefits of such decisions; they will also position their ICT, content and application industries at the forefront of hi-tech export opportunities. 

Wouldn’t that be a huge missed opportunity for Australia? 

Paul Budde 


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