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PM's Poll Spike Suggests Australia's Fibre Paradise Isn't Doomed Just Yet

She may have surprised constituents by professing her admiration for Daenerys Targaryen and warning the populace about a zombie and K-pop invasion, but Australian prime minister Julia Gillard’s biggest surprise came when a recent poll suggested that she actually might not lose the country’s upcoming federal election – crippling its $37.4 billion fibre-to-the-premises (FttP) National Broadband Network (NBN) in the process.

The subject of drooling admiration from tech-heads the world over, Gillard’s Labor government is running an FttP network slated to deliver 1Gbps broadband to 93% of Australia’s homes and businesses by 2021.

It’s been tipped to beat its latest targets, but even that might not save Gillard, whom many despise for her social and tax reform as much as for her 2009 ouster of previous PM and NBN father Kevin Rudd.

Her putative replacement, Liberal Party leader Tony “I’m no Bill Gates” Abbott, is an unrepentant technophobe who has positioned the FttP NBN as the worst example of Gillard’s spendthrift socialism. After famously conceding during his unsuccessful 2010 campaign that “if you’re going to get me into a technical argument, I’m going to lose it”, Abbott unleashed a merciless three-year onslaught of hostility that saw approval of Gillard’s Labor Party fall to 29% in April – leading most to conclude that, despite its arguable merits, the FttP NBN was dead in the water come the election.

The seeming inevitability of that defeat has many contemplating life under the alternative NBN spruiked by Abbott and telecoms insider Malcolm Turnbull – a constant critic of FttP’s cost and its promise of speeds that he says nobody actually needs.

In April, Turnbull and Abbott promised to use fibre-to-the-node (FttN) technology to deliver 25Mbps downloads to most of Australia by 2016, and VDSL2 vectoring to boost this to 50Mbps by 2019.

“A lot of work has been done” to develop the policy, Abbott proclaimed, devaluing his three years in opposition by calling Turnbull’s policy “work of a quality to surpass just about anything that an Opposition has previously done” – despite its use of worst-case scenarios to argue that Gillard’s project will actually cost A$94 billion.

If Abbott does win, Australia’s FttP NBN will be put on chocks and put through more body work than a post-Top Gear fixer-upper. A complete redesign of the network will be conducted alongside a long-promised cost-benefit analysis that will most certainly use the $94 billion figure to conclude FttN is the preferred option – even though Labor’s current cost estimate of $37.4b isn’t too far off the Coalition policy’s $29.4 billion pricetag.

Turnbull wants to channel the experience of UK carrier BT, which rolled FttN across its monopoly copper network with all the access rights a monopoly provides. Australia’s equivalent – the previously state-owned Telstra, which was privatised lock, stock and barrel a decade ago and gifted its nationwide copper access network (CAN) – dragged the Gillard government through a two-year melee that will net it $A11 billion not for the CAN, but for providing access the underground copper ducts through which it runs.

That copper will stay in Telstra’s hands even after its customers are shifted to the new NBN – unless Abbott’s Coalition is elected. In this case, Turnbull believes he can acquire the estimated 154 million kilometres of Telstra’s CAN by simply asking nicely for it.

In a vicious recent debate (grab some popcorn and watch it online) that included the words ‘grub’ and ‘pathetic’, Turnbull told current communications minister Stephen Conroy an Abbott government could access Telstra’s CAN “without any additional charge.”

Gillard’s K-pop fears may have come off as alarmist – but unless her tiny poll uptick turns into a surge, the zombie hordes could indeed soon be pounding on her door. Resentment of her socialist reform agenda has been so strong that most voters may ignore the intricacies of the NBN debate and just vote with their hearts.

In that case, Gillard and her socialist reform agenda are doomed. Still, NBN policy could be the decider for the many voters who see better broadband as the most tangible issue at stake in the election.

“Both parties know the NBN could again be a critical factor in the polls,” telecommunications analyst Paul Budde explains, “so for the government there will be more emphasis on it – and for the opposition, to get closer to the current plan. In the end, it will be a win for the NBN and the Australian people.”

David Braue is an award-winning technology journalist who has covered Australia's IT industry since 1995.


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David Braue

David Braue is an award-winning technology journalist who has covered Australia's IT industry since 1995. His portfolio spans business, ICT, telecommunications and other areas, with a particular focus on Australia's world-leading national broadband network (NBN).

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