Much NBN commentary in the Australian press is “uninformed bilious abuse,” said Turnbull in response to a question asked after his keynote talk at the Media Connect Kickstart conference on the Sunshine Coast. He also mentioned the “complete barking unreality” of many journalists' coverage.
“I find it extraordinary that most journalists in Australia have a complete lack of awareness of and interest in what is happening with other countries’ broadband rollout,” he said.
He encouraged Australian IT journalists and the mainstream media to look at the experience in other countries. “Australia is the only country in the world that is doing broadband this way,” he said, referring to the fact that NBN Co is a government owned monopoly, and that it is charged with bringing fibre to the premises (FTTP) to over 90% of Australian households.
The coalition’s policy is to deliver fibre to the node (FTTN), with ‘the last mile’ being connected by existing copper networks or FTTP where this make economic sense, such as greenfields housing estates.
He also talked of “fibre on demand”, giving the example of BT in the UK asking subscribers to pay a $1000 premium to be connected direct to fibre. In the Q&A session after his talk, Turnbull engaged in heated debate with some journalists over their fixation with FTTP. He castigated one journalist for not knowing about AT&T’s U-verse FTTN in the US, and another for his assumption that FTTP is necessary for eHealth.
He reiterated his often argued stance that FTTP is too costly and will take too long to deliver, and that journalists who insist on defending it are simply “confirming the prejudices of a dwindling audience” – presumably meaning ALP supporters – without examining the real issues.
He was of course equally scathing of the government’s whole approach to the NBN. He made the point that while FTTP might be a laudable aim, by far the more important issue was getting reasonable broadband to as many people as possible in a short time.
“Many studies show that the biggest productivity uplift from broadband comes from widespread accessibility rather than the headline speed. And the biggest barrier to Internet use if not the technology but it affordability. You don’t need to be at the cutting edge – it’s nit about finding the next Mark Zuckerberg but about ensuring the plumber down the street can order his materials effectively.”
He said that a coalition government would not privatise NBN Co – “we are where we are” – but that he would ensure a detailed comparison of NBN costs and timings for the current plan versus a more limited FTTN rollout. He would also insist on more regular and open reporting. “It’s absurd that you can get more detail from Telstra, which is a public company, than you can from NBN Co, which is owned by the taxpayers.”
The key theme of Turnbull’s talk was innovation. He made the point that Australia is one of the few high education “non deferential” cultures that does not feel it is doing a good job at innovation. “Why not? We have most of the ingredients.
“There are too many barriers to innovation in Australia. Start-ups often fail – we need to regard that as a learning experience, and keep trying. We learn more from our failures than our successes.”
He criticised the ALP’s recently released Innovation Policy as a rehash of old ideas. He said the government had made it more difficult by changing its policies and introducing too much bureaucracy to the process.
And the NBN, he said, was an example of an “over-investment that creates perverse outcomes for consumers.” But also he defended government owned entities such as Australia Post, CSIRO and NICTA.
Malcolm Turnbull impressed most of his audience with his obvious grasp of the technology and policy aspects of broadband implementation.
Whether FTTP or FTTN is the correct approach is of course open to debate, but he was able to mount an informed and impassioned defence of FTTN.
Many of his opponents should be so across their subject matter.