After a marathon, record-breaking eight-week election campaign and almost two weeks of vote counting, we finally have an election result. The coalition has scraped through with a small majority and will likely hold onto power for another three years. It was exciting for a small moment that the possibility of a hung parliament opened the door to possible reform of a number of controversial policies, including the NBN, but the majority result has likely shut the door on this occurring.
During the campaign, myself and many other technology journalists were attempting to follow the breadcrumbs to see if there was going to be any modification to the existing NBN policy frameworks across the major parties. Largely, the Greens and the Coalition did not modify their policies at all, with the Greens advocating a full fibre NBN and the Coalition continuing to hold the line on the Multi Technology Mix. It was only Labor that decided to make a change in policy to reflect the reality of a Coalition-run NBN Company.
Labors’ policy was not to ditch the mix but simply change it so that FTTN was phased out. Fibre would take precedence where possible but if a funding cap was hit, HFC would fill the gaps. The reception of this policy was mixed, with many lamenting the loss of a full fibre network while others, including myself and Renai Lemay from Delimiter, where very happy with the pragmatism shown by the shadow communications minister. There was no unscrambling the eggs that were already half cooked into an omelette, and promising to put as much Fibre as possible into the network was laudable.
But for all intents and purposes, the matter is now largely closed. The next three years were scheduled to be the most crucial for the network in terms of its construction, and a number of contracts were pending, awaiting the results of the election. In many cases, this election was an unwritten, unspoken referendum on the NBN, but its relative importance in the electorate was not reflective of the vocal opposition to the Coalition’s results and policy on it. Although it is the largest infrastructure project in Australia’s history, it was assigned about three days of coverage throughout the 60-plus day campaign.
In essence, Australia basically has the network it deserves. If you were hoping a hung parliament may save it, as it did (from complete destruction) in 2010, that ship has sailed. If you are hoping this patchwork new Senate will save it, there isn’t any legislation left to amend or block. This is not an issue that would likely survive a private members bill, or considered important enough for a conscience vote. By the approximate end of construction in 2022, our patchwork network is likely to be a roughly 30/30/30/10 split of Fibre, HFC, FTTN and Wireless/Satellite.
Is all completely lost?
Well, not entirely. The Coalition’s hold on power is likely to be only one or two votes. If there are any scandals or by-elections, it could cause a hung parliament or another election. If the Coalition completes a full term and Labor is brought back in, it could attempt to inject as much Fibre as possible into the last few years of construction, or even attempt to undo some of the easier/worst-affected FTTN areas and swap them over.
But in the meantime, the government of the day has complete authority over the actions and the board of NBN Co. But we need not be entirely worried, as there are still benefits to the current status quo. Firstly, NBN Co is still, and for the likely long-term future, a government owned and run corporation, which makes it accountable to the taxpayer. This also means that its budget and its responsibility to provide the services it promises will be higher than a commercial operator like Optus and Telstra. It also has a responsibility to keep pace with demand.
This also means that NBN Co has to maintain a solid backbone and capacity, as well as keep its network open and its pricing fair. It has to repair broken equipment and provide workable products to avoid commercial competition. Essentially, it is Telstra pre-privatision, and while the company's actual performance in relation to its scheduled responsibilities may waver, it is not a profit-focused entity. It has public roadmaps and is obligated to meet them. (See the HFC launch during the election as a questionable example of this).
It's easy to feel entirely disillusioned; this project is not what it could have been. But it’s important to find the benefits that can and will affect large parts of the population. While many of us in the technology industry lament the loss of the superior network, many users do not even have the most basic of workable internet connections. Turning on HFC alone opens the door to millions of potential customers, especially as NBN Co starts the process of filling in the gaps between Optus and Telstra’s original coverage. It also, for the first time, introduces wholesale competition on this network, which should privide downward pressure on pricing.
As much as we’d also hate to admit it, even FTTN has and will provide better than existing connections, including much better upload, especially once the copper has been cleaned up and vectoring is turned on. It’s not Fibre, sure, but it means a lot of people will finally be able to download content at reasonable speeds, reliably work from home, and upload or stream from their PCs. It also means families will for the first time be able to simultaneously access content where they may have not before.
It's unsure what the future holds for the NBN. Once the initial construction is complete, the company will need to decide what its next steps are. It’s highly likely that a lot of incremental upgrades to Fibre will take place for those struggling with poor FTTN connections in the early days, moving gradually to a wider FTTP replacement over those years. New estates as they are built will still be FTTP and will now set the baseline.
It’s up to all of us, as taxpayers and overseers, to continue to hold the NBN to account.