The late night AFP raid on Labor Party offices that awoke the nation on the cusp of the Federal Electron sparked outrage on both sides of politics. Bill Shorten lambasted it as an opportunistic attempt by the Coalition to cover its tracks after leaked documents revealed an NBN struggling to cope with rising costs and a string of delays. Malcolm Turnbull meanwhile went on the defensive claiming that it was a natural eventuation of the NBN Co’s referral to the AFP about the leaks which threatened a major national infrastructure project. Thereby dismissing the political sensitivity issue as merely bad timing.
Now, three days out from the federal election on Saturday, both the raid and the leader’s responses seem a distant memory but the National Broadband Network has remained as a lingering core election issue. In particular, the NBN has dominated debate in regional areas where internet connections are debilitatingly slow in comparison to urban centres. So what exactly is the state of play at the upcoming Federal election?
The Government’s current plan, rolled out during none other than Mr Turnbull’s tenure as the Communications Minister, is a multi-technology approach with the majority of properties (38%) connected through a fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) system, 20% through fibre-to-the-home (FTTP) and 32% of the remainder through pay television cables which are also referred to as Hybrid Fibre Coaxial (HFC). This was a dramatic shift from Labor’s proposed plan to deliver FTTP to every household in Australia reaching speeds of up to 1 GB per second but the Coalition compromised sighting the need for budget savings and a shorter timeframe. On the other hand FTTN and HFC will both deliver approximate speeds of up to 100 MB per second with the FTTN system relying on nodes positioned in street corners or apartment blocks which are connected to the network through fibre but the remainder of the connection from the node to the property being the ageing copper already in place. 2.6 million residences are currently connected to the upgraded network and construction is set to be completed in 2020 with an estimated cost of $49 billion.
On the other hand, If elected, Labor promises to extend the FTTP rollout to an additional 2 million premises bringing the percentage of properties covered by FTTP to 39% compared to the Coalition’s 20%. However, it will maintain the Coalition’s ‘multi-technology’ approach with the remaining properties connected via FTTN and HFC. The extension of the FTTP rollout will mean an increased cost of $57 billion and the estimated completion date extended to mid-2022. In times where the nation is fixated on a budget ‘surplus’, Labor defends the additional initial capital outlay (an extra $8 billion compared to the Coalition) as a necessary measure given the savings in the long run derived from reduced maintenance costs and elimination of the need to upgrade FTTN outlays to FTTP.
Meanwhile the Greens’ policy documents do not promise a concrete model as such but rather a commitment to a “fast-fibre” NBN that reverses the Coalition’s “multi-technology mix disaster”. A Senate Select Committee is also promised to undertake a multi-party inquiry into the most “cost effective” and “future proof architecture” for the NBN which is likely to delay construction for at least another 6 to 12 months. Given Greens leader Richard Di Natale has expressed on multiple occasions the Greens’ support for the NBN and the assurance “that means Fibre to the Home, no half-measures”, it is likely that any Greens proposal will fall on similar timeframes and costing to Labor.