Spurred on by two decades of Telstra owning a private monopoly on last-mile telecommunications infrastructure, the Labor Party envisioned the NBN as the solution to Australia’s growing digital divide. In 2013, the solution became part of the problem with the Liberal Party’s total destruction of the program. Why?
No two entities stood to lose more from the NBN than Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation and Telstra. One controlled – and still controls – virtually all regularly circulated print media in Australia. The other controlled a vertically integrated telecommunications monopoly for well over a decade. Together they controlled the only pay TV network in the country – Foxtel.
The NBN posed an existential threat to this triad. It would take away Telstra’s vertically integrated monopoly on telecommunications. Access to streaming services would severely disrupt Foxtel’s monopoly on “premium” entertainment. Ubiquitous access to real news would deprive News Corporation of its ability to control the country’s political narrative. For Telstra, News Corp and Foxtel to remain viable, Rupert Murdoch would have to destroy the NBN.
To this end, he relied on an ally in government. A man with no mind, with no ideas of his own. One might almost say a man with no brain. No, not Baldrick. Tony Abbott. The plan was to destroy the NBN from within, and hopefully make a few bucks while doing so.
The 2013 Liberal broadband policy launch was a farce. Abbott’s script was blatantly prepared directly by his puppet masters, as it amounted to little more than a regurgitation of the same hogwash that had been appearing in the pages of Murdoch’s The Australian. He repeated lie after lie after lie. Labor’s plan is going to cost $90bn (the FTTP cost per premises almost halved from 2011 to 2013). Labor’s plan was not going to be finished until 2030 (FTTP rollout time for a given service area was shortened by weeks between 2011 and 2013). Labor’s plan was extravagant and unnecessary. The Liberal Party was taking with it to the election an alternative NBN (in the same way that anti-vax pages are “alternative news”). The Liberal party proposed an alternative they promised would be “cheaper, faster, sooner.” Spoiler alert – it wasn’t any of those.
Abbott continued to belabour the point that the Internet was nothing more than a “…video entertainment network…” used by entitled millennials to pirate Game of Thrones, and that no one actually needed what Labor was building. Abbott also mentioned that Telstra’s 5G network would render FTTP obsolete (a moronic statement that will never come to fruition), so we should all just go contract with Telstra! And just as a final extra middle finger to the art of subtlety, this entire event was hosted at Foxtel Studios in Sydney.
The new Liberal policy was to stop roll outs of a permanently future proof, world-class network and replace it with a technology from the late 90s that Telstra itself said was dead in the water in 2003; Fibre to the Node. Rather than roll fibre all the way to the premises, it would be deployed to a roadside cabinet, from which Telstra’s existing copper network would be used to provide VDSL to the premises. This is the same Telstra copper network that in 2003 was described by Telstra CEO Ziggy Switkowski as being “…five minutes to midnight…” The Liberal party promised that FTTN would be capable of delivering a minimum of 25Mbps to all Australians by 2016, a promise they knew they could not keep, and had no intention of doing so anyway.
Perhaps the biggest slap in the face to the Australian people is that by 2013, most newer developments already had a variant of FTTN called RIM. This service began seeing widespread deployment by Telstra in the late 90s as a cheaper alternative to running copper all the way from the exchange. The real motive was to lock entire estates into only being with Telstra for telephony and broadband services, as third parties were unable to access this RIM infrastructure. The service was (and is) unreliable and slow, to the point where people stuck on RIMs often request to be moved to a direct connection to the exchange. And this is the technology the Liberal Party said would bring Australians into the 21st century.
The Abbott Government’s first act was to force the resignation of NBNCo. chairman Dr Mike Quigley – a man who had for years been extremely critical of Telstra’s market practices. After doing away with Dr Quigley, one Dr Ziggy Switkowski was appointed as chairman. Yes, him. It seems like “five minutes to midnight” actually means “forever if you shovel enough money into it.”
Following Switkowski’s appointment, all NBNCo. operations were ordered to cease pending a “Strategic Review” into the feasibility of the network. This review was principally conducted by Deloitte – the same Deloitte responsible for the 2011 tobacco lobby’s report into the Australian tobacco industry – a report universally condemned and called “baseless and deceptive” by Home Affairs Minister Brendan O’Connor. This review halted all operations at NBNCo. for at least 3 months.
Oddly enough, this totally independent and unbiased report concluded that FTTP was in fact the work of Satan. The report also “recommended” following the Liberal Party NBN policy document to the tee. Build and design contracts for FTTP were torn up on the spot, leaving suburbs such as Ascot literally half-baked. Palm Avenue, for example, has FTTP deployed halfway down the street, while the other half is still yet to be connected to the NBN.
Half a year was then wasted redesigning the network and drawing up new contracts with Telstra to shovel as much money as possible into the corporation. Telstra won design, build and maintenance contracts for the copper component of the network. It is important to bear in mind through all of this an ex-Telstra CEO was chairman of NBNCo – a chairman who had in the past been found in breach of conflict of interest laws as head of ANSTO, Australia’s nuclear regulator.
Most of 2014 was now gone, and no new work had been done on the NBN save for some limited FTTN trials. Towards the end of 2014 however, large-scale deployment of FTTN began, and this is where NBN complaints started flooding the mainstream media. Of course, these complaints mostly came from ill-informed people who blamed Labor for “doing the NBN,” as was the intention of the Liberal Party from the start – turn public opinion against the NBN.
The Party now had a dilemma. The public was no longer accepting FTTN as a solution, but after years of badgering Labor for FTTP, they could not turn back. This is where the “anything but fibre” doctrine was adopted. NBNCo. moved to minimise the amount of FTTN in the network by approaching Optus and Telstra with offers to buy their HFC networks. Optus received $800m. Telstra, on the other hand, received an IV drip. The transfer of HFC assets was incorporated into the existing $11bn “pit and pipe” lease contract, the details of which remained private for a while. Telstra guaranteed the government this network was fit for use. More spoilers – it wasn’t.
HFC as a technology is infinitely superior to FTTN and almost as good as FTTP … when designed and built properly. Optus’s network was designed and built first and foremost as a broadband network. Telstra’s was designed originally only to carry Foxtel. Again, in totally transparent and unbiased trials, Optus’s network was deemed unfit for purpose and discarded. $800m of your money gone. Telstra’s network was of course perfect.
Telstra’s network was designed for a maximum utilisation of around 30% of the rollout area. This information was either withheld from the government or ignored by a certain ex-Telstra CEO. NBNCo thought it had a huge win on its hands – a “here’s one I prepared earlier” network that they could just start connecting customers to immediately. Except when they started doing so, the network failed. NBN, Telstra Cable and Foxtel services all suffered from widespread disruptions and signal quality issues. Years of neglect and absolute barebones maintenance had left it in a state of disrepair. Loose connections, corroded taps, 20+ year old amps, cables chewed up by rats. Last year, NBNCo. made the decision to halt all new connections to HFC and spend some time remediating the network. No points for guessing which large telco with HFC experience was awarded this multi-billion-dollar remediation contract.
Again, in a total oversight and not at all a conscious decision borne of deep rooted corruption, Telstra and Foxtel were allowed to continue connecting new customers as NBNCo paid to expand and repair the network. Telstra also used the refurbished network to boost speeds on Telstra Cable at no cost to themselves which resulted in a large number of new customers signing 24-month contracts for the service – contracts which also locked them in to staying with Telstra when NBNCo eventually lifted the stop-sell.
Unlocking HFC’s full speeds requires the entire RF spectrum from 60-1000MHz be available to NBNCo. Part of the purchase agreement made with Telstra is that Foxtel gets to stay on the network – our network – for as long as they like – consuming the vast majority of the RF spectrum on the network.
We were sold universal access to high-speed broadband, and a dream of unlocking new economic prosperity, a dream we were so close to realising. What we got instead was literal state-sponsored Bolt Report broadcasts, delivered straight to your Foxtel telescreen on government-owned infrastructure. What we got is outer metropolitan suburbs on satellite connections meant to be reserved for remote homesteads. What we got was a hodgepodge of old Telstra assets that were on the table for replacement 15 years ago. What we got was brazen and deep-rooted corruption – the pissing away of Australia’s digital future – and the giving away of undisclosed billions of taxpayer dollars – in exchange for positive coverage in the Murdoch press and a free ride to the PM’s office.
This is on everyone that voted Liberal in 2013. This is on everyone who subscribes to Foxtel “just for the footy, mate.” This is on everyone who purchases Murdoch newspapers. This is on millennials who don’t register to vote because they think the system sucks. This is on boomers who couldn’t care less about modern problems and future planning because it won’t affect them. This is on everyone who thinks Australian politics is boring and doesn’t matter. You did this.
I hope you’re happy.