Editorial: NBN at risk

While the rollout of the National Broadband Network (NBN) has only just begun, the benefits may be short lived.

Fibre optic services are now available to three Tasmanian communities and links are also being laid in regional Australia under the Regional Backbone Blackspots Program. But if the Coalition wins the election, Tony Abbott has made no secret of the fact that he plans to stop construction of the network.

In a speech to the Press Club in May, Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey confirmed the plan to cease implementation of the NBN.He said the Government must not punt taxpayers’ money on particular technology bets that may become “expensive white elephants”.

“Accordingly, we will not be proceeding with the NBN at a borrowing cost of at least $26 billion and an interest bill of around $2.4 billion over the forward estimates,” Joe Hockey said.

A savings document distributed at the Press Club claims axing the NBN will save at least $18 billion, and that savings will be offset by lower cost and more effective Coalition programs.

In a statement made to Local Government FOCUS regarding the upcoming election (refer page 1), Shadow Minister for Local Government Warren Truss said that the Coalition would support Local Government and the Regions by delivery of better, faster and more affordable broadband. He failed to expand on this and detail exactly what that better broadband network would involve.

If the plan is to hand over the NBN to the private sector, then this could lead to cherry picking and providing services to the more profitable areas while leaving other communities, especially those in notorious blackspots across the country, with second rate services.

Although the Coalition says it will leave what has already been constructed in place, the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Stephen Conroy says it would never work because the network would be unviable without the current high levels of subsidisation.

In a speech delivered to 200 business and IT industry leaders at an Australian Information Industry Association lunch in Melbourne in July, he claimed that many Tasmanians “are absolutely frantic” about the prospect of the NBN being axed. He said that while the momentum is strong for the national rollout, Tasmania’s NBN alone is not financially viable.

For Local Government, the NBN stands to provide exciting opportunities for both infrastructure and economic development. It will transform the way communities and individuals communicate, receive services and carry out business, while providing opportunities for residents to live, engage and work more locally than ever before.

Additionally, if and when the infrastructure is in place, it will be up to councils to think outside the square, being as creative as possible in their application of the technology.

It should not stop at providing higher speed connections for residents, but councils should begin thinking about how else to tap into the technology, for example through streaming live webcasts of their council meetings, increased e-service delivery, business training and awareness raising, creating forums for collaboration with other councils and so forth.

Whichever Party forms the next government, provision of the state of the art fibre optic services to all communities should not be negotiable.