Opposition leader Tony Abbott.
Opposition leader Tony Abbott. Chris Ison

Coalition's NBN alternative bad for regional Aus: telco expert

THE slower, cheaper broadband Australians would get under a Coalition government would harm regional areas and hurt the National Party at the next election, a telecommunications expert has warned.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and his communications spokesman Malcolm Turnbull unveiled their long-awaited broadband policy in Sydney on Tuesday.

They claimed their version of the National Broadband Network would deliver "very fast broadband to all Australians sooner, cheaper and more affordably".

Under the plan, which would be delivered by 2019 at a cost of $29 billion, a Coalition government would begin rolling out fibre-to-the-node broadband to nine million homes, delivering minimum speeds of 25mbps by 2016 and 50mbps by 2019.

The Coalition would proceed with connecting about 20% of Australian homes to Labor's fibre-to-the-home technology, including homes in new residential developments and those in areas where the existing copper network was unable to deliver high speed broadband.

The Coalition would also retain the contracts NBN Co has signed to build new satellites and roll out a fixed wireless network to about 7% of homes in rural Australia.

Areas with "sub-standard" broadband, estimated to affect about two million homes in rural areas, would be given priority under the Coalition rollout.

"I'm very proud of this policy. I am confident that it gives Australian what we need," Mr Abbott told reporters in Sydney.

But Mark Gregory from RMIT University in Melbourne said the Coalition's policy was "inferior" to Labor's in just about every way.

Dr Gregory described the policy as a "house of cards" that relied on too many unknowns, suggesting it would be impossible to renegotiate contracts with at least three telcos within two years as well as striking a regulatory agreement with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

He dismissed the Coalition's claim the existing copper network was adequate and predicted the opposition's policy would harm regional Australia "right across the board".

"It means nothing is going to get better fast (in regional areas)," Dr Gregory said.

"There's going to be lots of people in regional areas who are going to suffer. And I'm wondering what the National Party's going to think about this because it's going to hurt them in the ballot box."

Dr Gregory said even if the Coalition delivered its policy on time and without any hiccups, Australia would still be "so far behind the rest of the world it would be quite ridiculous".

He said advances in technology meant an upgrade to fibre-to-the-premises would be inevitable and come at a cost of tens of billions of dollars. This upgrade could be required as soon as 2025, he said.

"Irrespective of whether the blowouts occur with Labor's plan, you can expect the same type of blowouts to occur with the Coalition's plan," he said.

But Luke Hartsuyker, the Coalition's spokesman for regional communications, described the policy as a win for regional areas.

Mr Hartsuyker said people in the bush were tired of waiting for high speed broadband, pointing to the well-publicised delays in rolling out the NBN.

He said the Coalition's policy was a "cost effective and appropriate response" to providing regional Australians with high speed broadband.

The member for Cowper said he had engaged in "a lot of discussions" with Mr Turnbull while the policy was being formulated.

"The key issue that I wanted to make clear from a regional perspective is people want to see the upgrade happen quickly. They don't want to wait 10 or 15 years," Mr Hartsuyker said.

"We're not in fantasy land, a dream sci-fi world. We have to deliver affordable broadband to people quickly. Endless delays are not getting people broadband."

Mr Hartsuyker conceded it was possible the opposition's network would require an upgrade to fibre-to-the-premises in the future, saying the cost would be "addressed as time went by".

Meanwhile, Regional Development Minister Anthony Albanese described the Coalition's plan as a "policy disaster" for regional Australia.

Mr Albanese said the beauty of the NBN was its fixed price structure, whereby people in the bush paid the same price as those in the city for the same service, and predicted people outside the cities would pay more under the Coalition plan.

"Whether you live in Mackay or Marrickville you'll have access to the same high-speed broadband through fibre-to-the-home," said Mr Albanese, claiming the NBN had widespread support in regional areas.

 

THE POLICIES

 

COALITION

Network: Fibre-to-the-node, utilising existing copper networks, reaching 70% of Australian homes

Cost: $29.5 billion

Cost to consumer: $38 a month

Speed: minimum 25mbps by 2016; minimum of 50mbps by 2019

Timeline: completed by 2019

 

LABOR

Network: Fibre-to-the-premises/home, replacing the existing copper network, reaching 93% of the Australian population

Cost: $44.1 billion

Cost to consumer: $90 month by 2021

Speed: up to 100mbps

Timeline: completed by 2021


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