Tue, 12 May 2020 - 08:28
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Op-Ed: Only a mug would believe in Rudd's NBN nirvana

In Kevin Rudd's mind, Australia would today be in an NBN fibre nirvana, had the dastardly Liberals not come along to trash his vision.

Holding this belief might be a useful psychological coping mechanism for Rudd, but it does not stand up to even a cursory examination of the facts.

Had we stuck to the plan, says Rudd, the rollout would today ‘‘virtually be finished''. Not true. Even according to the last NBN Corporate Plan issued under Labor, in August 2012, the rollout would not have been completed until June 2021.

But only a mug would believe this over-optimistic claim. That same document said the national broadband network would pass 341,000 fixed line premises by June 2013. The actual result was 151,819 - less than half the target.

The 2013 NBN strategic review found that under Labor's plan the fixed line rollout would not be finished until June 2024.

The fact is, even by the shambolic standards of the Rudd government, the NBN stands out for being one of its most misconceived and mismanaged projects.

The 2009 plan was staggeringly wasteful. Labor contracted to make payments to Telstra worth billions of dollars over more than 30 years.

Yet Labor did not bother to get the right to use the Telstra hybrid fibre coax (HFC) network - even though it can readily deliver speeds of 100 Mbps and passes about 2.5 million homes.

So badly conceived and poorly executed was Rudd's NBN that in 2013 the incoming Liberal National government and the new communications minister, Malcolm Turnbull, inherited a failing project, with just 51,000 premises connected to the fixed line network. Since that time, our Liberal National government has turned the project around. We changed the rollout strategy to use a mix of technologies: fibre to the premises, fibre to the curb, fibre to the node and hybrid fibre coax.

This change saved taxpayers $30 billion - and meant the rollout could be completed four years faster than under Labor's plan.

When we made this change, we could not have predicted that six years later COVID-19 would come along, driving a sharp jump in demand for bandwidth as millions of Australians switched to working and studying from home.

But it is in large measure thanks to that change that in 2020 the NBN has come through just when our nation needed it most.

We inherited a mess and it was our job to make the best of it we could. Today, there are more than 11 million premises able to connect, and more than 7 million now connected - and up to 40,000 new premises connecting each week.

Yet Rudd wants you to believe his plan would have delivered an even better outcome. He seems wholly untroubled by the yawning contradiction between his soaring promises and the paltry outcomes he delivered while in government.

But the facts are clear. Labor's plan for the NBN was fanciful - and Labor's implementation of it was hopeless.

The millions of Australians relying on the NBN to work from home at the moment will not have much interest in Rudd's claims.

But one thing is certain - if our Liberal National government had not come along to fix up Rudd's mess, there would today be many fewer Australians able to get a high-speed broadband connection and work from home.

Paul Fletcher is Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts

Originally published in The Australian Financial Review, 12 May 2020