For more than twenty years Internet Australia, the NFP peak body representing Internet users, has worked to ensure everyone receives fast, affordable broadband. More recently, complaints about the slow speeds being delivered to NBN customers and the extremely dysfunctional sign-up process that seems to be plagued with delays, missed appointments and general confusion has seen us take a more aggressive stance.
We have always maintained a policy of providing well-founded technical advice and encouragement for the Government to change its strategy, rather than attacking the people who work at NBN. However, when I recently became Internet Australia’s executive chair I was subjected to an unprovoked Twitter assault by one of NBN Co’s corporate affairs executives. This was followed by a bizarre attack by NBN Co boss, Bill Morrow, who made false and defamatory comments about me and others at Internet Australia under Parliamentary Privilege.
My involvement in Australia’s telecommunications industry goes back decades. Under my leadership the now influential industry body the Communications Alliance was created and, among other things, played a pivotal role working with a newly-formed NBN Co on the implementation of the original fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) strategy.
So passionate is my belief in our digitally-enabled future that when I left the Communications Alliance I established my own e-commerce company — a global online retail business. I wanted to be a part of the future, not merely someone advocating from the sidelines. For me, it’s not about the infrastructure, per se. It’s that the infrastructure is critical to Australia’s social and economic development.
Old, slow and fundamentally flawed
Like so many, I’ve watched the second iteration of our broadband policy based on fibre to the node (FTTN), and reliant on old copper wires, with increasing dismay. Highly regarded technical experts are speaking out and saying that this major infrastructure project is fundamentally flawed — for many reasons, but mainly because of the Government’s dogged commitment to persisting with already-obsolete copper-based technology.
Consumers are being lumbered with a network delivering internet speeds that doom them to lag behind the rest of the world and are subjected to installation procedures that seemingly have little or no ‘customer service’ component in them. Both of these issues have the NBN at the top of the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman’s complaints table.
Two key external indicators confirm that Australia is not advancing up the global rankings scales as we need to. A recent OECD report has Australia fourth last on the table of 32 nations for broadband speed and penetration. The OECD observed that our future innovation and productivity gains are stifled by an “ineffective broadband policy based on high prices for mediocre speeds”.
The industry-standard Akamai State of the Internet quarterly report on average Internet connection speeds has Australia falling in its global rankings from 50 to 51, at a time when we need to be heading up the chart. Interestingly, the report noted that for broadband adoption, quarterly changes were positive in the Asia Pacific region “except for Australia, which posted a 1.9 per cent decline in adoption”.
Defending the indefensible
What is the response of NBN Co to growing critical feedback and these respected external measurements?
It appears to be threefold. Firstly, defend the indefensible. CEO Bill Morrow recently provided testimony to Senate Estimates that everything is on track and on budget and that the great advantage of FTTN is that people will get their NBN sooner. However, when it was pointed out that close to half the population wouldn’t be getting very fast broadband because they were in the FTTN footprint, Mr Morrow shamelessly told Senators that if that’s what they wanted they could pay for it themselves.
NBN Co’s corporate affairs department quickly hopped in, publishing a blog — “Setting the Facts Straight on FTTN” — which argues that we should all be happy with our slow speed Internet — again, because we’ll get it sooner. Secondly, NBN Co curiously argues that the Akamai report shows why they need to keep to rolling out more FTTN. Their CTO claims “the truth is that FTTN sets us up very well should the demand for faster speeds arise … we are very much designing the network with future upgrades in mind”. By the way that’s not a misquote, he really did say “should” the demand for faster speeds arise!
Thirdly, engage in personal attacks on people who question their FTTN strategy. And yes indeed, one of those would be me. At Senate Estimates two weeks ago, Morrow launched into an unprovoked and false attack against Internet Australia and the “executives who run it”. The defamatory comments were cloaked with Parliamentary Privilege and I won’t repeat them here — but they were uncontestably wrong.
Internet Australia is the Australian chapter of the global Internet Society, which is the largest group of people and organisations working to promote and protect the internet. We share the Internet Society’s belief that “the internet is for everyone”. Australia needs broadband infrastructure built on technologies that deliver the internet of today and tomorrow. Not one using old copper wires that will need to be replaced just as the demand for very fast broadband really kicks in.
Anne Hurley is executive chair of Internet Australia.
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