When Tony Windsor announced on Thursday that he would be running against Deputy PM Barnaby Joyce at the next election, he cited the National Broadband Network among his key motivations for getting back into politics.
Mr Windsor has long seen the NBN as essential nation-building infrastructure. The animated chart below, published in The Conversation by Rod Tucker, laureate emeritus professor at the University of Melbourne, helps illustrate his concerns about the government’s choice of broadband technologies.
In 2010, Mr Windsor and fellow independent Rob Oakeshott included NBN choices on their shortlist of reasons for backing Julia Gillard to form government over Tony Abbott.
They supported an all-fibre network, with a ‘roll-in’ from the regions towards the city, which was an economic argument with several elements.
Getting regional centres connected to high-speed broadband helps alleviate some economic disadvantage.
Farmers, for instance, are increasingly employing internet-enabled technologies to improve crop or livestock production – so called ‘smart-farming‘.
Click to compare internet speeds:
And regional Australians stand to gain the most in e-health applications, including in-home aged care, and online education – again, because of reducing the number of times they have to travel.
That might not interest city folk too much, until you look at the flip-side of the regional coin.
Sydney and Melbourne, both of which have large infrastructure deficits in road, rail and other services, are growing increasingly expensive and difficult to live in.
That’s why an increasing number of regional cities are putting money into marketing campaigns to coax resident away from the Big Smoke.
See, for instance, this TV ad for living in regional Victoria – featuring, of course, a bloke using a laptop in his garden.
Sooner, cheaper, slower
‘So what’s the problem’, you might ask? The Coalition won government in 2013, with then-Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull releasing a plan to complete the NBN “sooner and at lower cost” than Labor’s scheme, which had been costed (according to Mr Turnbull) at more than $90 billion.
The Coalition’s NBN is cheaper because it only provides full-fibre connections to 20 per cent of premises. The rest is a combination of fibre-to-the-node (points in the street), HFC cables (used for cable TV) and some wireless and satellite services.
That, argued Mr Turnbull, would give Australians all the internet speed they could reasonably require – and all for a much lower cost of around $50 billion.
Importantly, for Mr Windsor, the Coalition also scrapped the ‘roll-in’ principle, and made it an urban ‘roll-out’ model instead.
Mr Windsor said at Thursday’s news conference, that the NBN is “a national issue of very high importance within the country areas – absolutely critical”.
“Go to Armidale and see what they’ve done there and what they are planning to do, and you will see that it is actually a cost benefit to be in the country … It has to be fibre to the home, and I will fight to see that restored as well,” he said.
He then contrasted that with Tamworth, also in the New England electorate he is contesting.
“Tamworth is not in the rollout, nothing has happened. Armidale, fully rolled out, fully engaged. All of the technology that will be required this century is happening in Armidale.”
The Turnbull contradiction
This presents problems for Prime Minister Turnbull on two fronts. If he is returned to government, it may well be without his deputy PM.
But more importantly, Mr Windsor is going to put economic arguments around the NBN back onto the national stage.
Mr Windsor will be shining a light on the ‘fast-enough’ NBN – a network that will be significantly eclipsed by broadband speeds in our trading partners in the years ahead.
The graphic below, also created by Rod Tucker, shows how far behind we are falling.
On the same day Mr Windsor announced his candidacy, Treasurer Scott Morrison was singing the praises of an economy driven by huge amounts of data, particularly in the ‘Fintec’, or financial technology space.
He said in a statement: “Businesses and authorities now have structured access to almost unlimited data, especially with the advent of social media, that sophisticated algorithms can quickly interrogate and transform into new services and products.
“The frictionless operation of FinTech innovations, such as blockchain and digital currencies, are generating new value streams, not just in financial services, but across the economy.”
Well that’s not going to happen via the current version of Australia’s NBN, sadly.
There is speculation in IT circles, that the blockchain files Mr Morrison mentions will soon be measured in terabytes – far too big to send efficiently across the creaky NBN-lite.
This will especially be true in regional areas – a fact Mr Windsor will make much of in the run-up to the election.
If he wins New England, a big part of his success will be showing regional Australians why the government of “innovation” and “agility” is delivering them a technological springboard with all the motive force of a New England cow-pat.