OPINION

Fixing the NBN should be a national priority once coronavirus danger eases

The Coalition's bargain-basement version of the NBN is being put to the test. Picture: Shutterstock
The Coalition's bargain-basement version of the NBN is being put to the test. Picture: Shutterstock

If Scott Morrison really wants to shovel money out the door to stimulate the economy once the current coronavirus public health crisis has been properly contained, he should look at fixing the National Broadband Network.

In 2013, Tony Abbott brought a giant wrecking ball to almost every single economic measure introduced by our government, and broadband is no exception. We were rolling out super-fast internet to every home, business and institution in the country, including 92 per cent with full fibre-to-the-premises, delivering speeds of 100 megabits per second.

Abbott, reflecting his 19th-century understanding of the economy, mocked the NBN as a "video entertainment system" and vowed to "demolish" it. Malcolm Turnbull eventually settled on a far slower copper-based network, at just 25 megabits per second. Abbott knew that a faster NBN would help companies like Netflix threaten the Foxtel business, owned by his media sponsor Rupert Murdoch. Their solution is now several years overdue and more than $20 billion over budget.

The consequences for Australia have been real. This coronavirus is forcing millions to work, learn and shop from home. Medicare rebates for telemedicine have also been expanded. Yet Australia's fixed broadband speeds are ranked 64th in the world and continue to slip down the ladder. The government is now begging streaming services to downgrade their product to relieve pressure on the network. The government's chickens have well and truly come home to roost.

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On the front line of this public policy debacle are those Australians with no reliable internet connection at all. These include Melbourne man David Robinson, who told the ABC last week that, with schools and libraries closed, he would struggle to educate his school-age daughters. For Australians like Mr Robinson, the ABC could temporarily transform its multi-channels - ABC Kids, ME and HD - into a modern-day "school of the air". But this will be no silver bullet. In the 21st century, all Australians need effective internet access.

If we're asking people to be socially distant, we can't expect them to go without what is now basic infrastructure. Unless we drastically improve the NBN, how will we be able to cope with future crises? Broadband demand by 2026 is expected to be around double what it is today.

Now that Mr Morrison has finally conceded that fiscal stimulus, budget deficits and greater public debt are essential when your economy is collapsing, he is rushing out billions in stimulus spending. Once the immediate health crisis has passed, but with the economy still reeling, the recovery period should be used by the Liberals to fix up the mess they have made of the NBN.

Wherever possible, the remaining copper link (from the node to the household or to the business) should be replaced with fibre. Where this is not possible, installing a signal splitter or replacing faulty copper wiring can meaningfully improve speeds. The opposition estimates 750,000 home connections can be improved for $125 million - or 0.01 per cent of the $92.7 billion in fiscal stimulus announced so far.

Instead of ending up with the first-class broadband network we launched, planned, funded ... we have ended up with a third-world system unbefitting of the needs of the economy and society of the future.

There is also a deep question of national security. Last week, so many people rushed to the myGov website that it crashed. The 98,000 simultaneous requests - a 16-fold increase on normal traffic - were enough to raise alarm within the bureaucracy about a potential cyber attack. Although they were wrong, the episode raises serious questions about the sustainability and vulnerability of our digital infrastructure.

With our systems pushed to the brink, Australia runs the risk of becoming a honeypot for hackers - whether they're foreign spies, organised crime or bored troublemakers. The Australian Cyber Security Centre has been working on this, but it will need to be properly resourced to handle the challenge that lies ahead. It's also a time for individuals, businesses and other organisations to be acutely aware of their own security.

In 2007, the Labor government dragged the Coalition kicking and screaming to broadband policy. Prior to that there was no NBN at all. The Coalition's moribund policy, ideologically driven, was that the private sector would provide. It didn't.

Instead of ending up with the first-class broadband network we launched, planned, funded - and by 2013 had partially built - we have ended up with a third-world system unbefitting the needs of the economy and society of the future. It's time to use the upcoming period of economic recovery to rebuild this most fundamental piece of national economic infrastructure.

  • Kevin Rudd was the 26th prime minister of Australia.

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This story Fixing the NBN should be a national priority first appeared on The Canberra Times.