National Broadband Network

10 June 2020

In recent days the National Broadband Network has reached its goal of connecting 11.5 million premises and it's officially complete—officially but not actually complete. The minister says it is 99 per cent complete because there is still a huge backlog of work to be done—homes still to be connected and patched jobs still to be fixed. Yet the minister's attention has already drifted to selling it off. In an interview with The Financial Review the minister said privatisation is government policy and it is Labor policy. Maybe we should not be surprised the major parties want to rid themselves of something that has caused so much conflict over the last 15 years. But it is not our job to avoid conflict. We are elected to find solutions, and I don't believe there is any problem with the NBN that would be solved by privatisation. Australians have invested billions of dollars in the NBN, and we need to do whatever is in the country's best interests.

Around 60 per cent of eligible premises are NBN customers. Millions of households can connect to the NBN but have decided not to. Many have connected to other networks or 4G services. Telstra, Optus and Vodafone are rolling out their 5G services, which will eat into NBN's customer base over the next few years. Some argue telecommunications is a competitive market and so there is no place for government owned operators. This is the argument of those who want the NBN sold off. I can understand this argument, but I do not accept it. That vibrant market will exist in CBDs in the inner suburbs and it might exist for suburban customers, but it won't exist for regional and rural users.

My colleague Rebekha Sharkie, the member for Mayo, has been fighting for years to get adequate 4G coverage in places like Mylor and Vivonne Bay. You can bet Telstra and Optus won't be rushing to offer 5G there. In those towns and many others the NBN will be their only choice. It will have a monopoly, and we all know what that means: high prices, low quality and no investment in making things better. There are no benefits to competition when nobody else is in the market. Eventually the government will be forced to step in. They will have to regulate NBN's prices and subsidise its investment. Treasury and the Productivity Commission might think this is optimal, but wouldn't it be simpler to keep the NBN in public hands? The NBN is a public utility. We ought to recognise the NBN is the telecommunications provider of last resort and provide it with the focus and funding it needs and ensure it is accountable and transparent to the taxpayers who pay for it.

I expect that the minister will soon make a declaration that the NBN is fully built. This is the first step towards privatisation. The second step is a review by the Productivity Commission, and I expect this, too, will be announced soon after the minister's declaration. The sale process could begin in around 12 months and may even be completed before the next election. I'm not sure if the government can be talked out of privatisation, but I hope that they will take a moment to reflect on whether this is really in Australia's best interests, particularly if the NBN could end up owned by a Telstra entity, as the minister has suggested. If they decide to proceed, they should know that Centre Alliance will be doing whatever we can to prevent privatisation from occurring.

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