It is a rare thing that telecommunications policy is a major election issue – normally it is areas such as health and education that sway the electorate. Election 2010 is different, but also the same.
There are few policy areas where the ALP and the Coalition differ as markedly as broadband.
The ALP intends to build fibre to the premises of 93 per cent of the Australian population with the remaining 7 per cent to be connected to wireless and satellite services. The ALP's main strength is the argument that it is an investment in the future – that building the network will allow for more data hungry applications to run in the future; a claim supported by the recent announcement by Mike Quigley, CEO of NBN Co, that the network will in fact be able to support speeds of up to 1 gigabits per second (up from the initial claim of 100 megabits per second). The main criticisms of this plan have included concerns that no cost benefit analysis has been conducted, that the $43 billion to be spent is too ambitious and that it will be difficult for the NBN to become profitable or even be able to charge affordable prices.
The Coalition plan focuses on a combination of fixed line and wireless broadband as the solution to getting satisfactory connections to the Australian population. It emphasises that the government should only step in where private commercial providers find it commercially unviable. Supporters of this plan have lauded the affordability of the scope in contrast to the ALP's proposed NBN. However, criticisms of this plan have included the fact that wireless spectrum is a limited resource, that it does not guarantee super-fast connectivity, that the plan may require large numbers of mobile towers to be built and may even push up internet prices.
Criticism of both plans is that that they fail to address the bottleneck of the limited amount of capacity in the fibre links between Australia and the rest of the world. A large amount of content on the internet is stored offshore, principally the US. While there will be fast connectivity between people in Australia under both plans, the limited capacity of the pipes bringing the content in from offshore means that there will still be costs potentially leading to the retention of capped data plans.
Most people are not sure why they need 100 megabits per second and each party has sought to bring it back to key voter issues such as the opportunity for people to receive enhanced health and education services. Interestingly the focus has not been on the significant productivity benefits that such connectivity would bring.
ALP vs. Libs: broadband policies compared