NBN review Coalition's top priority: Turnbull

By a staff reporter

Shadow minister for communications and broadband Malcolm Turnbull says a review of the national broadband network will be an elected Coalition government's most important task in its first 100 days of office.

In a debate with Business Spectator's editor-in-chief Alan Kohler in Sydney, Mr Turnbull said the opposition would aim to complete strategic review of the network within 60 days.

"The most important thing we're going to do, from the jump, is undertake a very rigorous analysis of what this project is really going to cost in dollars and years to complete on the current specifications.

"And then an equally rigorous analysis of what are the genuine savings, not in an idealised way, but in an actual realisable way, the genuine savings that can be achieved in dollars and years by making certain modifications.

"The strategic review is the single most important piece of work in the first 100 days."

Mr Turnbull confirmed an elected Coalition government would honour existing contracts with NBN Co as well as pushing forward with its goal to accelerate the rollout.

"We think the NBN Co's business plan dramatically undercooks the cost of construction and the time taken to complete it among other things," Mr Turnbull said.

The shadow minister said there are new technologies to deliver broadband his party has not yet canvassed.

Five years ago, there was a "very big difference" in service level between ADSL2+ and fibre to the premises, he said.

But in recent years, "that difference has compressed".

"There is a point at which increases in speed cease to have any marginal utility."

The shadow minister said that to understand broadband, it was best to "talk to the men and the women that are actually building the networks now," rather than consultants.

"When you talk to those people, you see that the proposition that copper is at five minutes to midnight is simply not true," he said.

Mr Turnbull said because ubiquitous fast broadband would bring large productivity gains, "rapid deployment is an enormous plus".

"Our approach of getting everybody onto very fast broadband by the end of the next parliament is something that has... a huge economic pay-off."

Mr Kohler emphasised that government is not a business and asked whether non-financial benefits would be included in a planned cost-benefit analysis.

The shadow minister said he would, but questioned whether benefits to productivity were worth the extra $60 billion he estimated Labor's broadband plan would cost.

"I think the sixty billion is rubbish," Mr Kohler replied.

Mr Turnbull said he did not object to fibre to the premises technology in itself, but given the rapid rate of technological change thought it was best not to provision for future demands with today's technology.

Mr Kohler said that a Coalition government may face similar delays in negotiations with Telstra as the Labor government.

But the shadow minister said changes his party would make with Telstra would be "relatively modest".

He also downplayed concerns about delays from contractors.

"The advantage of fibre to the node is that there is so much less civil work," he said.

"The analyst community have generally come to the conclusion that the Coalition's NBN policy is somewhere between neutral and a net positive for Telstra," he said.

"Not a huge positive, but I'm very confident we can get something sorted out."

Mr Kohler asked whether a Coalition government would insist on the HFC business being fully separated from Telstra.

"Our assumption is that we will," Mr Turnbull said.

"Nothing changes with respect to the HFC except that we would not overbuild the HFC as a priority."

Mr Turnbull said he was "deeply troubled" that the NBN Co and the government had paid Telstra to decommission HFC networks that are capable of delivering very high-speed broadband.

The shadow minister also described his plan as "straightforward" for apartment blocks and office buildings.

"I'm canvassing proposing technologies that you know will work," he said.

"Fibre comes down the street you install a node in the basement...and away you go."

At the moment, "they don't know how to connect multi-dwelling units," he said.

"The approach we're taking is very much the global norm. I think that's sensible when you're dealing with public money."