The National Broadband Network, or Notional Broadband Network in much of the country, is a formerly ambitious program to connect Australian homes to the latest broadband technology.
Styled ‘nbn’ in the hope that a lower-case brand identity will lower expectations, it is now a program that’s devoted to delivering very high internet speeds via a very slow rollout.
The NBN was initially dreamed up by the Rudd campaign in 2007 to emphasise its bold vision for the future, and after Rudd won the election, it instead emphasised his habit of forever talking about big ideas, while making glacially slow progress towards realising them.
Initially, the government planned to bypass Telstra’s copper network entirely, connecting the majority via fibre to the home (FTTH). Under Julia Gillard, the fibre rollout began by connecting fibre in regional areas on the basis of need—specifically, the need to reward those crossbenchers who had supported her government.
When Labor lost in 2013, Malcolm Turnbull took charge of the NBN, partly on account of his portfolio as communications minister, but mostly because he was the only person in the new government who understood it. The incoming prime minister Tony Abbott also hoped that Turnbull’s gift for verbosity would minimise one of the major policy areas where Labor had offered something better—this largely succeeded, as whenever Turnbull started talking about technical detail, the electorate’s immediate impulse was to disconnect.
This enabled the Coalition to abandon the expensive FTTH model and instead adopt fibre to the node—the node being an ugly metal cabinet on street corners, from which Telstra’s existing copper cable was used to connect to the house.
The advantage was that it was cheaper, although only in the short term; the disadvantage was that the speeds were slower and the entire point of the NBN had been to replace Telstra’s decaying copper phone network.
This plan also meant that, shortly after selling off Telstra’s ageing wiring at the peak of its value in a highly successful privatisation, the government now needed to ask for the old phone lines back at any price.
As the NBN’s once-ambitious plans downscaled due to cost blowouts and the restrictions imposed by the Coalition, and the timetable dragged out even further, it gradually became clear that this supposedly futuristic broadband network would only arrive in most Australians’ houses once mobile phone networks were capable of surpassing the NBN’s current top speed of 100 megabits per second.
The NBN may never connect all Australia to a state-of-the-art broadband network, but its enduring value will most likely be as an illustration of why Australia hasn’t done a terrific job of planning and delivering major infrastructure projects lately.