Q&A with key Liberal Party broadband architect, Paul Fletcher

Q&A with key Liberal Party broadband architect, Paul Fletcher

Liberal Party MP, Paul Fletcher, has been singled out by IT industry sources as a key architect of the Coalition’s Broadband plan. ARN asked him how many mobile towers would be needed under the plan and when the party decided to move against the filter

Paul Fletcher

Paul Fletcher

On your broadband alternative, how would you respond to the criticism that it would mean wireless towers down every street?

It is a ludicrous proposition to argue that the Coalition’s plan will involve more disruption and new infrastructure than Labor’s plan of building fibre to every home in Australia. Firstly, almost every new wireless base station is co-located on an existing facility. That’s been standard practice in the industry for many years.

So anybody who argues there will be lots of new towers I think frankly needs to double check what the current industry practice is. The person who has made this claim in the press this morning, Professor Rod Tucker, is a strong advocate of fibre. He served on Minister Conroy’s panel, which recommended building the fibre to the premises network. Professor Tucker is also the head of the Institute for a Broadband-Enabled Society (IBES), which describes itself as Victoria’s NBN test bed in a press release issued last year and his centre is funded by the Brumby Labor Government.

So he is a respected expert on fibre and I am very happy to acknowledge his expertise and standing. But he is not a disinterested party and for him to be quoted as an objective expert on the question of fibre vs. wireless I think is not…well I think the facts of the situation ought to be explained.

We’ve spoken to many ISPs and most of them prefer the Government’s NBN while seeing some positives in yours. How would you respond to that? Are they being biased?

I would say that if you work in a company in an industry where there is the prospect of the Government spending lots of taxpayer’s money then you might well be attracted to that. And I speak with experience as someone who’s worked in a Government relations role for a large telecommunications company (Optus).

But the job of Government and the job of the Opposition as the alternative Government is to decide how best to spend taxpayer money on delivering benefits for taxpayers and consumers and weighing up how we spend money on broadband against all of the other legitimate and important claims on the public purse such as schools, roads, hospitals, defence and so many other important priorities.

So are the companies that have expresses interest in the NBN like iiNet, Internode and Optus fairly biased in their approach?

I definitely would not use the word ‘biased’ in relation to any of those fine companies. I want to make it perfectly clear that of course we would expect and encourage a vigorous debate and everybody should be welcome to participate. The simple point I make is this – everybody comes to that debate with a different perspective. If you are an expert in fibre optics and that is your life’s work then naturally you’ll argue for a fibre optic National Broadband Network as Professor Tucker has done. If you run a telecommunications company and there’s substantial Government funding for a business model which you think is of benefit to your company, naturally you will be supportive of that. And I don’t criticise that for a second.

Some people have pointed out that the 12Mbps ‘peak speed’ baseline you’ve promised for 97 per cent of Australians is not a constant minimum speed of 12Mbps.

What I’d say is we were very clear in the policy about what it is we are delivering. Our focus is on getting services to people who need them and don’t have them today.

Does that mean there is no minimum constant speed for 97 per cent of Australians under your plan?

Our policy is to deliver by 2016 a broadband baseline under which 97 per cent of premises are able to be served by a network capable of at least 12 Mbps peak speed. That is exactly the same claim Labor makes for the extensive use of wireless networks in its policy. Labor is using wireless technology and radio frequency spectrum in exactly the same way we propose to.

NBN Co CEO, Mike Quigley, came out and rebutted your plan point by point in all but name. Are you disappointed that someone who’s meant to be non-political has done that?

I think Mr. Quigley should inform himself about the operations of the caretaker conventions, under which Government employees do not express partisan or political views on the merits of one party’s policies or another during the course of an election. Quigley’s perspective is that he’s chief executive of the company charged with rolling out the NBN. It is hardly surprising that he would seek to make arguments about the merits of what he’s got a job to do.

Much has been said of Tony Abbott’s interview where he said he was not a ‘tech-head’. Are you disappointed your leader isn’t better educated on tech issues?

Absolutely not. The first point to make is that the priority for a leader is to set clear directions that must be followed to achieve objectives. Tony Abbott set a clear direction for Tony Smith who’s charged with delivering and executing the policy – a direction that emphasises value for money and delivering a broadband baseline.

Are you disappointed by the relatively small amount of support for your plan?

No, not at all. I think our plan has been, in the circumstances, pretty well received and when I say ‘in the circumstances’ the fact is, as I’ve mentioned, people come to this debate with particular perspectives and of course there’s a lot of people who quite like the idea of substantial public money being spent in a way that might give them business opportunities. I’m quite pleased with the reception our policy has received. Let’s keep in mind $6.3 billion is a lot of money. We’ve got a very good policy that focuses on areas of market failure to ensure people that are in black holes and don’t have services will get them as quickly as possible.

When did the Coalition decide it would vote against a mandatory filter in the Senate?

We’ve had a pretty consistent position on the filter and if you go back and listen to what Nick Minchin had to say when he was the Shadow Minister for Communications his position was very clear on that.

People like National Party deputy leader, Senator Barnaby Joyce, are fairly pro-filter and have pushed quite strongly for one. Has there been any controversy or dissension within the Coalition on this?

The Liberal Party is a democratic party and we always want to hear and consider all of the views. We’re also very consistent in saying that if there were a practical way to prevent unacceptable material being seen on the Internet then of course we’d consider it. But the point is that what Labor’s proposing simply does not work as a practical measure.

So if there was a practical mandatory filter that worked, would the Coalition be amenable to pursuing that?

I’m not going to discuss hypotheticals. We have a policy position based upon what is feasible today. That’s the position that Shadow Minister, Tony Smith, has made very clear.

The Government has brought out $466.7m for e-health and added more in the campaign launch for extra online Medicare services. Why hasn’t Tony Abbott announced any e-health initiatives despite calls from doctors?

I’ve got nothing additional to add on e-health other than to note a certain contradiction in Labor’s position. On the one hand they say that there’s a need for $43b of new broadband funding while on the other hand they’re making Medicare rebates available from July 1 next year for online consultations. Now if the infrastructure is there now for online consultations and the NBN won’t be widely available then there is a contradiction if today’s infrastructure is good enough for those consultations.

With so many big issues on the table, is broadband being largely ignored on the national stage? Do most people in this election care about this?

I think the test for that will be on Saturday. There are two clear broadband plans on from the two major parties with quite different approaches.

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Tags iiNetoptusinternodepaul fletcherNational Broadband Network (NBN)Liberal PartyInstitute for a Broadband-Enabled Society (IBES)broadband plan


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