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Revealed: how a crafty Labor move on the NBN is being used to win over voters

The Guardian logo The Guardian 3 days ago Josh Taylor
Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

It seemed like an innocuous amendment to an obscure piece of legislation.

But when Labor in May 2020 quietly amended a government bill on funding for NBN Co’s regional expansion, the opposition was actually laying the groundwork for a policy it hoped could win over crucial city voters in the federal election, which was then two years away.

Now, a week out from polling day, a Labor source has revealed for the first time the lengths the party went to in order to develop its National Broadband Network policy.

When it comes to the NBN, data is always key.

Labor wanted to know, once the network rollout was completed in 2020, what improvements could be made. Specifically, the opposition was keen to upgrade as many homes as possible from fibre-to-the-node (FttN) to fibre-to-the-home (FttH) as cost-effectively as possible.

The biggest hurdle, however, was the lack of data. Other than NBN Co’s website – where you can plug in an address and see the technology type – there was no Australia-wide data on what technology was being used, house by house and suburb by suburb.

A third party had managed to scrape the data from NBN Co’s website manually, but it wasn’t 100% accurate.

This takes us back to May 2020, when the government was rushing to pass legislation that would tax fixed-line networks to help pay for NBN regional networks.

Labor was willing to support the legislation – but with some minor amendments.

One of the amendments added in the Senate required NBN Co to provide mapping data about every NBN-serving area module within 150 days. The data would show the dominant technology type used and the date people could order a connection in that area.

The Labor source says the Coalition didn’t raise any objections. The opposition wasn’t sure whether the government understood, at the time, the true intention of slipping the amendment into the bill.

But, six months later, the data was uploaded to the government’s National Map website. Anyone could now overlay maps of which technology type was used in every part of Australia.

The data allowed Labor to do a spatial density analysis of homes within fibre-to-the-node areas and determine where it was most cost-effective to upgrade the connections.

NBN Co then started announcing which 2m homes it would offer fibre upgrades too – but Labor was already ahead of the game.

The Coalition had promised to add 2m premises at a cost of $2.9bn. But Labor was able to determine an additional 1.5m homes could be upgraded for a further $2.4bn.

The opposition pledged to move 3.5m premises in total from FttN to fibre-to-the-home at a cost of $5.3bn. Beyond that 3.5m figure, the spatial density dropped off quickly and it was much more expensive to upgrade, the data obtained via Labor’s legislative amendment showed.

The data means Labor, during the campaign, could provide precise local upgrade numbers to its candidates on the hustings.

The shadow communications minister, Michelle Rowland, has posted on her Facebook page that 106,000 homes in western Sydney will be upgraded to full fibre under the plan, including 15,000 in her electorate of Greenway, for example.

Labor deliberately announced its NBN policy in November 2021, well before the election, to give the communications minister, Paul Fletcher, plenty of time to look for any holes in it. (He wouldn’t be able to ask NBN Co to crunch any numbers once the campaign started and the government was in caretaker mode.)

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Fletcher made some vague claims about Labor’s upgrades targeting marginal electorates and being wasteful spending. But he didn’t highlight any substantial issues with the opposition’s policy.

Guardian Australia contacted Fletcher’s office for comments and was directed to NBN Co. As a government-owned business, it said it was unable to comment while in the government was in caretaker mode.

The suburbs set to most benefit under Labor’s policy are not the most marginal. The plan would more double fibre-to-the-home in the safe Liberal-held seat of Flinders and the Labor-held seat of Newcastle, according to modelling seen by the Guardian.

Under the Coalition’s policy, the Labor-held seat of Perth and the Liberal-held seat of Leichhardt would receive the greatest number of upgrades.

South Australia and Tasmania are the two states set to benefit the most from Labor’s upgrade. Under the announced Coalition plan, to date, about 29% of FttN premises are set to get an upgrade in those two states, compared with over 50% in NSW, Queensland, Victoria and WA.

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