Revealed: How a crafty Labor move on the NBN is being used to win over voters | National broadband network (NBN)

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

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

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

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

Labor wanted to know, once the network rollout was completed in 2020, what improvements could be made. Specifically, the opposition was to upgrade as many homes as possible from fiber-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 type of technology – there was no Australia-wide data on what technology was being used, house by house and suburb by suburb.

A third party has managed to scrape the data from NBN Co’s website manually, but it was not 100% accurate.

This takes us back to May 2020, when the government was rushing to pass legislation that would allow 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 to 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 used and the date people could order in a connection in that area.

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

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

Screenshot of NBN technology available in Melbourne. Photograph: National Map

The data allowed Labor to do a spatial density analysis of homes within the fibre-to-the-node areas and determine where it was the 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 an additional $ 2.4bn.

The opposition pledged to move 3.5m premises in total from FttN to Fiber-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 through 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 fiber 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 was launched and the government was in caretaker mode.)

Fletcher made some vague claims about Labor’s upgrades targeting marginal electorates and being wasteful spending. But he did not 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 the government was in caretaker mode.

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

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 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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