Media questions next move for NBN

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(Cartoon by Mark David / @mdavidcartoons)

While our NBN is still a distant pipe dream, it's not only the citizens of Australia who are left questioning its future but the media as well, writes Pascal Grosvenor.

THE NATIONAL BROADBAND NETWORK (NBN) was first proposed as an ALP policy in the run-up to the 2007 Federal election. It wasn’t until 2009 that the project really got underway and the organisation to build the network, NBN Co, was established. In 2009, the Labor Government finalised their plan for the network that would consist of approximately 93% of households getting a fibre to the premises (FTTP) and the remainder of households, primarily in rural and remote areas, getting fixed wireless or satellite.

In 2013, there was a change of government and the Labor model for the NBN was abandoned. In its place, the LNP Government switched to the MTM plan, which consisted of fibre to the node (FttN), utilising the FttP rollouts already completed, HFC (aka Telstra and Optus pay TV cables) and fixed wireless and satellite. Hence why it was called the Multi-Technology Mix (MTM).

Fast forward to 2018 and there is still a fair amount of political debate regarding the NBN. The LNP Government are still claiming their MTM model was cheaper, faster to deploy and sufficient to meet Australians’ internet needs. Labor points out the superior benefits of their plan for a 93% FTTP network, albeit less often these days. The NBN has progressed so far now it’s not possible to go back to Labor’s 2009 blueprint for it.

Meanwhile, on the ground, many ordinary Australians are experiencing first-hand delays in the NBN being rolled out to their suburb — speed and network congestion and reliability issues (especially for those with fibre to the node, or FTTN).

Recently, researchers at UNSW conducted a study on the benefits of a primarily FTTP network. They found that such a network, like Labor’s plan for the NBN, would have more than recovered the rollout cost over the life of the NBN.

An article summarising the research study said:

‘Australia would have seen stronger social benefits by sticking to a majority fibre NBN model, with UNSW researchers estimating the uplift from FTTP would have outweighed the additional outlay.’

The technical problems with the NBN: Two articles that really sum up what’s wrong with it

I am firmly of the opinion that a very serious mistake was made by the LNP Government in abandoning the 93% FTTP approach, halting all planned rollouts and switching to the MTM model.

Professor Rod Tucker, who is a telecommunications academic, wrote a very thorough and detailed journal article titled The Tragedy of Australia’s National Broadband Network’ that sets out the problems with the MTM approach. He compares the Australia NBN with international developments — nearly all other countries deploying high-speed networks are moving to an FTTP-based approach.

In the introduction to the journal article, Professor Tucker states: 

‘This article reviews a number of recent developments in global broadband activities, highlighted at the 2017 Optical Fibre Communications Conference (OFC) and elsewhere and shows how Australia’s reliance on FTTN will ensure that broadband capabilities in Australia will continue to fall behind other developed and developing nations.’

Nick Ross, who used to be a technology editor at the ABC, wrote a very lengthy and detailed article regarding FTTN. It outlined many of the issues with FTTN and why it was an inferior technology for building the NBN and was very critical of the LNP Government’s approach.

In contrast, FTTP is capable of ever-increasing speeds. Just a couple of weeks ago a new development was announced that could make internet speeds up to 100 times faster by detecting light that has been twisted into a spiral.

The financial issues for the NBN

There are significant questions being raised regarding the profitability of NBN Co going forward. Can it achieve the required rates of investment return set for it by the Government?

Gary McLaren, who was the first Chief Technology Officer at NBN Co, writes quite regularly about this subject on his blog. The latest post is here.

Some of the key points from his blog post are:

  • NBN Co released its Corporate Plan for the period FY19 to FY22 on 31 August 2018 with headlines that implied everything is still on target to be completed in 2020;
  • The network is forecast to be ready to connect 11.7 million premises with 8.1 million premises actually connected by December 2020; and
  • The Corporate Plan shows an increase in peak funding to $50.9 billion (up from $48.7 billion).

‘The changes are on top of the risks that many commentators have outlined around the threat to take up due to NBN bypass by new wireless technologies (eg. 5G) and the optimistic average wholesale revenue projections per user (ie. $52 per month compared to currently $44 per month).’

These risks mean NBN Co may fall well short of their predicted revenues.

Alternatives to the NBN springing up

As this article points out, there are a number of competitors starting to provide alternatives to the NBN.

In Melbourne, Lightning Broadband is connecting homes and businesses using microwave links capable of delivering both 100 Mbps download and upload speeds. Another telco start-up, DGtek, is offering its customers a full fibre alternative service.

5G services will meet the needs of some consumers, particularly ones that do not use as much data download per month.

But will 5G services do away with the need for an NBN? No, it might lead to some potential customers only using a 4G/5G service. But it will never have the same capability or speed as fixed line/fibre optic internet.

Upgrades to the NBN network

As the rollout has progressed, NBN Co has introduced a new technology called fibre to the curb (FTTC). Households that were due to get FTTN have now been switched to FTTC. However, there are numerous complications and delays with rolling out FTTC. This does not come as a surprise to many who’ve followed the NBN rollout closely. Since FTTC was first announced, there have been significant question marks about how well it would work in reality.

FTTC has also been cited as the replacement technology for households that already have FTTN.

The speeds available to customers on the NBN continue to lag behind speeds available to consumers in other countries. A recent article from iTWire points out that very few ISPs are offering gigabit speed plans. This is due in large part to the pricing scheme NBN has set for the ISPs, which is based on a view within Government and NBN Co that consumers really only need 50Mbps speeds at the most.

Political issues and media reporting

Nick Ross recently did an interview with Denise Shrivell. They talked at some length about the NBN and what happened to Nick while he was working at the ABC. The podcast is well worth a listen.

For those unaware, Nick Ross resigned from the ABC in 2016 after effectively being stopped from reporting on the NBN during 2013. Independent Australia and New Matilda both have stories that go into more detail about what happened to him.

This is very relevant in light of recent revelations that the former ABC chairman, Justin Milne, pressured ABC managing director, Michelle Guthrie, to fire certain journalists.

Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has raised serious allegations regarding Rupert Murdoch’s involvement or interference in the NBN.

I think it’s interesting to note that when Abbott and Turnbull launched the LNP’s 2013 NBN policy, they did so at a news studio owned by Fox Sports — a Murdoch-controlled company.

I agree with Rudd’s calls for a royal commission into the media ownership and issues in Australia and I personally believe an additional royal commission into the NBN is more than justified.  This is, after all, an infrastructure project that will ultimately cost around $50 billion and is vital to Australia’s digital and high-tech future.

Mark Gregory, a leading telecoms academic, also believes a thorough investigation into the NBN is needed.

Just a few weeks ago, Telstra was talking publicly about buying NBN Co. Their aim is to purchase it at a low price. This is not necessarily in our nation’s best interests as it could lead to Telstra re-establishing their almost monopoly over telecommunications. It was Telstra’s monopoly and reluctance to build a national broadband network that were big reasons for the creation of the NBN. Fortunately, Telstra’s proposed purchase of the NBN was quickly rejected by the Government, the NBN board and the ACCC.

The NBN will continue to be a hotly-debated topic. The true impact of the substandard NBN implemented by the LNP Government will be felt for many years to come. And the future for the NBN still remains uncertain: whether it stays in government hands or is privatised, the medium-long term profitability of the MTM network and question marks over how to upgrade the network and how much it will cost.

A change of government could bring significant changes to the NBN. But, as in the past, partisan politics remain a big threat to the best possible outcomes for the NBN.

Pascal Grosvenor is an I.T. geek, gamer and Ausmusic lover. The NBN has long been a special topic of interest for Pascal. He passionately believes the NBN is vital 21st century infrastructure and to that end a fibre optic-based network all the way to the premises is the best solution.

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Media questions next move for NBN

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