The tragedy of Australia’s NBN

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NBN fibre optic cable being laid, if you're lucky enough to be near it (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Anthony Eales discusses the future of Australia's troubled National Broadband Network with hopes it may yet see the light of day.

AUSTRALIA'S NATIONAL BROADBAND NETWORK (or NBN for short) could have been a game changing national infrastructure project for the 21st century and possibly beyond. That was the vision of the then Kevin Rudd-led Labor government after winning the 2007 federal election. Originally to be delivered via Fibre to The Node (FTTN) technology to 98% of premises, but later changed to the more future-proof Fibre to the Premises (FTTP), the NBN was to be nation changing.

The maximum line speed NBN proposed for the majority of customers on FTTP was 100 Mbps download and 40 Mbps upload. The beauty of fibre internet, though, is that at some point in the future this could be theoretically upgraded to 1 gigabit per second symmetrical and, who knows, even 10 gigabits per second. That’s the beauty of fibre. Once the fibre optic cable is laid into the ground it takes minimal effort to upgrade the equipment at either end of the cable to produce breathtaking results.

The network effect of 97% of the population being connected via fibre is a vision that won’t be reached anytime soon. And the blame for this can be seen to be laid at the feet of former Prime Minister Tony Abbott and current Prime Minister and former Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Their short-sighted and destructive plan for the nation was the multi-technology mix, where fibre would be mostly taken out of the picture where not already under construction and copper based FTTN inserted for no other reason than it was cheaper.

Where was the vision for our national communications infrastructure and the future of Australia for decades to come? Instead, Malcolm Turnbull smooth talked his way into spinning ageing copper infrastructure that was said to be near obsolete by a former Telstra CEO as fit for purpose.

The announcement for the multi technology mix turd came during the 2013 federal election campaign at Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox headquarters. Tony Abbott and Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull excitedly laid out their scheme to ruin Australia’s once respected NBN plan, seemingly to appease Rupert Murdoch so he could keep on gouging Australia with his increasingly irrelevant Foxtel monopoly. That’s how many conspiracy theories go anyway.

You see, Foxtel had been facing the prospect of Netflix launching in the country and didn’t want everyday Australians able to stream to their heart’s content, all the while Foxtel boxes becoming dusty and unused across the 30% of the population that uses the pay TV monopoly.

Which has brought us to FTTN today, where 54,000 people connected to it can’t even reach the guaranteed 25 Mbps minimum the Coalition Government outlined during its election pledge. There are record numbers of complaints to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (or TIO) about the NBN. And the NBN is buying 15,000km of copper to install where it’s not up to scratch.

How did we get where we are today? The haves (FTTP, fibre) and the have nots (FTTN, copper) that Kevin Rudd and Labor seemed to want to avoid. The Australian Greens have also been supportive of a 97% fibre NBN. I think a lot of it comes down to technology-based education. Most people gloss over whenever you talk about the terminology behind the NBN. It’s only when it affects their Netflix streaming or the like that they start to pay attention.

Which brings us to the next federal election. What will Labor come up with in terms of a plan to resurrect the NBN from the luddites in the Coalition Government? Whatever they propose, the Coalition will most likely complain about it costing too much when, if they had have just done it right the first time with fibre to 97% of the population, we wouldn’t be in this mess. Labor so far have been proposing more fibre by the improvised middle of the road solution of Fibre to the Curb (FTTC), where the fibre runs to the front of the household and is met with copper the rest of the way. This method is more upgradeable compared to FTTN, but it’s nowhere near as upgradeable as FTTP. But it seems that fibre all the way to the household is out of the picture now as the cost would be too much when measured against the Coalition’s backwards stance.

ABC Four Corners last year aired a programme on the comparisons between Australia’s NBN and New Zealand’s fibre internet rollout and the differences were stark. New Zealand had the vision to rollout GB+ affordable internet to the majority of their population that could get it. The residents and businesses that can get it are happy with their services. When you compare that with Australians stuck on the copper-based FTTN you can see what a mistake has been made. Some Australian tech businesses would rather drive their large files on portable hard drives to their destinations than to wait for them to upload on their subpar internet connection.

Of course, if you want fibre internet all the way to your home, you could always upgrade with the Technology Choice Program that NBN offers. For a not-unsubstantial fee you can find out how much it will cost to get your premises upgraded from a copper backwater to a fibre dream. As the Whirlpool Forums thread on the program will attest, the costs to do this can range from very expensive to astronomical, and only businesses and very wealthy residents can hope to afford this. It really accelerates the haves and the have nots situation on the NBN. And the problem with Fibre on Demand in the Technology Choice Program is it’s not even really true fibre. As Renai Le May of the now defunct Delimiter pointed out, it’s fibre from the node to the premises which is still at the whim of the amount of bandwidth to the shared node.

I write this article now as I have been waiting for the NBN to come to my area since it was first announced. I went from excited when the prospect of fibre right up to my house was a possibility to the average outcome of fibre to the node and copper the rest of the way that I will be receiving sometime in the next week. People I know in my area have been getting between 20 Mbps and 90 Mbps down depending on how close to the node or pillar they are. It really is a lottery. And national telecommunications infrastructure shouldn’t be a lottery.

Bill Morrow, the NBN’s installed CEO at the whim of the Coalition government in 2013, is leaving the company at the end of the year.

Even on his way out, he has been frank about the limitations of copper in the multi technology mix.

“While the use of the existing copper and pay TV networks has led to a faster network build and a lower cost-per-premises, there are consequences to this approach.”

First and foremost? Speeds.

Yep, you said it, Bill. He, of course, has said in the past that GB speeds weren’t needed and that Australians wouldn’t use GB internet even if it were free.

I fear that the NBN won’t get back on track until a visionary government is installed in the future. At this point, I think the signs are pointing to Labor, but anyone could do a better job than the NBN destroyers, Malcolm Turnbull and his inept government.

If the NBN were 97% fibre, as originally envisioned, it may have been able to be sold off at a later date as a crown jewel of an IPO or some such financial offering. But because of the multi technology mix mess, the NBN will most likely not see that fate as much as the Liberals want it. If it does get sold off it will be for much less than it would have had it been a truly fibre NBN. Maybe even to Telstra at a fire sale rate.

Let’s hope that the NBN can get back on track. My fear is the damage has already been done. The future moves quickly and 5G has been offered up as a reason to forget about developing the NBN. Unfortunately the amount of data going over the mobile network pales in comparison to the amount going over the fixed line network of Australia. While 5G may promise GB speeds, if everyone is using it at once those speeds will drastically come down.

The tragedy of Australia’s NBN is that it never reached its full fibre potential and possibly won’t for many years to come. And in my eyes the man to blame for this is our current Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull. Let’s not let the current government and Prime Minister forget that come election time.

Anthony Eales is a media, news and tech junkie from Australia. You can follow him on Twitter @ants000. This article was originally published at and is republished with permission.

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