The National Broadband Network – a key policy of both Rudd and Gillard’s Labor governments – has been widely criticised by the Coalition for being too expensive and for taking too long to be rolled out. Malcolm Turnbull, the Shadow Minister for Communications and Broadband, has been particularly vocal on the topic, but so far the party has been quiet when it comes to an actual policy.
That is until now. Turnbull is expected to make an announcement on the details of the policy the Liberal Party would take to the election this week, with experts tipping it to happen tomorrow.
The imminent announcement looks set to focus on the financial differences between the two policies, with new analysis contained in the Coalition’s broadband policy suggesting the final cost of the NBN roll out could be more than double and exceed $90 billion by the time it is finished.
The leaked Coalition policy claims the Federal Government has vastly underestimated the cost blow outs, delays and revenue returns of the NBN. News Ltd has been reporting that the policy claims prices charged to consumers would rise annually over the next nine years at double the rate of household electricity bills and that it will take four years longer to finish, potentially costing an extra $45 billion to complete.
The NBN will replace existing copper network in areas where the optic fibre network is being rolled out. The Federal Government’s policy rests on one key fundamental: fibre to the home, while the Coalition is arguing this isn’t needed and a fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) roll out would be satisfactory, and cheaper.
How the NBN will work under Labor:
93% of homes and business will have access to an optic fibre network that will be capable of delivering broadband speeds of up to one gigabit per second, the government says.
The remaining seven per cent of homes and businesses will have access to next-generation fixed wireless or satellite technologies providing speeds of up to 25 megabits per second download and 5 megabits per second upload.
The fibre-to-the-node policy would mean fibre is rolled out to neighbourhood kerbside cabinets, with the existing copper cable used for the remaining distance to houses. It’s expected the Coalition will utilise Telstra and Optus’ existing HFC cable – or TV cable – network. It is understood Mr Turnbull will prefer to roll out fibre to areas where there is no existing HFC cable network.
It’s a partial fix to easing the stress on Australia’s overloaded and dying copper network. Mr Turnbull has been actively voicing his opposition to the fibre-to-the-home model, and arguing for the fibre-to-the-node model which is already being utilised in the UK.
The Coalition and Turnbull say this will be cheaper and will fix slow internet speeds just as effectively as the Federal Government’s fibre to the home model.
However, telecommunications operators are against any alternative policy involving the continued use of the Telstra pay TV cable network.
And it seems they have good reason for this, with the fibre-to-the-node model causing problems in the UK.
A former chief technology officer of British telco BT, has publicly stated that fibre to the-node style broadband is “one of the biggest mistakes humanity has made” imposing huge bandwidth and unreliability problems on those who implement it.
The comments made by Peter Cochrane seems to contradict Mr Turnbull’s arguments that a FTTN roll out would work, and would work well. He has used BT’s FTTN roll out as evidence for his claims that this is what Australia needs to achieve high download speeds.
Cochrane told the UK Parliament during an inquiry into super fast broadband in March that there were a range of problems associated with FTTN-style roll outs: vandalism, speed and reliability being the key problems.
On speed he said: “To return to an earlier point, if you have got fibre to the cabinet and you are relying on copper, I can tell you that the network is going to collapse on copper when you get to 1Gbps. It will collapse much earlier. You may do 200 to 300Mbps over a short distance, but you are not going to do anything with a reasonable reach over 1Gbps, and you are certainly not going anywhere at 10 Gbps. So you have immediately got this knot in the bandwidth.”
This issue of copper being unable to cope with higher speeds is one of the fundamental reasons behind the upgrade to fibre, and while it may seem smart to utilise current infrastructure and do a partial upgrade in the form of a FTTN model, copper is expensive to maintain.
NBN Co. chief Mike Quigley said in March: “It’s well known by the way that the ongoing operating cost of maintaining the copper is very significant. It’s also very well known that a fibre infrastructure is much cheaper to maintain than a copper infrastructure.
Mr Quigley also highlighted an problem for the Coalition’s FTTN model: the deal between the NBN and Telstra did not extend to rights to use Telstra’s copper.
“What we didn’t negotiate is rights to use their copper,” he told the ABC.
Peter Cochrane touched on the issue of copper’s reliability, saying: “The number one fault problem with copper is water ingress. Fibre does not care about water… The fault level in an optical network goes down very low. You can reduce manning, buildings, power consumption and everything.”
If what Cochrane says is true, an FTTN-style network will largely not solve many problems Australians already face with broadband internet, namely that the further away from the node you are, the slower your internet becomes. Plus, if the Coalition do move ahead with an FTTN model if they win the election, it will be back to the drawing board when it comes to negotiations with Telstra.
The NBN policy has largely suffered from Labor’s marketing issue. The announcement of an actual policy from the Coalition will provide clarity on the alternative of Australia’s telecommunications future and voters will need to decide if Turnbull’s temporary fix is all that’s needed, or if the longer-term thinking plan of the Labor government should stay in place.