news Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has confirmed that metropolitan areas of Australia in the HFC cable footprint of Telstra and Optus would not immediately receive the Coalition’s planned fibre to the node upgrade if it wins Government and did not commit to deploying FTTN infrastructure in those areas in the long-term.
Both Optus and Telstra currently operate HFC cable networks in some metropolitan areas of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, with the total number of customers on the networks believed to be about a million, split relatively evenly. In total, the networks are believed to cover about 30 percent of Australian households, with speeds ranging up to a theoretical maximum of 100Mbps.
However, many households in the regions are unable to connect to the infrastructure, due to complex legal issues around multi-dwelling units (such as apartments), and the HFC cable is broadly regarded as legacy infrastructure, due to its capacity constraints as a shared telecommunications medium. The overwhelming majority of Australian households and business premises — even within the HFC footprint — continue to use ADSL broadband over Telstra’s copper network, and both Optus and Telstra have shifted their marketing focus away from selling services on their HFC networks over the decade since the networks were built.
Under the Government’s current NBN project, both Telstra and Optus will receive payments to shut the HFC networks down and shift customers onto the NBN fibre. However, in an interview late last night on the ABC’s Lateline television program (click here for the full video interview and transcript), Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull confirmed intimations by Communications Minister Stephen Conroy yesterday that the Coalition would in fact seek to continue to use the HFC cable networks and upgrade network infrastructure in other areas first.
“An ideal scenario would be that you would – well what you would certainly do is you would not prioritise areas where HFC is,” said Turnbull. “You wouldn’t be overbuilding the HFC areas in the near term because they’re getting very good service already. The Government, however, is over-building the HFC areas.”
“What they should be prioritising are the areas that have very poor broadband service now. So, our approach has got a couple of elements. We’ll complete the network sooner, we’ll complete it cheaper and we’ll prioritise the areas that have got poor service. And then as to what happens with the HFC areas down the track, that would depend very much on negotiations with Telstra.”
Turnbull’s comments confirm policy the Member for Wentworth had laid out in a speech at the National Press Club in August 2011. “… one must ask why on earth Labor and NBN Co want to overbuild and decommission the HFC pay TV cable network that passes 28 per cent of Australian premises,” said Turnbull at the time (the full speech is available online). “The network is already providing up to 100Mbps in Melbourne. It could do so elsewhere if Telstra is provided with the certainty required to make the modest investment needed.”
“Our approach to what I will call, for want of a better term, suburban and regional Australia – those areas that are neither so built-up that they are within the HFC footprint, nor so remote that fixed wireless and satellite are the only real option – will be to invite private sector companies to deliver wholesale broadband services within the designated areas.”
The Coalition’s HFC policy is likely to cause uproar amongst residents and businesses in the HFC cable footprint, as they mean that some of the most heavily populated and highest broadband consuming areas of Australia will actually be last to obtain upgraded broadband infrastructure under the Coalition’s rival NBN vision.
And Turnbull’s Lateline comments also appear to leave the question open as to the long-term fate of those areas, pending negotiations with Telstra over the fate of its HFC networks.
Turnbull also addressed other NBN-related issues in the Lateline interview — such as the Coalition’s plans to conduct a cost/benefit analysis into both the Government’s and its own NBN plan, as well as the cost and projected timeframe for the Coalition’s proposal.
Well, let me just say this right out: I am pretty disappointed by Malcolm Turnbull’s comments here, and I was wrong when I stated yesterday that I believed Turnbull had turned away from the HFC networks as a core part of the Coalition’s telecommunications policy.
Let me remind the Shadow Communications Minister of a very common scenario for those who live in so-called HFC-serving areas around Australia. I personally live in just one such area. I live in an urban area of Sydney in a street which is composed of mid-level (three storey) apartment blocks.
The HFC cables of both Telstra and Optus runs right down this street; right past my apartment. However, for the past decade that I have lived here, I have been completely unable to get this infrastructure connected to the two apartments in which I have lived, because to start with, the apartment owner of the entire block won’t get it connected to every apartment as both telcos require, and so I can’t get it connected to my individual apartment. I’ve asked several times.
In recent years, the situation has gotten even worse. When you call Optus, the company basically won’t even admit that it even sells HFC cable anymore; it is so focused on ADSL. Telstra will sell HFC cable to customers, but strongly prefers to sell ADSL. It’s just so much easier to commission, install and maintain.
I’d lay odds that every single one of the hundreds of apartments in my street is in exactly the same situation; we’re in a “HFC area”, but completely unable to get the cable as we’re in a MDU block. So we have to use ADSL — and when it rains, my ADSL has a tendency to go funny. Great. Far from “getting very good service already” as Turnbull said about HFC areas tonight … basically those in this inner suburb of Sydney are getting jack shit from the HFC network and not much better from ADSL.
And of course, none of this is even considering the glaringly obvious issues with HFC cable which have been well-documented by ZDNet commentator David Braue: Namely, that when everyone in your street uses it, the service turns to shit. That’s been a phenomenon which has been evident for years; and it’s due to the shared medium nature of HFC. It’s a problem copper and fibre to the whatever networks do not share.
What Mr Turnbull appeared to be stating in his oh-so-cheery Lateline interview tonight — ironic, given the grim subject matter — is that customers such as myself will be getting the short end of the stick from the next generation of broadband infrastructure; because we happen to live in an area which theoretically has great existing broadband networks. What Mr Turnbull is completely ignoring is the fact that most in those areas can’t actually use those networks in practice.
I note that Turnbull has also left open the question of whether those in HFC areas will ever receive upgraded fibre to the node infrastructure under the Coalition’s plan. He stated: “We’ll complete the network sooner, we’ll complete it cheaper and we’ll prioritise the areas that have got poor service. And then as to what happens with the HFC areas down the track, that would depend very much on negotiations with Telstra.”
Well, Mr Turnbull, if you are saying what I think you are saying, that you are not definitely committing to upgrading the copper broadband network in HFC areas at all … on any time frame … then I would have to say that that would make the Coalition’s rival NBN policy an ignorant and arrogant waste of paper; featuring a paucity of vision that not even an “arthritic snail” would envy.
Labor is offering those in ‘HFC areas’ gigabit fibre to their premise within the next decade. If you are offering those areas what I think you are offering, Mr Turnbull — that is, nothing at all — then you have completely failed the test of leadership and I will forthwith abandon what little faith I have had in your ability in the Communications portfolio. God knows most of Delimiter’s readership has been begging me to abandon it for most of the time you have been Shadow Minister. Maybe it’s time I threw in the towel completely; this interview tonight has tested my patience severely. I’m not sure I have much left. And I am damn certain I will not be the only one in your hypothetical ‘HFC areas’ to feel this way.
Image credit: Office of Malcolm Turnbull