The NBN should be opt-out — not opt-in


opinion The Tasmanian Opposition is right to propose that Australians should have to opt-out from having their houses connected to National Broadband Network fibre cables — not have to opt-in as the process currently stands.

Last week, Liberal MP Michael Ferguson asked Tasmanian Premier David Bartlett in an estimates committee why this wasn’t already the case. Bartlett hemmed and hawed but really couldn’t give Ferguson a good answer. Instead, he passed the buck — stating that it wasn’t for the Government to answer the question but promising to take the question to the Tasmanian branch of the NBN Company.

However, there are already plenty of good reasons why all Australians should have to actively opt-out from having their houses connected to the NBN, rather than having to opt-in.

The first and most obvious one is efficiency.

As Ferguson pointed out in a later statement, doing a cable drop to all houses in a suburb while technicians are in the area connecting some would make the whole process tremendously more efficient. If you’re connecting thousands of homes over a period of months, after all, you’re going to get pretty good at it – and the amount of time you spent on each one will decrease.

Economies of scale will kick in and the whole process will become something that is quite automated and predictable as technicians work out the various categories of trouble cases and sort out standard solutions for them.

This approach also plays into the idea that telecommunications should be seen as a utility. Do Australians need to request that electricity is physically connected to their premises when they move in? Or water? Or sewerage? Or the roads that we drive on? Of course not. These things are basics that run right to our door and have for some time. Telecommunications – in the future fibre paradigm – should be treated just the same.

The argument becomes ever-stronger when you take the converse case.

One of the main problems with the rollout of HFC cable by both Telstra and Optus (which can be taken as an example of how NBN Co should not roll out its fibre network) is that the HFC cable didn’t run to all premises. Apartment blocks, particularly, were left out of the cable broadband goldrush because of the difficulties of getting notoriously argumentative strata authorities to agree on anything – least of all whether the whole apartment block should be expensively wired for cable.

Mandating an opt-out model for the NBN would solve many of these issues right from the get-go. You don’t want the NBN fibre to run right past your front door – but be unable to access it because your penny-pinching strata secretary just doesn’t see the value in the technology.

There are also other strong sociological reasons for the NBN to be rolled out on an opt-out model.

If you have been watching the Greens in parliament recently, you will note that the party has been making various noises about what it terms the potential “ubuiquity” of online services in the future. In the Senate Select Committee on the NBN this year, Greens Communications Spokesperson Scott Ludlam noted the following comments by the Northern Territory’s ICT Minister:

The fundamental value proposition of the National Broadband Network isn’t so much its speed (although important), but its potential ubiquity… It could connect the 25-30 percent of homes that are not internet connected and enable a whole range of services, including some government services, to be delivered to householders regardless of whether they have subscribed to a retail broadband service or not.

In essence, what the Greens appear to be saying is that if all premises were to have NBN fibre connected virtually as a mandatory imposition, it would allow governments and other public interest service providers to provide basic services and information to them – regardless of whether they were paying for full internet access.

For example, even if you didn’t pay for a full NBN internet connection, you might still be able to use your free access to pay your taxes, access information on government web sites, access educational resources, and maybe even – at some stage in the future – vote.

Essentially, the idea is that at some level, essential government services – potentially from your local council, state government, hospital, public school, Federal Government and so on – would become similar to iiNet’s Freezone. You wouldn’t need to pay to access them – they would just be bundled as part of the ubiquitous fibre broadband.

Leaving this door open could even be what the Federal Government had in mind when it left the door open in its NBN legislation for NBN Co to supply services directly to some users, going against its stated aim that the company would only provide wholesale services.

And it would make sense.

Now at the moment the Federal Government has not signalled that it will go down the ‘opt-out’ path for the NBN, although we’ve put the question to both NBN Co and the office of Communications Minister Stephen Conroy this morning, to ask what the pair think of the idea.

Our current government appears to see the NBN as much more of an enabler for the commercial telecommunications sector, rather than as a key piece of government infrastructure.

Overall, its approach is more consistent with the American capitalist notion of driving better services through competition, and letting the market provide the best outcome, rather than the somewhat Scandinavian notion of ubiquitous access and better services for all, often from the Government purse.

But I think it’s about time we at least had the debate. Let’s stop talking about whether 30, 40 or 50 percent of Australians would opt-in to NBN fibre services straight away when the network is rolled out. Let’s start talking about how we can make sure this network is fully utilised – that by default it’s available everywhere and to everyone.

Image credit: Zoran Ozetsky, royalty free


  1. Spot on…it is far easier/cheaper to have the fibre drop installed from the street line (whether that be above or below ground) at the same time as the street line is installed. I think that when the scope of works was done for Tasmania, the Telstra/NBN deal was not in place, and the decommissioning of the copper network wasn’t even a “semi-fixed target”.

    With that deal now in place, I would hope that when the project scope and tenders are put in place for the mainland, that the default should be the installation of the fibre drop. Once the copper network is switched off, everyone will need a fibre drop, so doing it upfront has to be far more efficient and, dare I say, logical.

  2. Why even give people a choice. As long as I can remember (over half a century) and until quite recently there was only a single provider of telephone connections – The PMG/Telecom/Telstra. Every new home in suburbia was wired for phone when it was built. If you didn’t have an existing phone service, you simply requested & it was connected. If you didn’t want the phone on, that was OK, but you still got the wiring.

    The NBN should be the same. The NBN should be cabled to all homes in the nation, ragardless of location. As already decided, connection should be made available via Fibre as first preference or by Wireless or Satellite as required. If somebody has an existing phone, it should be automatically switched from Telstra copper to NBN Fibre/Wireless/Satellite. No questions asked.

    The householder should be able to choose the services they receive (Phone, Internet, Telehealth, TV, etc.) and the supplier, but not the technology. As long as they don’t have to pay more. It is only by implementing the NBN pervasively that we get the benefits of a pervasive network. Remember the NBN is not just about phones & internet. It is about enabling & supplying existing and new services to end users and their suppliers in ways most of us have not even dreamed of yet. We can’t do that efficiently without a pervasive network – a pervasive NBN.

    I can’t believe this is even up for debate.

  3. This is a great idea, and any necessary laws and/or council regulations should be amended to make this possible.

    Why should the current owner / resident / strata body of a residence have to make a decision to opt-in when it will affect a lot of future owners of the property.

    Leave opt-out as an option, as you shouldn’t force people to do things they really oppose, but make sure opting out isn’t super easy so laid back (and lazy) people get it by default.

    • Oppose?

      Technically, people will not be able to oppose. With Telstra agreeing to completely decommission their copper network, there won’t be any option but to have the fibre connected. Strata bodies need to be made to understand the consequences of not doing anything. Even if the copper was to remain, the resale value of a property would be affected by lack of NBN wiring.

      Real estates agents leasing/selling business premises ALREADY find that they have to charge less for properties outside of the reach of SHDSL services, certainly in the capital cities. Premises without the fibre will be significantly disadvantaged in the market.

  4. If the NBN will be as popular as it’s touted to be, why would you need a lazy ploy to play on the apathy and laziness of the end user? \= )

    I’m sure Conroy will go for it though, no better way to get his take up figures. And he’s never particularly cared what the voters think anyway. Might require some extra negotiation with Telstra over the terms of copper removal though..

    Incidentally, ya’ll realise that someone will need to be home for the NBN staff to do the internal portion of the installs (instead of just the external drop or trench and ONT install) considering the copper would need to be removed at the same time? I think it would be highly unusual to see an entire street done one after another…

  5. Opt Out?
    Seems to me if They’re going to do this the only model that makes sense is the old phone system. That is the cable goes everywhere and is available to everyone. You don’t need to connect the ‘phone’ then and there, but it’s available if you or later whoever else wishes to.

    As an analogy, I live in a 70’s vintage unit block in Sydney. Nice on the whole, renovated and in decent shape. The TV aerial is of similar vintage…digital? Well I can get most, most of the time. ABC is dodgy dependant on the weather, Nine sometimes a bit iffy and SBS non existent. My net connection using the old copper is pretty darn good and I won’t pay for cable TV. Maybe the aerial will get done one of these years. I like the idea of being able to get wizzo net speeds, as long as the cost is not silly and I can go with my choice of supplier. Speaking of which iinet just upped my quota out of the goodness of their hearts. I wonder if this has anything to do with new content availability soon?

    And..apropos of nuthin’ I discovered this place hunting for info and e-books and related when the Kobo was released. I like this site, check in nearly daily and have now commented..gasp..three times. Sometimes I even learn stuff. Thanks Renai.


  6. I kinda agree, then again forcing people to be in NBN would like give NBN a long-term unfair competitive advantage, just at the time Telstra are going all wireless and giving up their copper. Replacing one forced monopoly with another doesn’t sound good to me. This way, there’s at least some form of choice.
    BTW, hin Tasmania we do have to request power, sewerage, water etc. to be connected if we move in to a place where it’s currently not connected. Unlike the Big Island, it doesn’t just magically appear out of the sky as would be inferred from reading your article.

    • Hi Pete,

      When you say ‘where it’s currently not connected’ do you mean that the infrastructure itself hasn’t been placed? As in the cables haven’t been run, the pipes haven’t been put in, etc.
      Or do you mean there is no current provider providing such a service and they need to switch it on? Either by coming to the property and flicking the switch or something on their end.

      I sincerely doubt and hope that there are many properties in Tasmania that haven’t had any of the required infrastructure for these services laid down.

      Because that is what was meant in the article.

      • Er…I don’t hope that there are that many properties without essential services infrastructure. That would just be horrible of me.

      • Yes, there are many properties without sufficient quality connection, or with no connections whatsoever. People are also paying for connections that they have no need for. Also paying for connections that don’t exist. The issue of provisioning these services has been a major electoral consideration here for 18-24 months.

    • I agree entirely. Why should NBNCo get different rules under the Telecommunications Act?

      There have been many independant telecommunications companies who have built their own infastructure (TransACT, NCable, Optus, Telstra, OptiComm etc.) who would have loved the opportunity to build in without meeting the required “subscriber in building” requirements for right-of-way.

      I can bet my boots that if NBNCo are granted these rights, I will not be granted anything similar: despite having made an independent investment for the betterment of Australian telecommunications.

      I am sick of being this Government’s collateral.

      • NBNCo should get different rules under the Telecommunications Act, because the current rules are a major impediment to progress in the Telecommunications industry and it’s well past time to improve the status quo.

        I suspect changing the required “subscriber in building” requirements for right-of-way to allow implicit opt-in will help NBN have a much better product to wholesale to independant telecommunications companies (TransACT, NCable, Optus, Telstra, OptiComm etc.).

        If NBNCo are granted these rights and they do the job properly, you and all the other independant telecommunications companies won’t to worry about installing infrastructure in future.

        I’m sorry you feel your are collateral of this Government.

  7. You’re on the money.

    In tens of years time, when other western economies are still fighting about access to ducts, shared infrastructure etc Australia will have ubiquitous access to proper high speed connectivity. High speed last mile access is the key to so much more than Net or voice access.

    Take tele-commuting, it can be done now but bandwidth can still be an issue and there’s still a feeling of distance from the cultural norm of groups working together in one place. High speed connectivity makes that cultural leap less daunting using video and 3d presence. That has to be a good thing from an environmental and quality of life perspective.

    That’s just one of many reasons NBN should be opt out and even then I think you should have to prove you will interconnect with NBN and deliver something equal or better to your building/development/street/city/state.

    As a new arrival to these shores the NBN is just one of the many things that makes me glad I am here not stuck in crippled old blighty.

  8. Every house / dwelling everwhere should have it. That is a no brainer and decision should only be how much of the service you choose to subscribe to. So TV, Phone, Internet, something new we haven’t thought of, could all come down the cable. No longer needing a modem would be a bonus.

    Now what happens to grey nomads? Could NBN supply free WiFi, connected at the office / shop, for people temporarily or permanently in a caravan park? Cable to each site might be a bit of a stretch. I can see a tent peg going through the fibre ;-)

    Sailors in Marinas & back packers could similarly have free wifi connwected to NBN? Truckies at Road Houses? Ideally want everyone to get access as often as it suits their needs, for the best value to society.

  9. I agree that the NBN should be connected to each property.

    If the residents wish to use the facility then there should be connection fee. line rental etc. as in telephone provision.

    I would not compare this to the provision of utilities, which I suggest are the necessities of life.

    Do the new residents of a property in Tassie have to pay for utilities to be connected/reconnected, as suggested previously?


  10. Exactly. Without ubiquity we lose half of the utility of the thing. People are generally none too bright and doing nothing is always a good option, that nothing should mean that the thing is installed, for their own good. It’s a nudge in the right direction.

  11. This is a fantastic discussion to have. Well done Renai and Delimiter.

    Gas, electricity, etc will be the same as internet access. In my opinion they are bnow, but for some reason some people value the internet as not important. I don’t understand why.

    Reminds me of Stewie from The Family Guy, when he says the line in a hurting fashion “I don’t like change”.

  12. Ummm.

    Ubiquity means not just connecting the house to the NBN, but also house wiring and installing a gateway/router and, for a number of customers, a PC as well. All of this is additional to the $ 43b so presumably automatically charge the householder at the same time.

    Oh and if they are not actually in the house at the time, maybe they break into the house to install it?

    What I can’t understand though is what government services are so important I need this fibre for?

    Oh and why you could not apply the same logic to ADSL. I mean casting a vote does not sound very bandwidth intensive to me, nor paying taxes – assuming this is worth spending the amount of money on.

    I think fibre is cool. But that is not an excuse for poor thinking

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