news The Coalition appears to have evolved its alternative National Broadband Network policy over the past few weeks to focus squarely on the so-called fibre to the node network rollout style which was rejected by the Federal Government’s expert NBN committee in early 2009.
The Gillard Government’s current NBN policy being implemented by NBN Co focuses on using a fibre to the home rollout in which cables are deployed from centralised points (usually telephone exchanges) all the way to home or business premises around Australia.
The previous NBN policy focused on rolling fibre out to neighbourhood cabinets known as ‘nodes’, using Telstra’s existing copper cable for the last hop to home and business premises. However, it was ditched in April 2009, after an independent panel of experts warned the Federal Government that the policy was not feasible due to the requirement for industry involvement — and no satisfactory industry proposals.
The most comprehensive description of the Coalition’s rival NBN policy to date was contained in a speech given by Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull in early August this year. In the speech, available online, Turnbull said a Coalition Government would focus on upgrading the existing HFC cable networks of Telstra and Optus, inviting wholesale providers to supply services in other areas, and likely separating Telstra into retail and wholesale arms, among other measures.
However, over the past few weeks, Turnbull has appeared to increasingly focus on the idea that a FTTN-style rollout would be a key plank of NBN policy under a Coalition Government.
Over the weekend, the Financial Review reported this morning, Turnbull said “a Coalition Government would renegotiate with Telstra to ensure it could use its copper phone lines to lay fibre to nodes on street corners rather than Labor’s more expensive plan of all the way to each home”, adding he didn’t anticipate the negotiations would be difficult. And, responding to comments by NBN Co chief executive Mike Quigley on Sunday that NBN Co had not prepared contingency plans for a change of government, Turnbull told the Australian that “it was “obvious” that the Coalition wanted a cheaper FTTN rollout rather than a more expensive FTTH plan.
The comments came after similar comments by Turnbull in a Senate Estimates hearing last week, in which Turnbull asked NBN Co chief executive Mike Quigley whether a FTTN approach to the NBN had been considered, given the focus on FTTN networks (also known as ‘fibre to the cabinet’) using the VDSL standard being deployed in some other countries, which may allow speeds up to 80Mbps, although it will offer poorer latency than the current FTTH NBN model.
“The reason they are undertaking that, and Mr Quigley and I have discussed this before, is that this VDSL solution — fibre to the node, fibre to the cabinet – is obviously a lot cheaper,” said Turnbull. “Given the very high speed that can be delivered, and is being delivered, with this VDSL fibre to the cabinet approach in Britain — and the Germans are doing something very similar — has the Government thought about re-calibrating the approach of the NBN?” Turnbull has recently returned from a visit to Europe, where he spoke with telcos about their network rollout plans.
In response to Turnbull’s comments in Senate Estimates, Quigley said for technical reasons, a fibre to the node deployment in Australia would not be desirable. Problems revolved around getting access to Telstra’s infrastructure, as well as the population distribution geographically and the state of the existing copper network.
“In Australia, to get the sorts of speeds you are talking about, you would have to go very close to the premise and would end up with an enormous number of cabinets,” the NBN Co chief said. “It is simply not a smart commercial proposition, I think, for a country like Australia to get the sort of coverage that the Government was aiming at.”
The executive noted that NBN Co analysis showed that technical standards known as ‘phantoming’, ‘vectoring’ and ‘DSM’ which were used in overseas FTTN deployments were “very difficult to apply in Australia”. Quigley added that the long-term architecture which telcos were aiming at was fibre to the home. “If you deploy a fibre to the node network, you are likely to waste about half of the investment you made in so deploying,” he added.
The NBN Co chief — who has an extensive background at Alcatel-Lucent, a manufacturer of key network components in telco networks — offered to spend “half a day” with Turnbull to help him understand the FTTN/FTTH disparity. “This is such an important issue. I think it is worth the investment of time to put your mind at rest,” he said.
“You would need a huge number of cabinets to get anything like those speeds, whereas you can with fibre to the premise … you can cover 90 per cent of the country,” said Quigley. “You just cannot do that. You would have to stop at somewhere around 60 to 65 per cent with a fibre to the node to get, say, 12 megabits and above. Telstra did this analysis some time ago.”
“The question is: what do you do from there? We looked at those various scenarios. That is what I would be happy to share with you to show you it is not such an easy thing to do. It depends on your objectives. One thing I would say is that you cannot, to 90 per cent of the population and over the copper network, use VDSL at those sorts of speeds for a low price. It is not possible.”