news Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has dismissed as “nonsense” claims by contracting companies deploying Labor’s National Broadband Network project that changing the project’s model to a fibre to the node rollout would be “an expensive, time-consuming hindrance”.
Last week the ABC published an extensive article on the subject based on information collected at the NBN Realised forum held in Sydney, an event looking primarily at the practicalities of deploying Labor’s NBN vision, which primarily uses a fibre to the home-style deployment model to provide next generation broadband speeds to most Australians, and satellite and wireless technologies in some rural and regional areas. The article proved extremely popular online, receiving some 366 comments from readers.
The Coalition prefers a more modest deployment style involving rolling out fibre from telephone exchanges to neighbourhoods and then continuing to use Telstra’s existing copper network for the rest of the distance to premises. This model, known as ‘fibre to the node’, is being used internationally, especially in countries such as the UK, where incumbent telco BT is deploying it across the country. Turnbull and other senior figures in the Coalition have claimed that the model could see Australians receiving next generation broadband speeds significantly faster than under Labor’s fibre to the home model, and at a significantly cheaper price, although the NBN is actually expected to make a long-term return on the Government’s investment.
After interviewing a number of contractors currently involved in deploying the NBN infrastructure, the article’s author, ABC Technology & Games editor Nick Ross, concluded: “While no one wanted to go on the record directly, there was consensus from key players in the room: building a Fibre to the Node (FTTN) infrastructure, in terms of raw construction costs, as promoted by the Coalition, is now unlikely to be a “cheaper” option than the current Fibre to the Premises plans … In essence, NBN contractors such as Silcar/Thiess, SPATIALinfo and Service Stream are now so efficient at rolling out fibre down streets – from the exchange to people’s houses – that stopping to add tens of thousands of large-fridge sized node cabinets represents an expensive, time-consuming hindrance.”
Speaking to ABC Radio this week, however (the full transcript is available online), Turnbull rejected the criticism. “Well that is, with respect to whoever wrote that, complete and utter nonsense,” he said, pointing out that BT in the UK and AT&T in the US were using the FTTN deployment model, and that the FTTN streetside cabinets didn’t need to be the size of “fridges” as they were “getting smaller all the time. The speed of rollout was also demonstrably faster, Turnbull said, pointing out that in the UK, BT had deployed its FTTN infrastructure to seven million premises in one year alone. Turnbull added that the cost was about a quarter of the cost of the fibre to the home model.
It’s not the first time that Turnbull and the ABC’s Ross have clashed over the issue. In July, Turnbull accused Ross of creating “relentless propaganda” to support Labor’s flagship National Broadband Network project, in a stance which the Shadow Communications Minister described as “embarrassing”.
The ABC’s Technology & Games sub-site has published a number of articles over the past year by Ross going into a great level of detail about Labor’s NBN project and the Coalition’s criticism of it. In general, the aim of the articles appears to have been educational, although their broad line has been positive in favour of the NBN.
In July, Ross and Turnbull engaged in a very public argument on the subject on social networking platform Twitter. “Your relentless NBN propaganda is an embarrassment to the ABC,” Turnbull told Ross. “Do you really work for the ABC or is it the NBN Co?”
In turn, Ross (see the ABC’s Tech & Games Twitter account here) in particular highlighted what he said were weaknesses in the Coalitions’ NBN policy, especially its focus on using a fibre to the node-style of broadband rollout rather than the fibre to the home approach Labor is currently taking. “I work for the Australian public. You haven’t ever acknowledged health, [education], business, upload speed requirements for NBN,” Ross told Turnbull. “Am more than happy to meet up and discuss this. We seem to think the NBN is for very different purposes.”
“You can’t say these facts about the NBN without backing them up. I back up what I say more than anyone. If you can demonstrate what facts I have said that are wrong I’ll be mortified. But you need to justify your claims. I go the science route. The facts are all that matter here. Technology is blind to politics. I’ll show my working as usual.”
Turnbull has also been vocal over the past several weeks in criticising Australia’s technology press in general. Last week he said in a speech to the Innovation Bay startup networking organisation in Sydney that Australia’s technology press had a “cheerleader” approach to the NBN, adding that the nation was “let down by the so-called technology media” as it did not examine local events closely enough with reference to the global telecommunications sector.
So who’s correct here? To be honest, it’s a little more complex than black and white, and there are parts of this debate which are being conveniently overlooked by both Malcolm Turnbull and Nick Ross.
The NBN contractors who have expressed vivid doubts about the Coalition’s rival NBN policy obviously have a great deal of vested interest in doing so – billions of dollars in contract work is at stake here – but they are fundamentally on the right track in their criticism of Turnbull’s FTTN model. Turnbull has repeatedly, over a prolonged period, declined to quantify precisely how the Coalition’s FTTN model would exactly be deployed, how much it would cost, how the NBN’s existing model would be transitioned into it, where precisely he is drawing inspiration from in the model, how Telstra’s role would fit into it (including the acquisition of Telsra’s copper network) and so on. Here are some of the questions Turnbull hasn’t yet answered.
Many of these questions are directly related to the fact that Turnbull has continually glossed over the point with respect to FTTN rollouts that they have almost universally been carried out globally by incumbent telcos working on their own infrastructure. Incumbent telcos like BT and AT&T can do FTTN rollouts because they already control all aspects of their network. Turnbull’s model – which would see a third party, NBN Co, upgrade Telstra’s network for it, and probably take ownership of it, is virtually unprecedented globally, and this is where many of the questions around the Coalition’s policy come in.
Because of this, Ross is right to challenge Turnbull on these issues, and he is right to use evidence sourced from technical experts to do so. There’s also the fact that most of the telecommunications industry appears to agree with those’ contractors views at the moment. The ranks of those who currently prefer the Coalition’s FTTN model against Labor’s FTTH model are thin indeed right now; and with good reason.
However, Turnbull is also fundamentally correct. The evidence globally shows that FTTN is a highly workable broadband network deployment model which would serve Australia well, at least for a decade or so. Deploying such a model would bring Australia right into line with current events in Europe, and as we’ve seen in the UK, such a network could also be upgraded to FTTH in the long-term, or in targeted patches in the mid-term where needed.
It’s possible to argue that Turnbull hasn’t provided enough detail yet to make his case for FTTN against FTTH; and that’s an argument I would agree with. However, it’s also the case that if you look at the history of telecommunications policy in Australia, or indeed policy in any other area, Turnbull has provided an extraordinary level of detail for a Shadow Minister. It’s time to compare apples with apples and acknowledge that Turnbull has done a much better job as Shadow Communications Minister than anyone within living memory in Australia; and certainly a better job than current Communications Minister Stephen Conroy did as shadow; Labor’s broadband policy in 2007, for example, was quite threadbare compared to the details Turnbull has laid out over the past several years.
My personal opinion – and I think that of most Australians – is that Labor’s NBN policy is a much better policy than the Coalition’s. A better policy for all Australians. And I don’t think this will change, no matter how much detail Turnbull provides about his vision. FTTH is simply a better long-term option for Australia’s telecommunications needs than FTTN, and Labor’s NBN policy is already substantially down the road to being delivered.
But equally, that doesn’t mean the Coalition’s policy is unworkable. It is simply a fact that similar FTTN deployments are happening internationally and that Turnbull’s vision for Australa’s broadband needs could plausibly become reality. In my view, Australians should be happy about that. It’s a damn sight better than the situation at the last Federal Election in 2010, when the Coalition’s then-rival NBN policy would not have delivered substantially better broadband to Australians; only Labor’s would have. Now the worm has turned and both sides have substantial policies that will deliver fundamental service improvements. Now that’s a situation which we can all agree is a good one.
Image credit: Office of Malcolm Turnbull