news Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has challenged Shadow Minister Malcolm Turnbull to confirm his rival broadband policy would not see fibre to the node technology immediately deployed to areas already covered by the HFC cable networks operated by Telstra and Optus, despite the fact that few use the ageing HFC networks.
The Coalition has not formally released its rival broadband policy yet, although Opposition Leader Tony Abbott several weeks ago confirmed the Coalition would take Turnbull’s fibre to the node-based broadband plan to the Federal Election as its broadband policy, stacking it up against the much more comprehensive fibre to the premise-based model already being implemented by the current Labor Government.
Speaking to the press in Sydney this morning, Conroy pointed out that some key details of the Coalition’s FTTN vision as put together by Turnbull could already be anticipated.
For example, he pointed out that in August 2011, Turnbull gave a major speech to the National Press Club regarding his preference for fibre to the node technology. In the speech, Conroy reminded journalists, Turnbull had stated that the Coalition’s approach in rolling out fibre to the node technology in Telstra’s existing copper network would see those areas outside the HFC cable footprint prioritised.
“… 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.”
Conroy said the Coalition’s fibre to the node model essentially represented it adopting Labor’s original FTTN NBN policy, which it took to the 2007 Federal Election and then abandoned on the advice of a panel of experts as being unviable.
“But there’s a lot of questions that Malcolm Turnbull won’t just answer,” Conroy added. A very simple one: He said at the Press Club that they wouldn’t build fibre to the node in the HFC footprint. Is that still their policy? Because what they’ve got at the moment is a copper to the home policy. They’re going to keep the copper in the ground, and keep using the copper.”
In a broad sense, Labor’s own FTTP policy will also see areas outside the HFC cable networks (which extend through select parts of Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne) focused on first, as part of a deal with independent MPs at the 2010 Federal Election which is seeing the NBN deployed from the ‘outside in’ to rural and outer metropolitan areas first.
However, it will ultimately see all areas covered by the HFC cable infrastructure upgraded as the NBN’s FTTP cables replace the ageing HFC network in the years to 2021. All those customers currently using HFC cable will be migrated to the NBN.
The HFC cable infrastructure is capable of supporting speeds up to 100Mbps, and Telstra and Optus have upgraded the infrastructure to a certain level in order to support these kinds of speeds. However, the technology is considered by many to be broadly unsuitable for Australia’s future telecommunications needs, as it does not function well under heavy shared utilisation, and many renting so-called multi-dwelling units such as apartments are unable to have it connected as it requires a whole block of apartments to be hooked up.
Turnbull’s office has been invited to respond to Conroy’s claims; this article will be updated with any response the Coalition provides.
In general Conroy said it was time for the Coalition to release its full broadband policy so that proper debate could occur regarding its details before the September Federal Election. “Malcolm Turnbull told the Financial Review that he had a fully costed policy,” Conroy said. “We keep hearing it’s going to be released, but this is a big infrastructure project. Tey should do the decent thing. If they’ve got a fully costed policy, as they keep boasting, they should release it … Malcolm Turnbull continues to spin, and spin and spin. He says there should be less spin in politics. Well, he should start with himself. He should come clean and release the broadband policy. Lets release it; let’s have a debate about it.”
Turnbull has said that the full cost of the Coalition’s rival NBN policy could not be calculated until the Coalition was able to get full access to NBN Co’s finances, so that it could know what contracts the company had locked future governments into.
“As for this claim that you need to open up the NBN books, the cost of a fibre to the node policy is relatively well-known,” said Conroy. “It’s not hard to cost how many cabinets, how close will those cabinets be to individual homes, it’s not a matter of needing the NBN books open to answer those questions.”
Conroy had a huge spray at Turnbull and the Coalition this morning, as is his want, and if you watch the video above, I think you’ll agree it’s glorious to behold. This is a Communications Minister who, after more than five years at the top, is pretty much the complete master of his portfolio. He knows how to needle the Coalition on this issue where it hurts, and who can blame him? It’s true the Coalition’s rival NBN policy (such as we’ve seen of it) is full of holes, and we’ve also seen a variety of inconsistent statements from senior Coalition politicians on the issue.
Right now, Labor is onto a popular winner with the NBN, and Conroy knows it.
However, I should also say at this point that I don’t expect the Coalition’s rival NBN policy to focus on the HFC cable networks. I don’t really have any evidence for this (damn me for that if you will!), but my strong suspicion is that Turnbull understands, and Abbott increasingly understands, that the Coalition will not be able to walk away from NBN Co or the company’s superstructure as a whole.
I think what we’ll see from the Coalition in terms of its NBN policy is a very similar policy to Labor’s FTTP NBN program, but featuring FTTN, as fast a rollout as possible (including to city areas) and similar wireless and satellite provisions for the bush. A lot has happened since Turnbull’s 2011 Press Club speech about his rival broadband plans; and I think the Member for Wentworth understands now the futility of focusing on HFC cable. Upgrading the HFC cable networks may be a part of Turnbull’s plans; but I doubt they’ll be the centrepiece, and I doubt Australia’s major cities will go long without a FTTN upgrade, as Conroy suggested this morning.
Conroy’s right; Turnbull needs to release the details of the Coalition’s NBN policy. But I suspect those details won’t reveal the complete mess Conroy is expecting.