news The Coalition has rejected claims that asbestos concerns in Telstra’s physical network infrastructure have caused it to dump plans to offer fibre to the premises services on demand under its predominantly fibre to the node-based National Broadband Network policy.
Over the past several weeks, a number of facilities housing Telstra network infrastructure have been discovered to contain dangerous asbestos. The discoveries were made as Telstra has been remediating its pits and pipe infrastructure to allow the National Broadband Network Company access to the facilities in order to install the NBN’s fibre infrastructure.
Telstra has announced a wide raft of new measures designed to address the issue and has broadly taken responsibility for the remediation of asbestos infrastructure, but a political debate has sprung up between the Government and the Opposition over the issue, with both blaming each others’ various actions taken while in power to address — or, more precisely, not address — the asbestos situation in Telstra’s network.
One unusual aspect of the debate was that on Wednesday, independent MP Rob Oakeshott, who has been broadly supportive of the Government’s NBN project, claimed on Twitter that the Coalition had “ruled out any option of voluntary fibre to the home”, with Oakeshott claiming that Abbott had said that Telstra’s pits and pipes “will not be touched” over the last 500 metres to premises.
Oakeshott was referring to the Coalition’s interest in launching so-called “fibre on demand”, or “fibre extension” offerings through its version of the NBN policy. The current Labor Government’s version of the NBN project is slated to see fibre laid all the way to most residential and business premises, but the Coalition’s vision would predominantly see fibre laid only to neighbourhood ‘nodes’, with Telstra’s existing copper network to be used for the remainder of the way to premises. Oakeshott’s comments were reported by several media outlets.
Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has also left open the possibility that individual users could pay a fee to have fibre extended all the way to their premises. In June 2012, British telco BT, which is also deploying a FTTN network, revealed plans to modify its 80Mbps national fibre to the node rollout so that customers will be able to choose to have fibre fully extended to their premises, delivering a large speed upgrade to 330Mbps in the process. Under the FTTP extension trial announced last year, British retail ISPs will be able to order the extension process where there is interest and then assist network infrastructure owner Openreach with the cost of deployment.
Because of the difference in network infrastructure styles, several senior Coalition parliamentarians have pointed out that the Coalition’s alternative NBN policy would see less asbestos disturbed than the Government’s, due to the fact that it would reuse more portions of the existing copper network infrastructure. Asbestos is typically not dangerous when it has been installed; it is typically only dangerous when disturbed and the asbestos fibres make their way into the air and into human lungs.
“Because we will be bringing fibre in most residential areas, only as far as the street cabinet, and not taking it, you know, down every street and through every pit and having to replace all these pits, many of which are made out of fibro. Because we’re not going to be doing that, therefore there will necessarily be much less disturbance and much less of an asbestos issue. The issue has not gone away, it’s always there, but it is a much more limited issue than it is under the Government’s plan. That is true,” said Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull in relation to the asbestos issue on the ABC’s Lateline program last night.
However, Turnbull’s office also denied yesterday that the Coalition had abandoned its interest in providing fibre on demand/fibre extension services due to the asbestos issue.
According to Hansard records of parliamentary speeches and transcripts of Tony Abbott’s speeches and press conferences over the past few days, there is no publicly available evidence that the Opposition Leader went as far as Oakeshott suggested on Twitter.
Like Turnbull, Abbott merely pointed out that the Coalition’s less ambitious NBN construction program would disturb less asbestos. “… it’s obvious that rolling out fibre to 60,000 distribution points is a vastly less disruptive process than digging up every street in the country. That’s the problem that the Government’s got. Ninety-three per cent of our households are going to have the street outside the premises dug up,” Abbott said on Tuesday this week, according to a transcript of the Opposition Leader’s press conference at the time.
Likewise, Turnbull’s spokesperson pointed to the Coalition’s NBN policy document (PDF), which clearly states:
“The Coalition acknowledges that some users may want higher speeds than can be provided over FTTN before any evidence of such needs in the broader market. Likewise, FTTP in some circumstances may be seen by other tiers of government, infrastructure operators or private investors as economically attractive or commercially attractive. Finally, market needs will clearly evolve over time and eventually may require further upgrade of the network where fibre has not been extended to user premises.”
“Reflecting these three possibilities, the Coalition policy provides for: individuals to obtain fibre on a user- pays basis where feasible; external public or private investors to propose and co-fund fTTP rollouts if they are willing to put forward 50 per cent of the needed funding; and an explicit future upgrade path to be incorporated into all non-FTTP NBN Co fixed line construction.”
“NBN Co will provide for fibre on demand at individual premises as soon as possible where fibre does not extend to the premise and this is technically feasible and commercially viable.”
Oakeshott’s claim about Abbott’s statement on fibre on demand was immediately rebutted by several anti-Labor Twitter users. “I watched the same presser as you & he never said anything of the sort and you know it!! A desperate fabrication by you!!” one told Oakeshott in the wake of the independent MP’s tweet. “I watched the same thing and wondered if he had held two presser’s at the same time. Never said anything like it,” said another.
Not much to see here, folks. The Coalition has not cancelled its promise to make fibre on demand available. The pledge remains in its policy document and Abbott did not, according to what I can see, say what Rob Oakeshott said he did. Sure, the Coalition has appeared a bit ridiculous in the way it has been lording it over Labor in terms of the asbestos debate, given that both policies will see a significant amount of asbestos infrastructure exposed, but at this point there is just little evidence that the Coalition has cancelled its fibre on demand pledge wholesale, or that Abbott or anybody else said what Oakeshott has claimed.