news Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has described as “nonsense” claims by unions that Telstra’s existing copper network is on the verge of collapse, which would make it unsuitable for use in the Coalition’s fibre to the node National Broadband Network strategy.
Last week Telstra chief executive David Thodey was asked about the state of the telco’s copper network, given that Telstra has several times over the past decade warned the Government that the network would not last forever, including on one memorable occasion in 2003 when the telco said the network was “at five minutes to midnight”.
Thodey’s comments that the network was in good shape and could last another 100 years (referring to its century-old history) spurred an angry response from unions on the issue. For example, the Communications Electrical and Plumbing Union, which counts many Telstra staff amongst its members, alleged that the telco’s telecommunications pits had been nicknamed ‘bad-dad’ or ‘Baghdad’ because of the extensive use of plastic bags to keep water out of the infrastructure.
The issue is particularly pressing for the Coalition, as the Coalition’s NBN policy will see a large portion of the copper network reused as it rolls out fibre only to neighbourhood ‘nodes’, rather than all the way to premises as under Labor’s existing NBN plan.
Turnbull conducted an interview on June 19 with ABC journalist Jake Sturmer with regard to this and other issues associated with the National Broadband Network rollout. However, Sturmer failed to use material from the interview in a segment broadcast on Monday’s ABC News at 7pm. Because of this, Turnbull has published the full text of the interview on his site.
In the interview, Turnbull said: “It is obviously a big network and it’s delivering the bulk of our telecommunications services, at least in the last mile at the moment but there are areas where it is in poor repair, areas where under any regime where it’s going to be used there would need to be remediation. But the proposition that copper is obsolete or is rotting or is on the point of dissolving is nonsense.”
“Under our approach of fibre-to-the-node most of the copper is replaced in any event, it’s only the copper from the street cabinet to the premise that is left in place and that by and large is the part of the copper network that has the least maintenance problems because it is least touched. You’ll find that with telecom networks, whether they’re copper or fibre, the greatest number of faults occur where the most hands are put on them.”
Turnbull said he had heard about the term ‘Baghdad’ in reference to Telstra’s network, but encouraged Sturmer to take “a reality check” on the issue.
“That copper network, which you are trying to paint the picture of just being on the verge of collapse is actually carrying almost of all Australia’s fixed line telecommunications over that last mile. So you just have to have a bit of a reality check here,” he said.
Yesterday Turnbull also published a statement on his site regarding maintenance costs on the FTTN network constructed in the United States by massive telco AT&T. It is generally considered that FTTN maintenance costs are expected to be higher than FTTH costs, due to the inclusion of the legacy copper technology in FTTN rollouts, as well as the necessity of using powered ‘nodes’ to connect the copper and fibre infrastructure in FTTN networks, compared to the lack of powered nodes in comparable FTTH networks.
In the transcript of the May conference, AT&T president of network operations Bill Smith was asked about cost savings with respect to FTTN networks compared with FTTH networks. “I don’t agree with the hypothesis that most of the problems are from the node to the home,” said Smith, referring to the portion of FTTN networks which consists of copper. “That’s a very short distance in the model that we’re using – you know, generally speaking it’s less than 3,000 feet.”
“And so in today’s world — look let’s say we’ve got a home that’s 20,000 feet from the central office. Maintaining 20,000 feet of copper – yeah, there’s maintenance costs there. In the fibre to the node architecture, I’m only maintaining 3,000 feet. Everything else is fibre. And the reality is that in some regards, there is a lot of activity that goes on in the neighbourhood. You know, I drive into my neighbourhood and I see somebody planting a bush or something – you know, I kind of react to that. Because any time I see a shovel going into the ground that’s a potential problem for me. But fixing a copper cut cable is a simpler deal than trying to repair fibre. So you know, I think we will see frankly – we’ve got a pretty broad base of footprint for our u-Verse build, our project light-speed that we built our u-Verse on. And the fault rates are low so we get a lot of cost savings on that.”
Look, it’s pretty hard to disagree with what Turnbull’s saying here. He’s right — the majority of Australia’s broadband needs are currently successfully served by Telstra’s copper network infrastructure, and that isn’t going to change any time soon. The network is not at five minutes to midnight; in fact, its fault rate is generally pretty good, owing to the constant investment which Telstra is ploughing into it. Also, remember that unions typically support Labor and love criticising Telstra, so it’s no surprise to see them criticising the copper network to be used in the Coalition’s FTTN plan here. These are political comments as well as technical comments.
And while it’s easy to criticise his use of AT&T’s self-serving comments regarding FTTN maintenance costs, it’s also true that this is a major telco, comparable to the size of Telstra, saying this publicly in response to financial analyst questions. Turnbull is fully entitled to refer to AT&T’s comments on this issue as an international example to help make his case locally for FTTN. Let those who don’t agree with Turnbull’s use of AT&T statements in this regard stack up evidence for the other side.
Of course, we also need to ask: Is Turnbull telling the whole story here? The obvious answer is ‘no’. There is also a lot of truth to the union claims that Telstra’s network has many, many problems, many of them literally fixed with plastic bags over copper cables. We’ve all seen the shocking photos and everyone has stories about abysmal MDUs etc. Telstra’s copper network does have issues — things aren’t as pristine as the telco would like us to believe. If you dig under the surface of Telstra’s copper network, a thousand little problems crawl out like cockroaches, as we’ve seen with the recent asbestos scandal.
As for the ABC reporter who Turnbull claimed neglected to include his comments in the ABC News piece, I have to say that I also agree with the Liberal MP on this one. You can’t simply claim that the Opposition “was not available for comment” on an issue on which you’ve interviewed their representative only days before. That’s misrepresenting the situation. At worst, Sturmer could have drawn from the many other publicly available interviews in which Turnbull has made his opinion clear on the copper, or from the Member for Wentworth’s parliamentary speeches. That’s what I usually do when I can’t get a direct comment on an issue. You say something like “The Coalition has previously said that its stance is this …”.
Image credit: Office of Malcolm Turnbull