news Communications Minister and Deputy PM Anthony Albanese has taken a pick axe to the Coalition’s rival NBN policy, describing its reuse of portions of Telstra’s copper network as “bizarre” and “neanderthal”, despite the fact that its so-called ‘fibre to the node’ rollout scheme has been used successfully by British telco BT and other telcos across Europe and the US to upgrade broadband speeds to millions of premises.
Like Labor’s NBN policy, the Coalition’s policy proposes upgrading Telstra’s copper network with more modern fibre cables. However, the Coalition is proposing only to upgrade the copper part-way for most of the rollout; with the new cables reaching to neighbourhood ‘nodes’ on streets and the rest of the distance to premises continuing to be served by the existing copper. The Coalition is planning to cover 22 percent of Australian premises with fibre to the premises similar to Labor’s NBN vision and seven percent with satellite and wireless, again similar to Labor’s vision. However, the remaining 71 percent of premises — most of Australia — will be served by the so-called ‘fibre to the node’ technology.
“You know, the idea that you have fibre to a fridge on a corner, and then use the old copper network of not last century but the century before to connect up to the home, with all of the unreliability that copper brings, is quite bizarre,” said Albanese during a NBN launch event in Melbourne yesterday.
“You know, in 1910 in the Federal Parliament there was a debate about copper versus iron. And during that debate there was a fantastic speech by a member of Parliament saying, we don’t need this new fandangle copper stuff. The iron, wire we’ve been using for 30 years for the telegraph, it’ll do. It’s good enough.”
“It wasn’t good enough. Copper was good enough in 1910. It’s not good enough in 2013. In 2013 it is fibre first and Neanderthal land second. It really is. It really is. There isn’t a debate anywhere in the world which says copper will do. And we need to compete in this century of growth in our region, by using the best technology possible.”
Albanese is correct in his statements, in the sense that globally, experts in the telecommunications industry are virtually united in the view that the use of fibre-optic cables will be crucial to the future of broadband service delivery. Globally, major telcos in every country are gradually upgrading their existing infrastructure using fibre cable.
However, it is also true that the FTTN rollout methodology proposed by Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull in the Coalition’s rival NBN policy has also been used globally with great success to upgrade broadband speeds and fundamental service delivery to millions of premises in countries such as the UK, Germany and the US.
For example, it is useful to compare Australia’s NBN policy, which was initiated by the then-Kevin Rudd Labor Government in April 2009, to the broadband policy pursued by incumbent British telco BT in the UK over the same period.
BT, which operates a similar network to Telstra, first started deploying fibre to the node throughout Britain in January 2009, with a number of trials being conducted around the country that year, and commercial services launching 12 months later in January 2010. At the time, the platform was dubbed ‘BT Infinity’. The deployment of this kind of service can broadly be considered analogous to the 2005 plan outlined by then-Telstra chief executive Sol Trujillo to upgrade Telstra’s copper network to FTTN, in that the rollout is predominantly being conducted by an incumbent telco which already owns its own copper network and all associated infrastructure, and which already has tens of thousands of engineers in the field to help deploy new infrastructure.
That same year, 2010, BT’s infrastructure arm Openreach, announced it would deploy FTTN to some 19 million households across the UK, and in October 2010, UK regulator Ofcom announced that BT would be required to provide open access to its fibre infrastructure, in the same way that telcos such as Optus, iiNet and TPG access Telstra’s network in Australia.
In May 2012, OpenReach announced it had passed the 10 million premises mark, and the end of June 2014, Openreach expects to have completed its rollout, although it has also already announced that it will extend the rollout to new areas, beyond the two thirds of the UK that it had initially planned; and it seems easy to predict that some rollout work will progress indefinitely.
BT’s Infinity plans offer download speeds of up to 76Mbps, much greater than the speeds generally available to most Australians under existing ADSL infrastructure, and the prices are comparable to existing broadband plans in Australia. In that time frame, Labor’s NBN policy has seen only 207,500 premises passed in terms of its fibre network, with about 70,000 premises using live services.
Albanese also went on the attack against the cost of the Coalition’s NBN policy. The Coalition has costed its model at $29.5 billion, while the Government’s plan will require $29.5 billion of government investment.
“There are two costs to the NBN, or the NBN and its alternative. One is $30.4 billion. Gets you 1000 megs per second. The second is $29.5 billion. So, you know, less than a billion dollars less, almost the same price, gets you 25. Now, if you went into the Hungry Birds Café there and they had a deal that said this is about the future, for as long into the future as you can see. If you give me $29, I’ll give you a card and then I’ll give you 25 cups of coffee. But if you give me $30, you can have 1000. What sort of mug would take the $29 option?” asked Albanese. “That’s the alternative option. That’s the alternative option.”
However, the Communications Minister did not mention that under both NBN policies, if they deliver as they are planned, the actual cost of the network will end up being somewhat immaterial. This is because both policies plan to ultimately deliver a return on the Government’s investment in either, meaning that the funding involved of building either can only be counted as an investment, and not as an expense.
The Coalition has claimed that the cost of Labor’s NBN policy could be dramatically higher than Labor has estimated — up to $90 billion. However, this estimate by the Coalition rests on a series of ‘worst case’ scenarios that would all have to occur simultaneously for the $90 billion figure eventuate. Current estimates place the cost of the NBN much closer to the Government’s estimate.
In general Albanese attempted to push the Government’s message that it was only through the current fibre to the home policy that much of the benefit of universal high-speed broadband could be wrought.
“The other thing is it will be connected up to your home for free. You’ve got to pay for future usage, as you did with other forms of new technology, but it’s being delivered as an essential service. Fibre to the home is as essential as water and electricity. It is an essential of life in terms of the quality of life. So we should do it once, and we should do it with fibre,” Albanese said.
And in reference to the delays suffered so far by the NBN project, in terms of its construction: “This project is ramping up, and with any infrastructure project, what happens when you build, and I’ve been Infrastructure Minister for six years, you don’t announce a highway’s going to be built and then have cars in it the next day. What you get – there’s a ramp up effect and it’s not linear. And that is what we are seeing with the NBN. An exciting project.”
I think the current political debate about the NBN is fascinating, in that we’re seeing highly misleading statements made by both sides, as they frantically attempt to show that their model is the only viable model, in an attempt to influence the electorate’s vote ahead of the upcoming Federal Election.
From Albanese we’re seeing this view that the Coalition’s NBN model is simply crazy — that nobody would pursue it. However, of course, what Albanese fails to acknowledge is that the model is not crazy, and that it’s been pursued very successfully in countries such as the UK, where millions of households are right now enjoying high-speed FTTN broadband. And it’s taken BT about the same amount of time to deploy its FTTN network to millions of households as it has taken NBN Co to deploy FTTP to just over 200,000 households. Sure, fibre all the way to the premise is the right long-term vision, but NBN Co is not doing a good job of delivering on that vision — and right now, courtesy of its FTTN model, most of the UK has access to FTTN speeds up to 76Mbps. And yes, courtesy of BT’s separation, there is open access by other ISPs to the network.
Of course, the Coalition is also misleading the public with respect to the current NBN rollout. The truth is that NBN Co’s rollout has been delayed, but as Albanese mentioned, it does take a while at the start to get any fundamental infrastructure project off the ground, and the NBN is gradually ramping up to a higher deployment speed. This time next year, we should see a hugely greater number of premises connected to FTTP broadband.
The Coalition’s FTTN vision — while viable — will hardly take much less time to deploy than Labor’s FTTP vision. It will doubtless take quite some time for Turnbull to turn the FTTP ship around that NBN Co is currently sailing. Contracts will need to be renegotiated (including the massive Telstra one, the cause of much of NBN Co’s delays to start with), equipment bought and new training conducted for construction contractors. Nothing will be as easy as Turnbull is saying.
Meanwhile, in broad terms, the availability of broadband to the actual public hasn’t really changed much over the past half-decade. Most people are still stuck on low speeds on ADSL2+, a few of us are lucky enough to be able to access the at-times-congested higher-speed HFC cable networks, and most of the rest are quota-constrained on the 3G/4G mobile networks being rolled out.
Great. Isn’t politics fantastic?