opinion/analysis by Renai LeMay
7 November 2013
Politicians in Tasmania and in Canberra have been promising residents of the Apple Isle fibre broadband for at least 12 years. The abject failure to deliver almost any improvement to the state’s basic telecommunications infrastructure in that time starkly demonstrates the rank incompetence of Australia’s political class in setting and deliverying broadband policy.
It was September 2001, to this writer’s knowledge, when Tasmanians were first promised that they would have Fibre to the Premises broadband rolled to their front door.
In an address to the Tasmanian Parliament chronicled in industry newsletter Exchange at the time, Tasmanian Labor Premier Jim Bacon outlined an ambitious plan. The idea, as Bacon told his fellow MPs, was simple and logical. Tasmania was engaged in deploying a new gas pipeline to the mainland, as well as a trunk distribution and local networks to deliver natural gas to individual homes and businesses. Why not take the chance to lay fibre cable alongside the gas pipelines, taking advantage of the existing construction work?
“The Government is ensuring that this unique opportunity is not lost to Tasmania and has been involved in detailed work to enable the installation of optic fibre in the gas trenches,” pontificated Bacon. “We will work closely with the successful gas distributor to encourage the full development of this network in Tasmania … Optic fibre cabling to the kerb in Tasmania will revolutionise existing telecommunications applications and support all foreseeable telecommunications services in the State for decades. With this development, Tasmania would be at the forefront of world telecommunications developments and opportunities.”
Things did move forward with the ambitious FTTP project for at least several years. A New Zealand company, Powerco, was hired to supply the gas, and construction firm Downer EDI hired to do the actual construction work, through its subsidiary Tas 21.
In an industry development plan published in September 2001 (Word doc), Tas 21 confirmed the then Fibre to the Premises network, and noted that it might also become a retail ISP. The company noted it was actively developing “a suite of retail products” to be sold over what was expected to be a rapidly growing FTTP footprint. The plan states:
“It is anticipated that a telecommunications retail network will extend from the Backbone and will be constructed over a period extending beyond the horizon of this Plan. It is proposed that this broadband retail access network shall pass 109,000 households and the majority of businesses in the region. The broadband retail access network to which the Backbone will connect will be constructed over a further period (after the period of this Plan) of four years to the end of 2006.”
The specifics are a little unclear, but it is believed that substantial parts of the backbone fibre network around Tasmania did end up getting built by Tas 21, even if the submarine fibre cable to the mainland didn’t. But the Fibre to the Premises rollout promised by Bacon was certainly never deployed. It’s not clear why, at this point, but given the fraught history of fibre rollouts in Australia’s history, it’s not hard to guess that the rollout proved harder to manage than the politicians who promised it had expected. None proved willing to stay the course and get the job done.
It certainly wasn’t the last time that Tasmania would be promised an extensive FTTP network.
The idea was rejuvenated once again in September 2005. With a new Labor Premier in Tasmania, Paul Lennon, came a new approach to a range of issues, and broadband was once again on the agenda and an especial focus for Lara Giddings, the new Minister for Economic Development, who saw new broadband infrastructure as a critical enabler for the state’s ailing economy.
The idea this time around was dissimilar technically to the model proposed by Bacon four years previously, but the political rhetoric was almost identical.
According to a media release issued by Giddings at the time (PDF), the State Government planned to deploy a Fibre to the Premises network via rolling out optic fibre cables on top of power lines in three key metropolitan areas — New Town, South Hobart and Devonport. Some 850 houses in New Town would receive the fibre, as well as 200 each for South Hobart and Devonport.
In coalition with local specialist fibre company CEOS and the Tasmanian Electronic Commerce Centre, and with the cooperation of a number of major global vendors keen to get their fingers into what they believed would be a rapidly growing fibre rollout scene in Australia, the TasCOLT project (for the Tasmanian Collaborative Optical Leading Testbed) was born.
Again a local company was hired to conduct the rollout — state-owned electricity utility Aurora Energy, and again a local retail ISP with a name starting with “Tas” was set up — TasTel. And again the politicians talked up the project with a view to energising the Tasmanian population about it.
“The trial has the potential to provide a range of next generation communication services, such as ultra high speed internet access, multiple simultaneous voice lines, high definition television, interactive television, home security, and power and gas metering,” said Giddings, positively overflowing with positive energy about the deployment. “TasCOLT will enable us to get important information about the installation, deployment and operation of ultra-broadband services to households, businesses and institutions in Tasmania.”
Now, unlike Bacon’s previous failed plans, the tasCOLT project did actually deliver. The $12 million effort successfully connected residents in South Hobart and New Town to the FTTP network in those areas in late 2006 and early 2007, and to the best of this writer’s knowledge, those residents are still receiving FTTP services more than half a decade later.
Of course, there were construction issues during the effort. An extensive report on the project produced by TECC and published in 2008 details the fact that it was initially believed that the design and deployment of the trial could be completed within six months. However, the timeframe blew out to almost two years, with delays in receiving council approval, problems integrating the fibre cables with Aurora Energy’s existing electrical distribution infrastructure, the lack and cost of skilled installation contractors and issues with landlord approvals all delaying the rollout.
However, ultimately the tasCOLT effort proved the FTTP model, deployed on overhead cables, could work in Tasmania — and work well.
“The single greatest benefit for the state in participating in the tasCOLT project has been the ability to identify and refine the most efficient model for the deployment of a next generation FTTP network in the Tasmanian context,” the TECC report found. “Based on real learnings throughout the project it is recommended that any proponent should design and build a FTTP network based on a modified approach to that carried out through the TasCOLT project.”
“The ground work carried out by the Tasmanian government through its participation in the tasCOLT project has placed it in a unique position amongst all other jurisdictions to lead the deployment of FTTP communications infrastructure in Australia. The Australian Government through its National Broadband Network initiative could realise large scale deployment of FTTP in a Brownfield situation today through partnering with the Tasmanian government to undertake an expansion of the tasCOLT experience.”
“The state possess the experience, commercial understanding and development potential to implement a large scale deployment of FTTP to all of its major population centres, covering some 120 000 premises. Such a deployment would provide Australia a real context in which to understand the commercialisation and utilisation of FTTP technology with a view to optimising its roll out across the rest of the country.”
Tasmania’s vision through 2005 and 2008 seemed very clear. The state would trial the rollout of fast broadband through the tasCOLT initiative. If that went well — as it absolutely did — then those lessons could potentially be parlayed into a much wider rollout across the state, especially in metropolitan areas.
Such a vision was definitely achievable. Tasmania had the clear authority and ability to conduct such a FTTP rollout. The State Government didn’t need to deal with Telstra for access to its network infrastructure, because it could deploy the fibre cables over the powerlines owned by Aurora Energy, the state-owned electricity utility. It already had the commercial partners on board to conduct the rollout and provide the network equipment. And it had the expertise and experience from its trial that would allow it to avoid the obvious mistakes. All it needed was funding.
Then, too, Tasmania’s not that big. The state only has a little over half a million residents, mainly clustered in a handful of cities such as Hobart and Launceston. A FTTP rollout would be relatively easy to achieve in the state.
However, just like the previous state-wide FTTP plans outlined by previous Premier Bacon, the wider rollout never happened. The NBN got in its way.
For Tasmania, the deployment of the NBN should have been a no brainer. It seems obvious that the state was primed for a FTTP rollout. New Premier David Bartlett, himself a former IT consultant and very much in favour of the technological development of his state, took a proposal to Canberra after the new Rudd Labor administration took office in November 2007, and it seemed clear to all concerned that the logical course of action would be for the Federal Government to hand Tasmania a few hundred million dollars (remember, the tasCOLT initiative cost just $10 million, and the TECC’s report detailed how it planned to reduce costs in future FTTP rollouts through applying lessons learnt) to roll out FTTP in key metropolitan areas.
To a certain extent, the Rudd Labor administration did pursue this path. Although Labor’s initial $4.7 vision for its National Broadband Network project collapsed, and Tasmania’s response to the project went south with it, the announcement of the much larger $43 billion NBN project in April 2009 contained a very special provision for Tasmania very much along the lines envisioned by the TECC’s tasCOLT report.
In an announcement at the time, Rudd stated that the Federal Government would fund the Tasmanian Government, with Auroro, to construct a FTTP network in the state, extending to over 200,000 Tasmanian households and businesses. And again, the political rhetoric about broadband in the state raised its slick head.
“This nation building network will be the most significant infrastructure project in Tasmania’s history,” enthused Rudd at the time. “It is another example of the Rudd Government investing in nation building infrastructure in order to support local jobs in communities across Tasmania.”
“The Australian Government’s commitment to Tasmania is an early demonstration of its plan to support the deployment of new high speed broadband infrastructure nationally. The rollout of superfast broadband in Tasmania will revolutionise its economy and dramatically improve the lives of all Tasmanians.”
A new company was set up to handle the rollout, NBN Tasmania, a new board was appointed to handle the rollout, and Aurora got to work very quickly on construction, deploying fibre to three communities — Smithton, Scottsdale and Midway Point.
Again, there was some early success with the rollout; those three towns did indeed receive FTTP broadband services, and backbone links were constructed between various areas, making data transmission around Tasmania cheaper and easier for retail ISPs.
However, with Aurora stepping back from the rollout, the Federal National Broadband Network Company bogged down in negotiations with Telstra and local contractors such as Visionstream proving themselves unable to live up to their contracts to deploy the NBN in Tasmania and asbestos issues in Telstra’s ducts stopping construction for months, once again the planned FTTP rollout in the state has failed.
In October this year, the state of the Tasmanian NBN rollout entered farce territory. By 7 October, just 32,001 premises had received FTTP services. But that number had actually gone backward from 26 August due to accounting problems. It was official: The rollout of FTTP broadband infrastructure in Tasmania was actively going backwards, not forwards. The ultimate ignominy had landed. And of course the politicians passed the buck immediately: New Liberal Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull published a statement implying that much of the problems with the NBN rollout in the state could be pegged to NBN contractor Visionstream, stating that the company has done little work in the state since July and is asking for its rates to be substantially enlarged to complete the work.
The remarkable thing about these three separate FTTP initiatives in Tasmania is how similar they all are. Each rollout promised to take advantage of existing infrastructure to deploy new FTTP cabling to residences and business premises. In 2001 it was fibre alongside gas pipelines. In 2005 it was fibre alongside powerlines. And in 2009 it was fibre alongside Telstra’s copper cables.
In each case, the Tasmanian Government has had local construction and even retail ISP partners lined up to take advantage of the effort. All it really needed was a decent level of funding from the Federal Government, which, after all, collects most of Tasmania’s taxation revenue, for the projects to go ahead. And the funding required wouldn’t be huge — a great deal of progress could have been made, given Tasmania’s small size, with just a few hundred million in each case. That would have been enough to wire key built-up areas of many metropolitan centres.
However, in each case, it has been the politicians concerned who haven’t been able to get the job done. Not the engineers. Not the product managers selling retail broadband plans. Not the network gear suppliers. The politicians.
If Jim Bacon had had the gumption to push on with the fibre-beside-gas-pipelines project back in 2001 and, in the event of problems, get Federal Government involvement, Tasmania would have had a good deal of FTTP infrastructure. If Paul Lennon and Giddings had been able to get funding to continue the TasCOLT initiative, Tasmania would have had a good deal of FTTP infrastructure. If Bartlett and Giddings had been able to persuade Conroy and Rudd to follow their FTTP plan and not go off on tangents with Telstra, Tasmania would have had a good deal of FTTP infrastructure.
And critically, if the Federal Government had not completely botched the rollout of the NBN in Tasmania, the state would have had a good deal of FTTP infrastructure.
Now, of course I’m simplifying things here somewhat. The situation in each of these examples is a lot more complex — with respect to the finances, construction effort, political environment and so on — than I’m making out. Because that’s what commentators do. We bring together different examples into a theme and try and make an overall point.
But if you look at the big picture with respect to Tasmania and FTTP rollouts, it’s clear what we’re seeing. And that is the fact that FTTP rollouts have been tried in Tasmania no less than three times over the past decade. Each rollout has gotten nowhere, because in each case the Tasmanian and Federal politicians have been unable to deliver on their promises of action in this area.
This is a tragedy. As I’ve previously chronicled, out of every state in Australia, Tasmania has the worst broadband infrastructure and needs FTTP desperately to leap away from a decade of neglect when it comes to telecommunications development.
This week Giddings, now Tasmanian Premier, took the exact same tasCOLT deployment model — fibre cables on Aurora’s power lines — back to the Federal Government for consideration again. It’s 2013. That model was first proposed more than half a decade ago. Let’s hope Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Prime Minister Tony Abbott can get their act together and reverse 12 years of broken promises when it comes to the deployment of FTTP broadband in the state. Because if there is one thing Tasmanians are desperately tired of, it’s politicians telling them they’re going to get better broadband. God knows they’ve heard that line many times over the past 12 years.