Senate circus shows politics has no place in NBN



This article is by Matthew Sorell, Senior Lecturer, School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at University of Adelaide. It originally appeared on The Conversation.

analysis As Stephen Conroy interrogated the incoming NBN Co chief Ziggy Switkowski in last week’s Senate hearing into the network’s rollout, it became increasingly clear that politics is getting in the way of good policy.

The Federal Parliament’s Select Committee on the National Broadband Network latest proceedings, which concluded Friday, focused on the state of Telstra’s copper network, the use of alternative technologies and the expansion of the NBN’s footprint.

But it was hard not to be reminded of Monty Python’s Dead Parrot Sketch – particularly when Dr Switkowski and Stephen Conroy sparred over the copper. Is copper dead? Is it resting? Will it voom if you put four million volts through it?

At the same time, journalist David Braue of Fairfax Media had a scoop after obtaining a draft analysis from a source in NBN Co, which was apparently used as part of the content of the “blue book” briefing for the incoming government.

Technical problems experienced in the Senate hearing – specifically the failure of a video link with Senator Scott Ludlum, reflected the frustration all of us experience with the current condition of broadband in Australia. It was a fitting allegory for the state of domestic internet services.

Dr Switkowski was in the hot seat on Friday, making the clear point that he is focused on expanding the footprint of the NBN rollout to get it back on track, and this is how it should be. But it is unfortunate that the politics of the NBN is sucking the oxygen out of the task of getting the job done, and the blame lies in equal measure with both sides of politics.

If you have a long memory, by communications technologies standards, you might recall that the 2007 concept of the NBN was for a Fibre-to-the-Node network proposed by the then opposition ALP under Kevin Rudd. The Fibre-to-the-Node option was abandoned in favour of a Fibre-to-the-Premises model, in part because it was the best long-term technical solution, but mostly as a means of forcing Telstra’s structural separation between wholesale and retail services.

The Fibre-to-the-Node approach would have involved buying back Telstra’s copper network, while Fibre-to-the-Premises turned out to be cheaper by rolling out fibre and compensating Telstra as it decommissioned the copper network. The copper network was widely acknowledged to be in a poor state of repair and unable to keep up with conservative estimates of demand for high-speed internet.

The situation was complicated by the compromises made in reaching an agreement to form government with independents in 2010, resulting in a shift of priority to regional areas such as Armidale ahead of urban areas. The result was that the initial stages of the NBN rollout were much more about feel-good politics than the rational commercial reality of getting the customers most engaged and willing to pay connected to the high-speed fibre network. That approach would have generated revenue and built up demand.

The aggressive rollout schedule was also a political folly. It was unrealistic, with even more delays caused by protracted negotiations with Telstra and the discovery that asbestos in pits had not been remediated by Telstra. It became a political hand grenade because of the emphasis on the number of homes connected at each milestone, rather than the proper emphasis on getting the foundations right first.

Of most concern is that the NBN’s rollout effectively froze investment in alternative technologies by competing networks. Why would you invest in high speed ADSL when you only have three years for a return on that investment? In this context, the Senate Committee heard from Dr Switkowski that the emphasis is now on getting something – anything — rolled out to pass as many homes as possible as quickly as possible.

Suddenly the copper isn’t dead, according to Dr Switkowski. But the Communications, Electrical, Plumbing Union (CEPU) says the condition of the copper is “an absolute disgrace”. Who do we believe? Both sides of this argument have a political agenda, so the truth, as always, probably lies at some unknown point in between.

Dr Switkowski’s contention that ADSL working up to 10 megabits per second is out there, working, and meeting public demand on the existing copper is missing the point. The average downlink internet speed in Australia was recently reported as around 4.5 megabits per second, and there is a very robust argument that says there will be consumer demand for this to exceed ADSL’s 10 megabits per second capability by 2015.

Upload speeds remain cripplingly low, and there is a disconnect in the minds of policy makers between what customers are putting up with now versus what they would be happy with to meet their telecommunications requirements. The current government’s policy to support competing technologies, by competing providers, simply creates competition where there is the most demand.

The Senate Committee heard evidence on Thursday that this, in addition to a shift to lower speed plans and an inability to support services such as multicasting, would dig deep into NBN Co’s wholesale revenue projections. Where to from here? Both policy and action needs to shift toward these following priorities:

  1. Accepting that Fibre to the Premises should be the goal by 2025, and taking action to roll it out with a realistic and achievable fifteen year time frame. This will mean having to shift the political discourse away from getting fibre “sooner” and instead work on a properly managed timetable to achieve the end goal.
  2. Meanwhile, demand moves on, so there needs to be an interim and incremental series of solutions which will deliver an adequate job. Fixating on Fibre-to-the-Node is not the answer. Using Fibre-to-the-Node where it makes commercial sense is a much better approach, alongside other technologies. This means shifting the political discourse away from “faster” and towards “what we need, when we need it, where we need it, at the scale we need”.
  3. Fixating on a total capitalisation figure makes no sense – a successful network with high take-up by customers will, necessarily, need to invest in the network to continue to upgrade profitable services. The rhetoric needs to step away from “cheaper” and focus on “cost-effective”.

A previous article pointed out that “Optical fibre is the only known viable technology beyond 2025. The only justification for considering anything else in the meantime is to buy us time”. It is time to buy us time. Is it too much to ask the politicians to tone down the rhetoric and let NBN Co get on with the job?

Matthew Sorell does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations. This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Conversation


  1. Every time Switkowski and Turnbull open their mouth and talk about how great copper is, I’m imagining the price tag Telstra will put on it going up another percent. If not in direct expenditure then through relaxed regulations through the ACCC or other externalities.

    But it’s OK, it’s not their money at stake here.

    It’s a rare situation where you’re talking up something that the seller himself proclaimed to be five minutes to midnight a decade ago to everybody in the world at large, never mind the seller. Also, there’s an italic tag in the article that needs closing.

    > Optical fibre is the only known viable technology beyond 2025.

    Turnbull himself cited a paper, it’s in the FAQ on the broadband policy on his website, that says HFC and FTTN have no further growth potential beyond 2020 and thus no further line is drawn for the projected per-user electricity consumption beyond that date. But yes, it’s not the truth is what we can take away from his opinion of NBN Co’s own Blue Book.

    • And another thing I’m sure the latest report is not going to look at.

      Right now we’re engaging in an insanity. Multiple times in every household, in Australia, we have 10 Watt. Failure rates of within years. 20 milliseconds latency. Performance in the 10 or 20 MB per second.

      These devices, hard disks, are becoming outmoded. It is becoming less and less sensible to have them and in so many places they are being outshone by SSDs or cheaper flash memory.

      But they are still alive and they won’t die, not while there is no viable alternative. GPON can improve on every single one of these things. VDSL, especially with vectoring, cannot.

      GPON can replace your hard drive by putting it into the cloud. You may think that you’re really just replacing one HDD with another one somewhere else, but it’s much more than that. After deduplication, more efficient allocation, more efficient power usage, greater reliability and all that, you’re so much better off. You think there’s a power savings in GPON using inherently less power or requiring less maintenance than VDSL?

      Well, here’s another one. That could potentially be something on the order of another billion a year saved every year. Something that can be done with GPON, but vectoring kills this due to the inherent ten times increase in latency, among other things.

      But, no, VDSL is ‘cheaper’ and can be done ‘sooner’ and ‘more affordably’.

  2. I can’t help but think another 3 months has gone by and we haven’t actually been officially told any progress of the continuing FTTP roll out. I worry that another 3 months has just been wasted and hope that that the government keeps its promise that roll outs would continue in the same way that they promised to roll out Gonski.

    Which it looks like we aren’t rolling out anymore, really Gonski.

    Oh wait, after 6 days of backlash, we’re back on again with Gonski, sort of but not, and it only cost them an extra $1.2B over 4 years to keep 3 states happy. Thank goodness the adults are in charge!

  3. So, um …

    If we’re not aiming for a consistent, nationwide network approach any more, can someone explain to me why it makes sense for that network to be government owned?

    Why not just provide subsidies for companies to build offerings in non-commercial regions, mandate access by resellers, and otherwise let the market sort it out?

    • “Why not just provide subsidies for companies to build offerings…”

      So we taxpayers pay, but the private companies own… you think is better than government bonds pay, we taxpayers own?

      Are we really that scared of the reds under the bed, that common sense is simply ignored?

  4. > can someone explain to me why it makes sense for that network to be government owned?

    It makes sense for essential infrastructure to be owned by the Government.
    Always has, always will.

    When it comes to essentials we need Public Service, not Private Wealth.
    Return the profits to the community, rather than the wealthy few.

    • Or strictly regulated.

      Banks, supermarkets etc are all essential services, and yet are privately owned.

      The reason utilities such as comms (sewerage/water/garbage collection) are typically gov. owned is because they generally exist as natural monopolies, ie. it makes no sense to duplicate the infrastructure, and monopolies tend to be slothful/stagnant/abusive unless held to account.

      • Indeed natural monopolies…

        Pity you wren’t here to argue with the usual suspect 24/7 FttP detractors early on when all they wanted to keep saying was the FttP NBN was a socialist monopoly not a natural monopoly…

  5. ” it became increasingly clear that politics is getting in the way of good policy”

    It was far more clear in 2010 when Turnbull and Abbott began the most obstructionist campaign I’ve ever seen. This seems quite tame by comparison (though that probably makes for a weak headline)…

    • Indeed Chas…

      Seems now asking questions such as the state of the copper is political and frowned upon?

      But previously it was quite ok to bluntly claim white elephant, taxpayer impost, technology overkill/we don’t need it, socialist monopoly, governemnt/NBNCo mismanagement and even infer that the CEO of the project was a crook…

      Again all we want is a level playing field and the same rules applying to each roll out…!

      But of course that would simply demonstrate how silly FttN actually is, especially considering the almost identical governmental cost to FttP and the fact FttP is already planned and underway, so…

  6. Maybe if the politicising of the NBN was stopped several years ago when it was one, if not the key policy that got Labour winning against the Coalition.

    I don’t see why we should stop now, given Lib’s screwed up the Labour NBN give them hell IMO.

    Not like I’m gonna see any improvements in several sears… just stuck with expensive Telstra Cable for a while (ADSL has sever congestion issues on any ISP, and Max 14/0.8 Mbps anyhow)

  7. I hope that, when history eventually judges John Howard, it considers his foolish sale of Telstra’s infrastructure along with its retail facility. The subsequent cost of that short-sighted mistake has been enormous.
    His abject submission to Dubya’s lies and the invasion of Iraq is probably his main other mistake, although he was a very good prime minister in most other respects.

    • John Howard was a great Prime Minister apart from selling off infrastructure, damaging our education system, introducing the highly racist “Intervention”, his religious intolerance, homophobia, and taking us to war with Iraq over imaginary weapons.

      But these are all things which Liberal voters think made John Howard a great Prime Minister. Common sense, as they say, is not so common.

      • Yes, Grail, I agree and there’s even more we could add to the list, but I think we’ve covered the main points.
        I think various other prime ministers have also made mistakes and some of them have even been worse. For example, I fear that legislated multiculturalism and ignorance of the difference between racial discrimination and racial prejudice may turn out to be even more disastrous in the long run.
        By the way, I’m a fairly evenly-balanced swinging voter. I could never abandon reason to the point of being dogmatically Labour-Green, or Liberal-National and I hope we’re both more or less on the same wavelength.

    • I think John Howard was an adept politician, like no other Australian politician since him has been.

      I respect that.

      But not much else.

  8. The Senate committee is just the Government reaping what they sowed in the previous Parliament. The LNP sprouted garbage then, are not practicing the transparency and honesty that Turnbull promised.

    Then Turnbull has always talked one thing but done something else because he does not think that what he says does not apply to himself.

  9. I agree with Quigley….NBNCo’s job now (unless there’s a flip-flop from TA/MT & Co) is to roll out FttN…

    I’m disappointed in my fellow FttP supporters (who know I am as fervent a supporter of FttP as any) who in the past derided the FttP detractors/usual suspects (we know who) for talking absolute shit, when they suggested FttP shouldn’t be rolled out, because of this or that… and now some FttP supporters are doing the exact same thing, they did?

    Like it or not the Coalition won and as government they will decide… yes we can complain, yes we can submit petitions, but…

    And yes particularly, already without even clearing the first hurdle, looking at all of the negative press… they have decided wrong and FttN will be the complete clusterfuck we all said and it is already proving the FttP roll out to have been very successful in comparison… look how far FttP got, FttN can even get a fucking review tabled…

    BTW… where are all the usual suspects who complained and childishly nitpicked about FttP 24/7…. why aren’t they here continuing their civic duties and now complaining about FttN as they did FttP *rolls eyes*

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