opinion It is no longer appropriate in 2014 for Australians to refer to the Coalition’s radically watered down version of Labor’s pet telecommunications initiative as the “National” Broadband Network project, given the fact that it will leave the long-term future of up to a third of Australians’ broadband services in doubt.
Many readers will be aware that for a long time, I have been uncomfortable with the definitions used by the Coalition in the long-running debate about the future of the National Broadband Network project kicked off by the then-Rudd Labor administration back in November 2007.
If you closely examine the various Labor NBN policies which the Rudd and Gillard administrations have spent the past half-decade attempting (and largely failing) to enact, it has always been apparent that they were, at least, correctly labelled. The two primary versions — the $4.3 billion Fibre to the Node initiative which Labor took to the 2007 Federal Election and the enhanced, $43 billion Fibre to the Premises version which Rudd unveiled in April 2009 — both featured a standardised national flavour.
In the words of then-Shadow Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, unveiling the 2007 policy in March that year, proposals to build the first $4.7 billion FTTN NBN would have to “ensure that their proposal delivers access to broadband speeds of a minimum of 12Mbps to 98 percent of Australian homes and businesses”. The 2009 model, of course, would have seen FTTP deployed to some 93 percent of Australian premises, with the remaining seven percent to receive decent upgrades via a combination of wireless and satellite options.
The key concept underlying both of these projects was the fact that both would have seen substantial upgrades and/or replacements made to the basic infrastructure which has over the past century served most of Australia’s telecommunications needs — the copper network operated by Telstra.
It’s true that competing infrastructure does exist. The HFC cable networks owned by Telstra and Optus. The 3G and 4G networks operated by Telstra, Optus and Vodafone. The various satellites. The limited patches of FTTP and FTTN around the country owned by companies like Telstra, TransACT and Opticomm. And so on. All of these networks were built for a reason, and do do much to serve Australia’s telecommunications needs.
However, what Labor’s NBN policies reflected was the fact that all the available data continues to show that it always has been and still is the copper network — not these alternatives — which fulfills the vast majority of Australia’s telecommunications needs.
If you look at the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ figures over the past eight years, for example, what you’ll find is that HFC cable numbers have remained largely static over that period — hovering around 10 percent of the nation. As the broadband revolution has taken place, Australians have increasingly opted to connect to ADSL broadband over the copper network to replace dial-up connections over that same network. Mobile broadband use has grown astronomically — but predominantly as a complement to ADSL broadband, with only a small proportion of Australians seeing it as a complete replacement solution.
The reason for this trend is clear: Availability and price. Many Australians, even if they live within the HFC cable footprint, have been and still are unable to have the hybrid infrastructure connected, especially if they live in apartment buildings. Telstra and Optus just refuse to do it. The cost of HFC cable services have also been significantly higher than similar ADSL offerings. In comparison, ADSL is available virtually everywhere and is offered at affordable prices by many different players. It’s no surprise that it has emerged as Australia’s broadband winner.
This trend is also very much an expected one in global terms. Almost universally, globally, HFC cable networks have been deployed in certain, typically high-density geographical areas (think the baby Bells in the US or Virgin Media in the UK, for example) to compete with existing copper networks, rather than nationally. Because they do not represent legacy infrastructure, these networks have not been opened to wholesale access and their operators enjoy monopolistic control over them. Such providers have proven prone to taking profits from metropolitan regions and have avoided unprofitable rural areas.
As a consequence, globally and in Australia, the term ‘national broadband network’ has generally come to refer, not to upgrades of this limited strain of HFC networks, but to mass nation-wide upgrades of incumbent-owned copper infrastructure. We see precisely this situation to Australia’s north-west in Singapore; to our south-east in New Zealand; as well as in fellow Western first-world countries such as the UK, France, Germany and so on. The trend is clear: HFC cable networks will continue to exist and even grow; but it is the massed upgrades of incumbent copper networks where all the investment is going.
For all these reasons and others, including the ongoing fascination of Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull with the HFC networks and the technical inferiority of Fibre to the Node options compared with FTTP, the Coalition’s ongoing statements over the past several years that it would “complete” the “National Broadband Network” project begun under Labor have rung increasingly false to many Australians.
On 12 December, as the Government released the Strategic Review which the National Broadband Network Company conducted into its operations and future, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull had this to say: “The Government remains committed to completing the NBN as quickly and cost-effectively as possible and managing this taxpayer-funded project with complete transparency.” It’s a refrain we’ve heard many times.
However, if Tony Abbott’s Coalition administration proceeds, as it is expected to, with NBN Co’s recommended model for its future operations, it is very clear that the Government will not “complete” an NBN rollout as would be defined by either the common sense displayed by the average Australian or a more precise technical definition which many of us would prefer.
Despite fervent protestations from senior industry figures such as Simon Hackett, the model which NBN Co has recommended offers little in the way of a long-term solution to Australia’s broadband needs, with around 30 percent of the 93 percent of Australian fixed-line premises to be covered by an upgrade to existing technology in the form of the HFC cable networks.
Many Australians already using the HFC cable will see little benefit at all initially (already having access to 100Mbps speeds); and all in that footprint will ultimately miss out on the long-term gigabit download speeds which, consensus technology industry opinion strongly suggests, will be needed in the long-term. You know — the “long-term” which may only be a decade or two away. Faster upload speeds will also be lost along the way. Given that many argue that upload speed improvements will actually be more important than download speed improvements in the future, this is not a trivial issue.
The remaining 70 percent of the 93 percent of Australian fixed-line premises will be comforted to know that their copper cables will be upgraded along more standard international lines, even if the 44 percent who will only receive fibre to the node will feel significantly miffed that they missed out on the full FTTP upgrade they have been promised by Labor since April 2009; and will be fervently pushing, if not paying themselves, for that FTTN to be upgraded to FTTP as quickly as possible.
But the bigger picture here is still clear: A huge proportion of Australians will be offered a vastly different technology for their future broadband needs under the Coalition than under Labor; and a technology which does not offer them the long-term certainty of a copper network replacement. Furthermore, the Coalition will create a patchwork of heterogenuous broadband networks nationally; with service levels to differ suburb by suburb or even between different sides of the same street.
Even if you assume that the remaining 70 percent of Australian premises will eventually be upgraded to FTTP down the track, this still leaves up to a third of Australian premises in the lurch come 2030.
This is a fact acknowledged by none other than new NBN Co executive chairman Ziggy Switkowski himself. “The NBN would not need to upgraded sooner than five years of construction of the first access technology,” Switkowski said at the NBN Strategic Review press conference in December. Great. Now that’s long-term thinking.
All of this also leaves out the sheer fact that it may not be possible to upgrade the HFC cable networks operated by Telstra and Optus along the lines that NBN Co and the Coalition are proposing. Very few HFC networks globally have been opened to to wholesale access; then too, NBN Co does not actually own those networks; Telstra and Optus do. Their technical state; their degree of entwinement with other networks and the issue of connected billing systems; ongoing, very real concerns around congestion; all of these are non-trivial issues that NBN Co will need to surmount in its HFC cable scenario. NBN Co is proposing an unproven, highly non-standard model here with its HFC proposal. And that’s enough to make any technologist very nervous. Major technology projects based on unproven models almost universally fail.
This situation leaves Australians, and especially technically minded Australians, with a very difficult choice. Clearly, the Coalition’s version of the NBN is vastly different to Labor’s, especially for those within the HFC cable footprint, who will be left with very little long-term certainty about the quality of their broadband infrastructure. I, and I believe most other informed technical commentators, continue to believe that virtually all of the nation’s copper cable will inevitably be upgraded to fibre at some point, as it is being in every other country. The Coalition’s preferred NBN model has the potential to set that upgrade back by something like a decade while the Coalition chases a red herring down a rabbit hole.
And even for many of those outside the HFC footprint, the future is unclear. FTTN looked like a very good option for a National Broadband Network back in 2007. Seven years later, the technology has improved, but so have bandwidth demands. Massively. 100Mbps isn’t what it used to be. And even early adopter FTTN countries such as the UK are already conducting FTTP upgrades in some areas, as well as FTTP on demand. The long-term future of FTTN is clear: It’s FTTP.
However, it’s also true that the term “National Broadband Network” has a great deal of traction in the general population.
Let’s face it: If you work in Australia’s IT or telco industries, you have already been fielding questions for at least several years from your less-technical family and friends about how the NBN has been going. Increasingly, as the situation has become more politically complex, it’s become hard to answer those questions.
I’ve explained the NBN situation recently to several friends of mine with deep business experience. Every time they end up flabberghasted at the sheer insanity of it all. The NBN is simultaneously Australia’s largest ever infrastructure project, its largest ever industry restructuring endeavour, and Australia’s largest ever attempt to deliver better fundamental service delivery to ordinary residents and businesses. Plus it’s a giant political football.
But from the outside, all most people see is that they’re eventually going to get amazing Internet at some stage as it’s being rolled out. Trying to explain that their new Internet is probably not going to be that amazing under the Coalition is tough enough as it is, without introducing using an entirely different term altogether.
None of this, however, is an excuse for not trying.
Delimiter’s audience, especially, is a technical one. It is highly aware of the differences between HFC, FTTN, FTTP and even FTTB. Everyone here ‘gets’ the fact that what the Coalition is promising under the NBN is vastly different from what Labor was promising (and, even different from what the Coalition was promising just a few months ago).
As I wrote in December: “We cannot call this a “National Broadband Network” any more. That term is fundamentally redundant, when around 28 percent of Australian premises will not receive the infrastructure, and most of the rest will receive a watered down version highly dependent on Telstra’s copper network, which, as NBN Co’s internal reports show, has a plethora of issues. To do so would be farcical, as this morning’s entire press conference was farcical.”
So today, on the first day of reporting in 2014 for Delimiter, and before the publication of any article referring to the NBN, I have decided to stay true to this comment. I hereby inform readers that Delimiter articles will no longer be refer to what the Coalition is implementing as the “National” Broadband Network. Instead, Delimiter will now refer to the Coalition’s version of the project as “the Coalition’s Broadband Network” (abbreviated where necessary to “CBN”).
To meet our definition of a “National” Broadband Network, any political party in Australia will need to support a policy which offers a solution for the long-term upgrade of the vast majority of Telstra’s copper network to a Fibre to the Premises solution. FTTN would be an acceptable middle step along the way, but it is still important for any policy to also recognise that all FTTN networks will need to be eventually upgraded to FTTP. Our definition recognises that it is not financially feasible to deploy FTTP to all locations in Australia in the medium-term, and regards it as acceptable that alternate technologies be used in the medium-term to serve the 5-7 percent of premises in very remote locations.
Furthermore, a “National” Broadband Network must offer the characteristics of open wholesale access and uniform national pricing, to support necessary industry development and restructuring. It must especially include, as its ultimate goal, the structural separation of the incumbent, Telstra.
As Minister Turnbull has not formally confirmed the Government will adopt NBN Co’s preferred “Multi-Technology Mix” NBN model, the potential still exists that the Coalition’s ‘CBN’ policy will shift to a full ‘NBN’ policy, either at the Minister’s next major policy announcement or at some stage over the next several years. However, your writer regards this as a very unlikely scenario — despite the fact that it’s what the vast majority of the Australian population wants. David Braue’s right — it’s time for Turnbull to swallow his pride and adopt FTTP as the right solution. Even NBN Co’s own Strategic Review makes this case clear (Delimiter 2.0 link). But it’s very unlikely that the Member for Wentworth will budge.
I also encourage all Delimiter readers, and indeed technical commentators more generally, to stop using the “NBN” term to refer to the Coalition’s evolving policy. Words have power; and definitions have power too. Through its appropriation of Labor’s “NBN” term onto a very different policy, the Coalition has been able to claim the high ground with respect to the NBN, despite the fact that its own version of the project is clearly a mishmash of inferior technologies pair with an inferior business model, compared with Labor’s own version. Labor failed to deliver its NBN policy, to be sure. But that reflects a problem with implementation — not the policy itself. More here and here on that issue particularly (Delimiter 2.0 links).
As a side note, it should be noted that a number of Australians, including Labor itself, have already tried to rebrand the Coalition’s Broadband Network, dubbing it “Fraudband”. The problem with this label, as many will acknowledge, is that it is just as much a misuse of common English as Turnbull describing his policy as the “National” Broadband Network. Both approaches try and spin the truth, just in different directions. The term “the Coalition’s Broadband Network” does not do this, being substantially more neutral, and consequently, factual. It acknowledges the Coalition is building a broadband network. But it’s just not a national one. And it’s not a “NBN” in the global sense.
In order to demonstrate the importance of the use of language with respect to the NBN, I leave you with a passage from George Orwell’s brief 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language. I highly recommend you read the full piece online. That master of political spin, Malcolm Turnbull, probably wouldn’t want you to, which is reason enough for you to give it a go. It’s an eye opener. Orwell wrote:
“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties.
Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.
… one ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.
Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.
One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase — some jackboot, Achilles’ heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse — into the dustbin, where it belongs.”
It should be obvious that Orwell’s comments on the abuse of language for political purposes apply very well to the current NBN situation. In December NBN Co’s Switkowski said the company’s preferred Multi-Technology Mix approach would deliver fast broadband to homes “more quickly and at less cost … by investing taxpayers’ money appropriately on the right technologies at the right time, by translating a long term milestone into a rolling series of realistic and actionable near term plans, and by being alert to upgrades in technology and shifts in consumer needs.”
What a bunch of old-fashioned Orwellian bullshit. What neither Switkowski nor Turnbull said was that this would be accomplished by cancelling a third of the existing NBN rollout, forcibly acquiring and upgrading high-risk HFC cable networks which don’t offer Australia a long-term broadband solution, and leaving much of the rest of Australia with a FTTN rollout that even Switkowski admits would need upgrading five years after it was completed. Orwell was right; it’s time to stop accepting the way our politicians talk in public. It is only when we stop using their words ourselves that we will see the reality of our tragic situation.