Switkowski in 2009: Fibre to make copper “obsolescent”



news NBN Co executive chairman Ziggy Switkowski appears to have radically changed his views on the different merits of fibre and copper broadband technologies over the past few years, it has emerged, with a video interview having surfaced over the past few days showing the executive praising Labor’s all-fibre NBN strategy and adding that it would make copper infrastructure “obsolescent”.

Under Labor’s NBN policy, some 93 percent of Australian premises were to have received fibre directly to the premise, delivering maximum download speeds of up to 1Gbps and maximum upload speeds of 400Mbps. However, the new Coalition Government has radically modified the project, and now plans to deliver a “Multi-Technology Mix”, in which up to a third of Australian premises will be served by the HFC cable networks of Telstra and Optus, and Fibre to the Node and Fibre to the Basement used in other areas not already covered by Labor’s FTTP approach. Trials of FTTN and FTTB are currently underway.

Critics of NBN Co’s new approach have consistently pointed out that both the HFC cable and copper networks planned to be reused as part of the new version of the project offer significantly degraded capabilities compared to Fibre to the Premises. Copper cable is inherently less reliable than fibre, especially when wet, and cannot be upgraded to offer the same speeds in the long-term, while while HFC cable is inherently a shared medium that has suffered congestion when deployed in Australia, and also cannot be upgraded to the same extent as fibre.

Speaking to the NBN Senate Select Committee in Sydney this week, Switkowski, who was appointed by new Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull to lead NBN Co late last year following the Federal Election, stated that the specific technology used to deliver fast broadband to Australians was not important.

“It really does not matter what technology is used to provide fast broadband to your home—any more than it matters what frequency your television programs are broadcast on or where your electricity was generated,” Switkowski said. “The important issue is that it delivers the speeds people need today and has the capacity to be upgraded as demand requires. So it is not helpful to tell people they are not getting the NBN when in fact they will. It is not helpful to tell people that 50 megabits per second or 100 megabits per second is not enough for their needs when in almost all cases it will be.”

Switkowski’s comments, however, run directly counter to conventional wisdom in the telecommunications industry. The reason for this is that there are specific characteristics of different fixed-line and mobile technologies which make them inherently different from each other, and deliver different results to customers which go beyond the measurement of baseline broadband speeds.

For example, it is theoretically possible to deliver base download speeds up to 100Mbps using different technologies such as Fibre to the Premises, Fibre to the Node, Fibre to the Basement, HFC cable and mobile broadband.

However, most technologies have other technical disadvantages which impact performance. Anywhere copper cable is used, for example — in the Fibre to the Node or Basement deployment styles — will be subject to lesser reliability and limited long-term speed development than where fibre is used. It is very common in Australia for the copper network to suffer outages and speed degradation during periods of rain.

Both copper and HFC cable (a hybrid medium using both fibre and coaxial cable) suffer from problems offering high-speed upload services, and HFC cable and mobile broadband have also suffered congestion problems in Australia, due to their nature as shared mediums. For this reason, each technology is typically used in different settings globally.

In addition, over the long-term, only Fibre to the Premises offers very long-term upgradeability, with the other technologies being limited by the copper portion of their networks, or by the availability of wireless spectrum, in the case of mobile broadband. The nature of light as a data transmission medium (used in fibre-optic cables) has been shown to be inherently superior to other mediums. The main disadvantages inherent in FTTP broadband rollouts are that they tend to be costly and slow, compared to other forms of broadband rollout.

In a video interview published by Business Spectator back in August 2009, and still available online, Switkowski — a former chief executive of both Telstra and Optus — acknowledged this conventional industry understanding.

“I think it’s a very important project,” said Switkowski when asked whether he was interested in being involved. “The Government’s strategy of investing in a high-speed, fibre-optic base broadband network is a good one, I think it’ll make a difference to us as a nation, it’ll ensure more equity in access to relevant services for all Australians. And so I think it’s a project which deserves our support, and I’ve said that publicly.”

Asked whether a fibre national broadband network could coexist with a rival copper network, the executive responded: “Probably not. I think the fibre network would overtake the copper network and replace it. After all, if you have national fibre network, which provides you with Internet-based telephony, and video, high-speed Internet access and IP television, that provides you with much greater functionality than copper, and presumably at a future speed which is considerably in excess of what ADSL can offer. I think an all-fibre network is a desirable end point, and along the way it will render obsolescent the copper network.”

The comments — in which Switkowski appears to directly support Labor’s previous FTTP strategy and also acknowledge the inherent differences in technology between copper-based broadband technologies and Labor’s preferred fibre approach — appear to run contrary to comments Switkowski has made since taking on the NBN chairman role.

In another example, despite praising fibre’s speeds in August 2009, in November last year, Switkowski questioned the need for ordinary households in Australia to have access to 100Mbps broadband speeds at all, telling a Senate Estimates session at the time that a “whole lot of assumptions” needed to be pushed to their limits to demonstrate how such speeds would be used.

It’s not the first time that conflicting messages about broadband have been sent under the executive’s tenure.

In November 2003, for example, when Switkowski was chief executive of Telstra, Telstra told a Senate broadband inquiry that the telco was at that stage wringing the “last sweat” out of its ageing copper network, which the telco described as being at “five minutes to midnight”. At that stage, Telstra was planning to start urgently replacing the network within 15 years.

However, ten years later in November 2013, Switkowski told the Senate that he believed Telstra’s copper network “continues to perform robustly”. At that stage, Switkowski said that the concerns expressed about the network not being up to being the basis for a Fibre to the Node NBN were “misinformed”.

Watch Switkowski’s Business Spectator interview in August 2009 on YouTube:

There is some context that can help us understand Switkowski’s apparently changing views on the merits of different broadband technologies, such as the rapid development of Fibre to the Node technology over the past few years. However, the fact remains FTTN was widely understood as an upgrade path even back in 2009 (BT started its mass FTTN rollout in January 2009, while then-Telstra CEO Sol Trujillo proposed it in Australia in late 2005) and that Switkowski’s views on the issue in general appear to have changed markedly over the past four years.

In August 2009, Switkowski was praising Labor’s all-fibre NBN policy, stating that fibre inherently offered “much greater functionality” than copper and would eventually make copper “obsolescent”. This view is pretty consistent with Telstra’s view espoused under Switkowski’s leadership in late 2003 that the telco urgently needed to begin replacing its decaying copper network.

In March 2014, a few months after he was appointed to lead NBN Co, with directions to pursue a FTTN/FTTB/HFC strategy for the company’s rollout, Switkowski’s views appear to have changed. Suddenly it “does not matter” which type of technology is used, and Telstra’s copper network is performing “robustly”.

How are we to account for these differing views on broadband? I’m not quite sure. However, I would point out that Switkowski’s view back in 2009 largely represents telecommunications industry consensus on the future provision of fixed-line broadband, while NBN Co’s current Multi-Technology Mix approach is anything but.

Image credit: Parliamentary Broadcasting


  1. “There is some context that can help us understand Switkowski’s apparently changing views”
    Money makes people change their minds :)

    • Exactly what I was going to say. I’m sure if someone gave me $400k over 6 months I’d change my opinion on the fibre vs copper debate… even if it did mean i’d need to use sleeping tablets each night!

  2. “There is some context that can help us understand Switkowski’s apparently changing views on the merits of different broadband technologies, such as the big cheque written by Malcolm”

    Fixed that sentence for you :)

  3. Well… at least now we know for sure that we have liars and cheats running the nation’s broadband

    Wonder what ol’ Ziggy will have to say about this 180-degree shift in opinion if it ever gets brought up to him? “Uhh.. yes, well that was BEFORE I was directly involved with the project. Now I see that Labor had it all wrong and Malcolm’s plan is the better choice. He told me so. Then he gave me a huge wad of $100 notes and told me not to tell anyone about it…. oh…. wait…..”

  4. That’s news? Sorry, but wasn’t the video posted in comments here and on whirlpool years ago and already discussed?

    “How are we to account for these differing views on broadband?”
    $50,000 a month on top of his salary every month for holding two positions in the company. Maybe I should apply for a few more positions where I work, still work the same amount, but get paid huge amounts for the second position.

    • I hadn’t seen the video before, but it’s been floating around over the past week in response to Switkowski’s comments to the Senate.

      • Renai,

        Thanks for addressing Switkowski back flip on FTTP.

        This video was posted in the comment on Renai’s article of last week called:

        NBN technology choice doesn’t matter, says Switkowski

        It was linked twice in the comments.

        First here:


        Then here:


        I linked this one on 14/03/2014 at 1:20 pm because I didn’t see the link provided by delphi
        on 14/03/2014 at 12:40 pm.

        Anyway thanks for this article and for addressing this Switkowski back flip Renai regardless of when you saw it first.


        • Yes as you linked:

          Senator CONROY:
          Okay. I thought perhaps we might just play a clip, not from 10 years ago, Dr Switkowski, but from just a few years ago. Hopefully, it will come up now.

          A video was then shown

          Senator CONROY:
          You have got to hate that YouTube, don’t you! That was just three or four years ago.

          Dr Switkowski:

          Senator CONROY:
          Were you wrong 10 years ago, because I am assuming the Telstra representatives were speaking with your authority, were you wrong four years ago, or are you wrong now?

          Dr Switkowski:
          Well, I have explained that 10 years I could quite understand the context of the statements that were made. It was, again, an example of assuming that a technology that had been around for a hundred years was likely to be obsolescent very quickly, and that proved to be wrong as an assumption.
          That interview was in the immediate aftermath of your and your government’s announcement of an all -fibre NBN construct. That was my view at the time. You can ask me questions about what my view is today.

          Senator CONROY:
          I am assuming you have not changed your mind about the obsolescence of the coppernetwork?

          Dr Switkowski :
          I have changed my mind about a lot of things in recent years. Let me give you an example: although I have been at the bullish end of expectations of forecasting the relevance of broadband wireless, I have been amazed by how popular that has become and how extensively wireless access to the internet has developed in the last two years. It is very difficult to be, and you should not be, dogmatic about the future beyond maybe a year.

          Senator CONROY:
          So you are prepared to spend $30 billion of taxpayers’ money, but you are not prepared to predict that it is going to be of any use in over a year’s time?

          Dr Switkowski:
          I think you have endowed us with that sort of investment. My job will now be to optimise its allocation so that we are in a good position in the years ahead to adapt to changing consumer demand and
          emerging technologies.


  5. “There is some context that can help us understand Switkowski’s apparently changing views”

    My opinion was in the best interest of the nation.
    Now it is has been bought by a small-minded minister making a clearly politically motivated choice between what is right for the country and what would suit his party’s ends.
    I.e. The LNP will go to any lengths to implement anything but Labor’s idea.
    Remember that this was once “not about speed but about communications infrastructure” (Tony Abbott)
    Now it’s about the increase from 24 Mbps to 25 Mbps.

  6. “How are we to account for these differing views on broadband?”

    Simple. You only have to look at who he works for.

    Previously when he was CEO of Telstra, he was working to get the best for his shareholders. He was in the industry, and saw that the way forward was FTTP, to get the best value, long term investment for his shareholders.

    Now he works for a politician. As we have repeatedly seen in Senate committees and in the media, he is parroting the political policy and rhetoric of his shareholders – the government. His focus now, is how to meet a political agenda, as opposed to providing the best long term outcome.

    The sad thing is that Mike Quigley wasn’t retained. Quigley wasn’t afraid to speak out, and always put the taxpayer first. To date, Ziggy has proven to be little more than a yes man, as the backflip on his views on the reliability and life of copper illustrate so well.

  7. “Not quite sure?”
    It’s easy. “Yes” men will sell their souls, for money or Political motivation.

  8. Posted these links on Malcolm Turnbull’s website, it was the fastest deletion in history, gone in 5 minutes.

    • “Posted these links on Malcolm Turnbull’s website, it was the fastest deletion in history, gone in 5 minutes.”

      Kevin, the adults are in charge and hell bent on fully implementing their openness and honesty policy by rewriting the past and deleting all evidence to the contrary…

    • Deleted?

      Surely the Minister of Communications, a man pro free speech would not level himself to *censor* raw resources showing major backflips (piked even) by the current double-head of the NBN over the technology selection that the Minister demanded he support?

      Disappointing, Minister, disappointing.

  9. We all know Ziggy would be on a street corner somewhere selling his arse if there was enough money in it. The only thing that changed (besides his mind) in those 4 years, is who Ziggy is is getting his money from…

    At least Ziggy is doing it for a reason we can all understand, Malcolm’s only doing it out of ego.

  10. “There is some context that can help us understand Switkowski’s apparently changing views”

    Yes Malcolm Turnbull up to the elbow.
    Ziggy is merely another puppet to sprout Malcolm Turnbull’s FTTN garbage.

  11. “It really does not matter what technology is used to provide fast broadband to your home—any more than it matters what frequency your television programs are broadcast on or where your electricity was generated,” “The important issue is that it delivers the speeds people need today and has the capacity to be upgraded as demand requires. So it is not helpful to tell people they are not getting the NBN when in fact they will. It is not helpful to tell people that 50 megabits per second or 100 megabits per second is not enough for their needs when in almost all cases it will be.”

    Apple, pot, orange, kettle. Ziggy confuses (deliberately?) 4 components of communication methods; medium, method, location and speed and then says that speeds are the only important issue to worry about. He attempts to use facets of specific technologies to argue away the advantages of FTTP.

    Frequency your TV signal is transmitted on does play a significant role in determining the ability to separate channels in a part of spectrum and also how much of a signal you need, Ziggy should attempt to transmit a TV signal over broadcast AM radio. It could and probably will be replaced with IPTV anyway, irony much.

    Electricity and its generation location, is like saying I shouldn’t worry about my wi-fi hotspot being on the east coast, when I’m holidaying in WA. And we also do care, as you are out of luck using some devices on 110v, but thats ok, we are technology agnostic. The irony here is that the grid is consistently applied, mostly the same voltages across the country, so within reason, everyone has the same experience with the grid and within reason, you can add more and more devices to use that electricity with little regard to capacity limits.

    The only thing, that I gleam in hope for my fellow citizens, is that at least he says ‘need’. We have identified its definitely a need to have some decent speed. If they can’t deliver that reliably to all, then it will be a complete failure of the Abbott government in meeting a need thats there.

    The FTTP plan had much more going for it, for filling that divide for making the experience consistent across most of the country. Enabling the country to expand in regional areas. Now we continue with MTM and shuffle the divide around. I’m lucky enough to be in an area with FTTP NBN, Optus and Telstra HFC and of course ADSL and mobile coverage. But I have the final technological step now, many don’t and won’t.

  12. Hope someone downloads the video, I’m sure Rupert will get his recently acquired spectators of business to pull the video soon enough.

  13. Rupert can pull what he likes, I’ve got copies in every available format, I will upload the video to you tube if it’s cut.
    I’ve got a big inventory of politicians YouTube talks, you just never know when they will vanish.

  14. Isn’t this the second time Ziggy has been caught out, first with Tassie FTTP not in contract and now this.
    So we have Fork Tongue Turnball, Two Timing Switkowski, The Mad Monk Abbott and Hamburger Hockey. bloody marvelous.

  15. Ziggy is so full of it.

    Where’s our google or facebook equivalents in Australia ? We have many of the worlds most innovative people here in all kinds of research, yet when it comes to the internet – we hear silence.

    We have no googles or facebooks because those projects were started in a garage and a house-share respectively. The people that started them brought in cheaply purchased high-end broadband to start the projects with and could successfully start 2 of the fastest growing companies in the world EVER with that.

    Sure the difference between 50 and 100mbps might not matter to someone downloading the latest game of thrones, however for anyone trying to implement any kind of new technology, new idea or new small business – it matters greatly.

    Furthurmore I cannot see how anyone could come up with any technology or new innovation which REQUIRES high end fibre to even conceive of the idea in the first place.
    (Akin to asking someone to invent the lightbulb without ever having seen electricity).

    I find it amusing that the same arguments derailing the breadth of the NBN debate in Australia seem to culminate in stupid men saying things like this with no real or rational thought to where this technology actually leads – it doesn’t not just lead to the red wedding at 1080p.

    This argument goes FAR beyond the NLP defense of Rupert Murdochs’ empire.

  16. its not about speed, it never was, its about quality, but speed is easier for political reasons and voters to comprehend

    copper is crap, it doesnt provide a consistent level of service, fibre provides a level of consistency, its hardly ever inconsistent, it usually either works or it doesnt.

    i also doubt hes changed his mind – fibre makes copper obsolescent doesnt contradict using copper now. its like saying concrete makes dirt obsolescent, yet a dirt road is still capable of handling the current traffic flow until its upgraded to concrete (it will probably cost more to do the upgrades piecemeal but that wont matter because the users will be paying for it).

    labour installing fibre everywhere logically makes the existing copper obsolescent (it never meant the copper was useless for todays traffic flow, just useless for tomorrows). i would have thought youd be used to this sort of stuff as turnbull (and most politicians) use it all the time.

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