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