fake news Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has confirmed plans to implement the same underlying broadband infrastructure platform in Australia which has already been used for some time in the UK, with the two nations’ incumbent telcos Telstra and BT to collaborate on the exchange over the next several years.
Under Labor’s previous NBN policy, some 93 percent of Australian premises were to have received fibre directly to the premise and the remainder satellite or wireless, with a new government wholesale monopoly set up in the form of NBN Co to both deploy and operate the network. The move was to have seen the majority of Telstra’s existing copper network, which has been serving Australia’s broadband needs for much of the past century, replaced with alternative fibre technology.
However, NBN Co’s Strategic Review published in December last year changed the paradigm, with the company recommending (and the Coalition supporting) a vision in which up to a third of Australian premises will be served by the existing HFC cable networks of Telstra and Optus, with Telstra’s existing copper network to continue to serve as a key part of alternative models used in other areas, and satellite and wireless also to be used in rural and regional areas. This new model is known as the “Multi-Technology Mix” (MTM).
In a statement delivered on Monday night, Turnbull confirmed his Department of Communications had been quietly hosting four-way talks with the National Broadband Network Company, Telstra and British telco BT, as it sought to implement what the Minister described as “completely new technology” to progress its ‘Multi-Technology Mix’ strategy in Australia.
The key to understanding the nature of the collaboration, according to the Liberal MP, was a close consideration of the different cable widths used in the two countries’ existing copper networks.
Telecommunications analysts have consistently pointed out that most of Telstra’s copper cable was in the 0.4mm and below class, which had delivered a limited and unreliable ability to carry fast broadband signals, especially during peak periods of rain.
Early trials of the Coalition’s next-generation broadband infrastructure in Umina on the New South Wales Central Coast and Epping in Melbourne’s northern suburbs have shown that Telstra’s existing copper cables were not able to reliably deliver broadband at the speeds aimed at under the Coalition’s ‘Multi-Technology Mix’ policy.
In comparison, Turnbull said, the majority of BT’s copper network was more than 0.6mm thick. The deployment of large sections of fibre throughout BT’s network as part of its Fibre to the Node rollout had subsequently opened up an opportunity to “change the field of operation” of what Turnbull described as “critical enabling technology for the Digital Economy”, with the Minister noting BT’s technology had already “proven its worth in a comparable commercial environment”.
“This next-generation infrastructure is able to deliver significantly lower attenuation rates (and hence broadband speeds), even in the harsh extremes found in Australia’s diverse environments,” said Turnbull in yesterday’s statement. “By taking a reconditioning approach to this brand new platform, we will maximise the efficiencies of state of the art technology in the Australian context and deliver modern high-speed broadband (up to 25Mbps) to many Australians for the first time.”
In the UK, BT’s Fibre to the Node deployment has enabled the telco to deliver speeds of up to 76Mbps through the company’s “Infinity” plans. In Turnbull’s statement, BT chief executive Gavin Patterson said that following the “re-platforming” process of BT’s legacy brand new copper infrastructure into Australian markets, the telco would be working closely with NBN Co to deliver a suite of plans he described as “sub-Infinity”.
Patterson also emphasised the fact that the UK’s existing modern platform could be easily integrated into Australia’s telecommunications environment. “Everyone says you can’t deploy plug-and-play innovation,” he said. “But in this case, it’s clear that there is an opportunity to progressively reconceptualise global potentialities. To put it simply: We’ll unplug the copper, and Australia can dynamically seize the turnkey bandwidth this next-generation rehabilitated platform can deliver.”
However, not everybody is happy with the revelation of the arrangement. New Zealand Communications Minister Amy Adams (whose government is also going going down the path of a nationwide network replacement project, as the UK is) has written directly to Turnbull arguing that the country also has “existing compatible copper assets which could be contributed, thereby substantially reducing the build cost and increasing efficiencies”.
Adams said BT was “obviously pursuing its own commercial interests” in seeking to have its brand new existing technology re-implemented in Australia, whereas New Zealand was better placed to work with its close neighbour to completely re-implement “matured” but still “ultramodern” telecommunications infrastructure.
Upon the publication of his statement, Turnbull immediately faced criticism from online commentators, who accused the Minister of taking a “hand me down” approach to the rollout of Australia’s broadband network and the replacement of Telstra’s copper. However, the Minister immediately fired back. “Just curious: If connectivity was so vital to you, why did you choose to become a citizen of a country where there was no broadband available?” he asked.
Telecommunications commentator Kieran Cummings (‘Sortius’) had published a blog entry headlined “Malcolm Turnbull suggests BT move network for decent broadband”. “Of course I had said no such thing — the statement attributed to me by Mr Cummings was a complete invention and calculated to mislead readers,” Turnbull fired back. “He clearly had not the slightest interest in reporting the facts – is this the new meta-journalism? Or just a good case of the craziness and outrage of much of the mainstream media bleeding into social media?”
NBN Co executive chairman Ziggy Switkowski pointed out that BT’s copper infrastructure had only been initially rolled out following the “recent” World War. “It won’t need to be upgraded for at least another five years,” he said.
In a broader sense, Turnbull said the Coalition would have not gone down the path of replacing Australia’s telecommunications network at all, but that the Labor Party had delivered it into an uncomfortable position. “We are like the guy that gets lost touring in Ireland with his family and he pulls up into a little pub and asks the barman for directions to Dublin,” the Minister said. “And the barman says: ‘If I were you, sir, I wouldn’t be starting from here.'”
“Well, what we found out along the way was that the Irish bartender actually had pretty decent copper cable,” Turnbull added. “So we decided to follow his lead and ask him where he got it from.”
Image credit: Screenshots of ABC broadcast of Turnbull press conference