news Communications Minister Mitch Fifield has publicly reaffirmed his confidence in the fitness of Optus’ HFC cable network for use as part of the National Broadband Network, in comments which appear to show that he has no knowledge of deep concerns by the NBN company itself that the network is unusable.
As part of the Coalition’s Multi-Technology Mix approach to the National Broadband Network, the NBN company has bought the HFC cable networks owned by Telstra and Optus. In Optus’ case, the network buy came at a cost of some $800 million.
However, internal documents leaked this afternoon have revealed that the NBN company is considering overbuilding the Optus HFC cable network, in a move which dramatically validates long-standing criticism that the HFC cable technology could not meet Australia’s future broadband needs.
The documents — dated 3 November — openly state that Optus’ HFC network is “not fully fit for purpose”, with some Optus equipment “arriving at end of life” — needing to be “replaced”. Some Optus HFC nodes are “oversubscribed” compared with Telstra’s HFC cable network and would “require node splits”, while Optus’ cable modem termination systems don’t have “sufficient capacity to support NBN services”.
The document explicitly states that some 470,000 premises in the Optus HFC cable footprint would need to be overbuilt, with a significant impact to the NBN company’s peak funding requirement ranging between $150 million and $600 million. The document also explicitly states that the NBN company will miss its financial year 2017-2018 HFC ready for service target.
This afternoon the Opposition explicitly questioned Fifield on the issue in Senate Question Time, without mentioning the leaked documents. The documents were leaked towards the end of Question Time — close to 3pm.
It appears the intent of the Opposition was to establish what Fifield knew of the Optus HFC problem.
In his response, Fifield at several points appeared broadly mystified as to the basis for Labor’s line of questioning.
The Minister reaffirmed his faith in the fitness of the HFC cable technology for use with respect to the NBN project. “Accessing HFC infrastructure, is one of the main reasons why the Government is going to be in a position to roll out the NBN network nationwide much, much faster than would have been the case if those opposite had remained in office,” he said.
“As a Government, we think that it makes good sense to use the infrastructure that is there. The HFC is there in most capital cities and the Gold Coast.”
“The NBN is in a sense technology-agnostic,” Fifield continued. “The NBN will avail itself of the technology that will best see the NBN rolled out fastest and at lowest cost to taxpayers. And as Senator McLucas points out, Optus does have HFC cables, Telstra do as well, and the NBN will be availing itself of those network opportunities as is appropriate.”
At several points, Labor asked Fifield point blank about the Government’s support for Optus’ HFC cable network.
In response, Fifield said: “We’ll be using Optus and Telstra.”
Senator Jan McLucas shot back: “Isn’t it true that the Optus HFC network is not fit for purpose and will cause more delays?” In response, Fifield again stated: “NBN will be using both Telstra and Optus HFC network as is appropriate.”
Fifield’s responses appear to show that the Minister was not aware during Question Time of the leaked document which Labor was referring to. The plan is marked “draft” and “commercial in confidence” and is dated 3 November. It appears that the Minister has not been briefed in detail on the issue since that time.
Delimiter has contacted the Office of Communications Minister Mitch Fifield to invite a response to the issue.