Coalition NBN Policy: Short-Term Savings But No Long-Term Vision

Yesterday, we outlined some of the unanswered questions in the newly-announced Coalition NBN policy. Here, University of Melbourne professorial fellow Peter Gerrand looks at some of the potential longer-term issues with the policy.

"The superfast broadband of the order of 100+ megabits per second (Mbps) and into the gigaspeed bracket is de rigueur for any nation purporting to be a developed and advancing economy." — Phil Ruthven, "A Snapshot of Australia's Digital Economy to 2050", IbisWorld, June 2012.

The Coalition should firstly be congratulated upon launching a detailed, closely argued policy proposal on their alternative vision for the National Broadband Network and how it can be implemented "faster" and at less cost than the current NBN.

Malcolm Turnbull has moved the Coalition light years — or at least several million fibre optic kilometres — from the Luddite criticisms thrown up by the Opposition during the 2010 federal election campaign. And with his party leader Tony Abbott, he has released a coherent policy five months in advance of the 2013 election, in contrast to the Opposition's broadband policy release just three days ahead of the previous federal election, on 13 August 2010.

That said, it was sad to see the number of debating tricks employed in launching his national broadband policy.

There was the conflation of the government's NBN policies mark I (2007) and mark II (2009), and the selective omission of the "externalities" in the rollout of the NBN — (particularly the long negotiations with Telstra and the business-model-changing interventions of the ACCC) — in order to trash the reputations of both NBN Co and the government, in failing to meet rollout targets announced in either 2007 or 2010.

And there is the claim that the NBN, as a "government-owned telecom monopoly", somehow inhibits retail competition. In contrast, the Australian telecommunications industry recognises that it has only been through part of the current government's NBN policy — the structural separation of Telstra and the positioning of the NBN building blocks as wholesale resources available to all retailers on equal terms of usage — that will allow totally equitable retail competition in the supply of broadband.

There was also Mr Turnbull's claim that in choosing the cheaper FTTN (Fibre to the Node) option, rather than Fibre to the Home (FTTH), the Coalition is following world's best practice. This political delusion — not shared widely within the telecommunications industry — was recently burst by independent journalist Stuart Corner's article in the Telecommunications Journal of Australia, "The politics of speed", where he found that "82 per cent of investment in FTTX (FTTH or FTTN) in 2012-17 in the world's developed countries is estimated to be in fibre-to-the-home (FTTH)" — i.e. only 18 per cent of that investment is destined for Mr Turnbull's preferred FTTN.

These debating points must be debunked because they are part of a smokescreen that portrays the current NBN as being needlessly gold-plated, incompetently managed, and ridiculously tardy in meeting Australia's real needs for broadband — none of which I believe to be true. The reality is that we now have the chance to compare two policies pitched at different timescales of infrastructure need and use — and there are arguments in favour of both approaches. But we need to remember that, under both policies, there will be a world of difference between the timelines set in politicans' election promises and the hard engineering realities of managing any project of such massive scale.

Let me briefly compare the essential differences between the two policies. First, timescale. The current NBN is based upon meeting bandwidth needs, in the case of the lucky 93 per cent with FTTH, for perhaps three decades beyond the rollout completion in 2021. (Just as the copper access network rolled out by the PMG in the 1950s was intended to last — and generally did last — for a further 50 years.)

The current NBN's vision satisfies two key drivers. The first is the need for Australia to grow its digital economy, as the only likely growth sector that can complement, and ultimately overtake, the mining industry. The Ibisworld report, from which I have quoted above, lays out a well-argued scenario in which by 2050 some 20 per cent of the national GDP will be generated by the digital economy — if it is underpinned by ubiquitous high-speed broadband.

The digital economy is already a larger employer than the mining industry, and it has the advantages of providing a much greater diversity of highly paid, high-value jobs, which can be teleworked virtually across Australia — given enough access to bandwidth.

The second driver is the inexorable historical growth in telecommunications access rates, which has been exponential since the 1950s — see the below graph from Rod Tucker's 2010 article, "Broadband facts, fiction and urban myths".

This exponential growth prediction, which is the telecommuncations industry's equivalent to Moore's Law for computing, continues to get empirical support — for instance, Google is currently trialling 1Gbps applications in Kansas City.

The current NBN policy is predicated upon building the major infrastructure — the network infrastructure — only once, and its lasting for decades. For this reason, the current NBN policy must be seen as being far more future-proof than the alternative policy. Optical fibre, already capable of supporting bandwidths in terabytes per second, is considered to have a lifeteime of 40 to 60 years. (A caveat is that the new satellites to be launched in 2015 to support the 3 per cent of homes in remote areas will probably need to be replaced in 15 to 20 years. The fixed radio technology supporting 4 per cent of premises can be replaced or upgraded much more cheaply, but should last a good 20 years without upgrades.)

If the current NBN policy is predicated upon providing international competitive advantage to Australia over several decades, the Coalition's NBN policy can be fairly categorised as a more cost-effective catch-up across Australia of the bandwidth that most households need now, in two stages.

Firstly, within the parliamentary term ending in 2016, their plan aims to universally match the 25 mbps "bar" now set by NBN Co's fixed radio technology, announced two months ago (an impressive doubling of the previously planned 12 mbps download speed, due to improvements in radio technology). In a second stage, to be completed by 2019, they aim to provide 50 mbps minimum access speed to all FTTN and FTTH premises. This is an excellent aim for a cost-effective short-term (six year) plan.

However, in many cases, the proposed new FTTN technology intended for use in 71 per cent of premises will not reach this speed in areas of low copper reticulation (British Telecom's solution in the UK requires the use of two pairs of copper per house connected, which is not universally available here), or in areas of ageing or particularly water-prone copper cables (a frequent situation).

The Coalition's solution is to provide FTTH in these exceptional cases. Without access to their business plan, one cannot see if they have factored in enough cases to affect their budget.

Four quick points in conclusion. Firstly, the Coalition has minimised the likelihood of any rural backlash by basically leaving the current NBN plan intact in rural areas. Secondly, it has not (at the time of writing) released its estimate of the cost of paying Telstra to maintain in working condition the copper network that will link its new FTTN cabinets to customer premises. There is reason to believe that the Coalition will have significantly underestimated this.

Thirdly, the Coalition has behaved extraordinarily like the Gillard government did in 2010 in building an investment case for the NBN that fails to factor in the real benefits to the nation's GDP, such as to the digital economy — let alone attempting to "capitalise" the benefits of social inclusion through facilitating universal broadband access.

Instead, the Coalition's proposal reads like an engineering investment case alone — an impression reinforced by Mr Abbott's statement that his NBN, unlike the current one, will provide "a real commercial return". Given all the cherry-picking that their NBN policy will allow to private developers, free at last to directly compete with the NBN's access infrastructure wherever they can make a profit, there is good reason to think that the Coalition's NBN will, as a result, inevitably operate at a loss.

Lastly, the Coalition makes much ado about saving taxpayers' money through reducing the scope and scale of the NBN. In fact, the only taxpayers' money saved would seem to lie in lower interest payments made by Treasury in the period before the NBN breaks even — in a period of historically low interest rates. These savings need to be offset by the loss to the economy of all the construction jobs associated with FTTH — the most labour-intensive part of the current rollout.

Peter Gerrand is Honorary Professorial Fellow in Telecommunications at University of Melbourne. He is the managing editor of the Telecommunications Journal of Australia, http://tja.org.au/index.php/tja. From 1991-1993, he was the General Manager for Network Strategy and Forward Network Planning at Telstra. The ConversationThis article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.


Comments

    Did anyone notice that the word "upload" is not mentioned anywhere in the Coalition policy document?

    It seems the population are a bit stuck either way. We either have Gillard's plan which Conroy will shove multiple filters on there which will in turn slow it down to the lightning speed of a snail; or the Coalition's policy which is fibre to the node. I think I'd go with the Coalition's plan as it won't cost me, my kids and their kids billions of tax dollars in the future because Labor are such dreadful project managers.

      That's pretty much where I fall as well. It's all about risk for me.

      $29.5B now, then add ongoing maintenance, extra costs negotiating with Telstra (if they even negotiate) and extra costs replacing copper where required or laying fibre instead. By the end it will take as long and cost just as much and will need to be replaced with FTTP not long after. In the end it will cost Australia even more and be a much worse system, while only serving 70% of Australia vs 93% of current NBN. They're making savings by cutting back how widely its rolled out and the services provided, it is just smoke and mirrors to make it look cheap up front when after 5-10 years it'll cost more. How about looking to the future somewhat? They'll also sell it off once down and create another Telstra (if Telstra doesn't buy it).

      Also the upload speeds will be around 1mb which is low, I'm on that right now and have trouble doing video calls (has to be bad quality) and uploading video to the cloud is very slow and kills the connection. Not to mention that all those people who have issues when it rains will still have it with the Coalition NBN, so a lot of stability issues and disconnects will still exist due to the nature of copper. I think I'd prefer the more stable, cheaper in long run, and faster current NBN as opposed to the half done, slow, unstable, expensive in the long run Coalition NBN which will need to be upgraded later anyway for more 10's of billions.

      The filter sits very nicely with people of Aboot's slant (never heard a squeak against it from the Libs).
      And there are so many negatives to FTTN (remember that's where Labor were planning to go back in 2007) especially when considering that the upgrade cost to FTTP is comparatively small and considering that we KNOW that FTTN will be insufficient in 15-20 years time.
      Do it once and do it right or don't do it at all and leave it to the market to provide!

      FTTP can be easily upgraded to 1tps+ in the future. FTTN can't be.

    It's pointless arguing about the technological advantages of FTTH, when the argument is purely an economic one. Anyone who wants can have FTTH under the coalition's policy. It's just that they'll have to pay for it themselves, just like users of toll roads. It makes more sense than the taxpayer picking up the tab for everyone. How many hospitals, schools, universities are we willing to forgo so that everyone can download high-def movies?

    Last edited 10/04/13 8:50 pm

      No it doesn't, you're just completely flipping ignorant to the facts.

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