What Now For The NBN?

This week, Malcolm Turnbull was sworn in as Australia's 29th Prime Minister, promising an agile, innovative and creative future driven by technology. So what does this mean for our National Broadband Network? We take a look at the chief challenges the new Communications Minister will face in dealing with the NBN.

The choice of a replacement Communications Minister is critically important, especially for the National Broadband Network (NBN). Paul Fletcher has been widely touted as Turnbull's likely successor, but some have argued he lacks experience and is somewhat short on vision. Other names such as Simon Birmingham, Sussan Ley, Marise Payne, Steve Ciobo and Arthur Sinodinos have also been mentioned by industry commentators.

The industry news sheet Comms Day has suggested that Turnbull might even split the role into two: one dedicated to the NBN, and the other for everything else in the portfolio. Given the complexity of the portfolio and the growing problems with the NBN, this may be a smart move.

Under Turnbull, the NBN budget has blown out by as much as A$18 billion and, on current projections, is four years behind the original schedule. Worse still, additional funding to help cover the cost blow-out will need to be obtained from outside sources.

This could be difficult given that the fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) technology to be rolled out will soon be obsolete and will not be attractive to an investor looking for a reasonable long-term return on investment. This problem is just one of many that the incoming communications minister is going to have to solve.

In a refreshing departure from the usual confrontational politics around the NBN, the opposition's communications spokesman, Jason Clare, has appealed for a bi-partisan approach to fixing the NBN project from a cost and technology point of view.

Clare has requested access to NBN financial modelling data to assist in working out a way forward. Because of the lack of detailed financial information released by NBN, Clare is no doubt having a hard time working out a true breakdown of the costs of rolling out the multi-technology mix (MTM), and an accurate comparison of the relative costs of FTTN and FTTP.

A way forward

Whoever becomes the new communications minister, here are my suggestions for their top priorities.

The new minister would need to step above the ideologically-driven focus on FTTN that Turnbull used to differentiate his network from Labor's fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) network.

The Coalition's Strategic Review and Cost Benefit Analysis, rushed through in late 2013, are both out of date. Some of the key costing and broadband usage assumptions used in these exercises are at best inaccurate, and in at least one case they have been discredited.

The minister needs to formulate a long-term vision for Australia's broadband needs and ensure that the NBN is not just a quick fix for our current needs.

With the help of appropriate experts, the minister needs to develop estimates of Australia's broadband requirements into the future. In the two years since the Coalition came into power, internet usage has grown rapidly around the world both for business and private use.

The need for speed

In a number of countries including the United States, there is now a push for broadband connections with 1 Gbps speeds and higher.

Broadband customers Atlanta, for example, now have the choice of between 1 Gbps connections with Google or 2 Gbps symmetrical (upstream and downstream) services with Comcast. The NBN's FTTN service will be 20 to 40 times slower than Comcast's.

The minister needs to instruct NBN executives to carefully consider the methods identified in the 2013 Strategic Review for reducing the costs of rolling out FTTP.

Some of these cost-savings methods were also included in the final NBN co Corporate Plan under Labor, but are not currently being used in the existing FTTP rollout.

And finally, the minister should embrace Jason Clare's offer of a bipartisan approach to building an NBN that serves all Australians into the future.

These are just some of the things that need to be done to help get the NBN back on track. Let's hope that Turnbull picks a successor who is up to the task. It's not too late to fix the NBN, but time is running out.

Rod Tucker is Laureate Emeritus Professor at theUniversity of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation.


    THIS! The minute it was confirmed he'd been successful in ousting Abbott i was thinking "what about the NBN.. will it be fixed, sped up and rolled out quicker?" I hope his replacement takes on board this entire article and gets good advice to fix this inept solution currently and supposedly being rolled out!

    It wont matter how low i set my expectations for the NBN now Abbott is gone, Ill still be disappointed

    There's always the possibility that the PM could keep that portfolio for himself.

      Turnbull resigned before he challenged Abott. I'm unsure on how it would work if he appointed himself his own Communications Minister though...

        He resigned to show he was serious - you cant be part of the front bench and challenge the leader.
        He could easily take it back. It's a role appointed by the PM, and heaps of PMs have chosen major portfolios

    I honestly don't care what tech is used in the NBN anymore. its so messed up already with a bs mix of so many things that it just needs to be finished and done with. #NBNonlythinglongerthanapmterm

    Rumour has it that Hockey will be picked, but God I hope not!

    Rod Tucker right on it again...

    Where did he park his wheel barrow this time? he's been pushing it for a while now...

    Bring back FTTP plans, its cheaper and future proof. Also it could spark interest from 3rd party investors.

    elon musks satellite net due 2020ish, so thats what 5 years before the nbn is due, just wait it out 8)

    As long as my upload speed have 3 zeros and a decimal point before it ill be happy.

    It's funny how you can read an article and think "Yep, that's just plain commonsense" but your gut feeling tells you that politics and commonsense don't always live in the same room.

    Remember how the Opera House was funded by a lottery when the cost became unafordable?

    1: Talk to some international service providers. Offer them access to pre-existing [Telstra] pits & exchange space, in exchange for Telstra etc. using a percentage of the fibre.
    2: Cable up capital cities & high density suburbs, to bring in profit.
    3: THEN move on to satellite cities (Newcastle, Geelong, etc.)
    4: Finish off remote areas with a "mesh" of microwave links and/or satellite relays.

      Get your logical plans out of here! We'll just blame the failures on someone else and do nothing about it.

      Finish off remote areas with...
      I'ma let you finish, but in political circles those are typically "marginal seats" and the likes of which you give the props to first to win votes and a parliamentary majority. "Trial the NBN rollout" *cough*Kiama*cough*

      Last edited 17/09/15 5:52 pm

        I will just shake that off, with:
        Offer rural members the chance to buy NBN shares at a discount. If your own money was invested, I suspect you'd want the company to chase the high profit rollouts first.

    "There's always the possibility that the PM could keep that portfolio for himself."

    FFS Don't wish that on us....

    Slower. Less reliable. Less productive. This is what Turnbull's NBN looks like:


    In short, Turnbull was out of his depth!

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