Is Fibre-To-The-Premises Back On The NBN Agenda?

The Australian chapter of the global Internet Society has urged the government to re-assess its mixed technology model for the National Broadband Network during a Senate inquiry on Friday. Previously technology agnostic, the Internet Australia (IA) organisation changed its tune after the release of new fibre costings. It seems practically everyone wants an FTTP solution now, but will the government actually listen?

Broadband fibre image from Shutterstock

After years of relative political neutrality in the NBN debate, IA has called on the current government to urgently re-assess its commitment to the Multi-Technology-Mix (MTM) model. Its new stance on fibre deployment was summed up by IA’s CEO Laurie Patton: “Follow the Nike principle — Just do it!”

The not-for-profit peak body representing Australian internet users was among a number of expert groups and individuals that gave evidence at the inquiry held in Canberra. In his opening remarks, Patton urged the government to build the NBN to its fullest potential. Failure to do so would deny some Australians the “basic right” to participate in the nation’s digitally enabled future.

“Gaining employment and engaging in a wide range of community activities will increasingly require digital skills”, Patton said. “We need to build our economic and social future around a connected world where everyone has access to the Internet and knows how to use it.”

IA’s pro-fibre position was galvanized by a spate of new information — including reduced fibre network construction costs in New Zeland and NBN’s own “low-cost” fibre trials which were revealed last week.

“We always knew that technology and improved implementation processes would gradually bring down the cost of fibre,” Patton said in a statement. “It now looks like it might be coming very close to the same price as copper — especially if you take a long term view on the investment.”

Long-term investment is an important part of the discussion. According to the experts, fibre networks will continue to be upgradable for decades to come; long past the point where copper-based services will need to be completely replaced.

One of the most significant revelations at Friday’s Senate inquiry came from a representative of Chorus NZ, the country’s principle broadband provider. Under questioning from Senator Stephen Conroy, Chorus revealed that it has managed to reduce the installation costs for its fibre network by 29 percent.

(Unsurprisingly, the former Communications Minister remains a big supporter of FTTP: at one point Conroy reportedly interrupted proceedings to yell out; “You do it once, you do it right, you do it with fibre!”)

During the Senate inquiry, IA’s vice-chairman Dr Paul Brooks explained how ‘wave division multiplexing’ technology could allow for extraordinary increases in Internet delivery — but not if we’re still saddled to copper wire. Examples cited by Brooks included Singapore and Hong Kong, where fibre is already delivering 10 gigabits per second to households.

The week before its appearance at the Senate inquiry, IA carried out a survey of around 50 of its members. Asked about the current government’s MTM model, which heavily relies on the Telstra copper telephone network, 47 per cent said they were dissatisfied, and 33 per cent extremely dissatisfied — an 80 percent rejection of the MTM. On whether NBN speeds would be sufficient for them and for their customers’ needs over next five to ten years, 78 per cent said no.

It will be interesting to see what the government’s next move will be. A rejection of Labor’s fibre-to-the-premises NBN was a cornerstone of the last election. As the former Communications Minister, it will be exceedingly difficult for Malcolm Turnbull to distance himself from any NBN policy reversals.

On the one hand, a return to fibre would deny Labor the ability to use the NBN as a spearhead at the next federal election; a debate the Liberals would do well to avoid. On the other hand, ripping up the MTM model would be viewed as an inexcusable waste of time, money and planning by pretty much everybody.

With that said, we wouldn’t be surprised to see more fibre added to the MTM mix — just don’t expect a return to an all-fibre solution. This would require the government to put Australia’s future above its own reputation and admit it made a mistake. If that happens, we’ll eat out hats.

Additional reporting by Rae Johntson.

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