At the time of the 2013 election, then opposition communications spokesman Malcolm Turnbull promised an alternative National Broadband Network that was going to be faster, cheaper and delivered sooner. After three years, most analysts and industry experts have been less than satisfied with the results. Is it really as bad as people are saying? We take a look at the evidence...
The National Broadband Network (NBN) – originally Labor’s slightly disorganised baby – promised fast full-fibre broadband for the entire country. It began in 2009, but the roll-out was significantly slower and more expensive than first promised and became another stick for the Coalition to beat the Rudd/Gillard era with as another policy failure.
Three years on, with Turnbull now in charge of the nation, the shoe is on the other foot and Labor is using the NBN as an election tool, although the opposition’s plan is still light on detail beyond the promise of a “first class” NBN.
Let's take a look at how the Coalition has faired with the NBN during its time in power.
“We will complete the NBN, we will ensure all Australians have very fast broadband and we will do it sooner, cheaper and hence more affordably than the Labor government can.”
That was then-communications minister Malcolm Turnbull’s promise to Australia just before the election in 2013. He planned on doing this by scrapping a full fibre-to-the-premises broadband network, instead upgrading and repurposing existing infrastructure.
The fixed network was split in three parts, all roughly one third of the network. Full fibre to the premises (FTTP) broadband, the old cable HFC TV network, and fibre to the node (FTTN), which used a mix of fibre optics and existing copper phone lines.
A quarter of the 2.2 million homes being connected to NBN fixed lines are getting FTTP. Most of those are in new developments or areas where the roll-out was already underway since Labor’s roll-out began in 2009. While the speed potential is significantly higher than both HFC and FTTN, it’s also significantly more expensive, costing $3700 per household – a point Turnbull hammered home during the 2013 election. Those costs are mostly due to ripping up the nature strip outside each home and laying down new fibre.
The HFC network – the old cables originally deployed in the ’90s for pay TV – will make up a little over 30% of the NBN. This is meant to cost around $1100 per household, including upgrades to improve speed and capacity. The government paid $11 billion for both Telstra’s HFC network, and its copper network, which they originally planned to decommission, before Turnbull decided to reuse it.
Using HFC was meant to deliver a faster roll-out, because the upgrades required were initially believed to be minimal.
The final piece to Turnbull’s NBN puzzle is FTTN. This is where fibre optics are laid to the big green box you see in the street. From there, the existing copper phone lines connect to homes. The NBN says this costs $1600 per household to connect. Speeds would average 25Mbps even in peak periods.
A revised target was released in 2014, which said by June 2016, 3.3 million premises in Australia would have access to the NBN.
By the end of March 2016, the NBN has delivered access to just over 2 million premises, with 900,000 using it. The company says that by June 2016 it will pass by 2.6 million premises, 700,000 less than promised in 2014.
Laurie Patton, CEO of Australia’s peak internet body, Internet Australia, says that while the Coalition’s multi-technology mix (MTM) model was promoted as being able to deliver broadband faster and cheaper, this has not been the case.
“Over the past three years Australia has dropped from a poor 30th on global internet speed rankings to an appalling 60th,” Patton said.
“One of our biggest competitors as a regional technology hub, Singapore, already has internet access 100 times faster than ours.”
Despite public perception, this isn’t due to the shift in the technology used in the roll-out, but rather the delays in delivery and low uptake. Too many Australians still use old, slower ADSL connections.
In fact, since 2013, the majority of the roll-out has been FTTP, with 725,000 of the NBN’s 900,000 customers accessing the network using that technology. And those users have reported mostly positive experiences, with the only real complaints coming from technicians cancelling appointments.
According to the NBN’s last financial results, FTTP has cost them $3558 per household.
Patton said when the NBN announced this week that it had “passed” two million homes, they meant running the cables along the street.
“What we need to do now is to concentrate on getting customers signed up,” he said.
“The more customers on the NBN, the more revenue they’ll receive and the less money they will need to borrow to complete the roll-out.”
The FTTN roll-out finally began in September 2015, and has already available to 300,000 premises, slightly ahead of schedule. Of that 300,000, just 43,553 are using it. The results have been fairly lacklustre too, with peak hour congestion bringing speeds down below the levels customers were used to via ADSL.
Customers are reporting speed fluctuations of between 90Mbps download and 12ms ping in off peak times to as low as 3Mbps and 140ms ping during peak times between 4pm and midnight.
That equates as 2 mins 30 secs to download an HD episode of Games of Thrones in offpeak, or a little over 60 minutes during peak periods.
Patton says that the move to fibre-to-the-node has been a retrograde step, and it will need to be upgraded again to meet international standards by the time the roll-out is completed.
“Millions of dollars of ‘sunk costs’ will have been wasted,” he said.
“In the meantime, all those homes connected via FTTN will see their Internet access speeds remain fairly static while others on the technically superior fibre service will see their speeds keep increasing over time.
“There is a technical limit to how much faster we can make the copper go, whereas fibre networks will experience significant speed gains in coming years.”
While HFC trials have officially begun in Brisbane, the official launch is due for the end of June, just a few days before the election. How it will perform when it comes to speeds and congestion is still unknown, but the NBN is planning upgrades (to DOCSIS 3.1) in early 2017, to deliver download speeds of up to 10Gbps.
There are also concerns around the Optus HFC network, which makes up around a third of the total HFC footprint, with leaked documents reporting it’s in poor condition in many places and some parts even need to be ripped up.
The bottom line for Patton is that the political squabbling over the NBN needs to stop so it can be built.
Like Australia’s $50 billion submarine program, he says everyone needs to think in generational terms.
“We need to be valuing it over the long term – 30 to 40 years – not over a four-year budget cycle,” he said.
“We didn’t have this sort of squabbling when it came to the Snowy Mountains Scheme or the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
“These projects, like the NBN, were long term investments in the country’s future and were rightly seen as such. Once construction began everyone acknowledged that they were much-needed, just like fast, ubiquitous broadband is today.”
This story originally appeared on Business Insider.