There's Still Time To Fix Australia's NBN

It is not too late to change the current direction of Australia's NBN from one that just meets today's demands, to one that we need for the future. Former NBN boss Mike Quigley explains what's wrong with the current model and why we need to change it...

A National Broadband Network (NBN) based on Fibre to the Premises (FTTP) was, and still is, the right answer for Australia’s broadband needs.

Compared to the original FTTP-based NBN, we are currently on the way to a much poorer performing broadband network with a mix of FTTP, fibre to the node (FTTN) and other technologies. It will entail increased long-term costs and be completed at about the same time as the original project would have been completed.

Around the world, the direction in which new builds of fixed broadband networks are headed has become clear. The world is increasingly moving towards FTTP. As a consequence, advances are being made in FTTP technology that make it cheaper and easier to deploy.

These developments, which have taken place in the last few years, have only reinforced the rationale for basing Australia’s NBN on FTTP.

Not too late to change

It is not too late to change the current direction of the NBN, but that change would need to be made in a controlled and managed way to ensure the project is not subject to another major disruption.

Why has it been so hard to get at the facts regarding the costs and timing of the FTTP-based NBN? The answer, as we all know, is that the NBN project has been from its inception a contentious political issue.

Initiated by the Labor party back in 2009, it was a good example of a government being courageous enough to initiate a large and complex project for the public good.

The original NBN was a visionary project and would have created a valuable asset for the Australian public. It didn’t take long, though, for the attacks on the project to start.

But the fact – confirmed this week - remains that over the past three years, Australia’s world ranking for average peak connection speeds dropped from 30th to 60th. We shouldn’t have been happy with being ranked 30th in the first place.

Yet the drivers of faster speeds and capacities for fixed broadband have not abated. Quite the contrary.

The latest Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows internet usage has been increasing over the years, from 191,839 terabytes downloaded in the month of December 2010 to 1,714,922 terabytes in December 2015. That’s nearly a ninefold increase in five years.

What’s more, Cisco is forecasting that global broadband speeds will nearly double between 2015 and 2020.

From megabits to gigabits

That’s why the debate in the United States and Asia is about gigabit per second speeds, not about whether 25MBps or 50Mbps is sufficient.

It is a bit surprising that we continue to hear the argument that nobody is buying a 1Gbps service today, so why build a network that can deliver that much speed? 25Mbps to 50Mbps is more than enough.

This has been a mantra for the Coalition, and it was supported in the view by the Vertigan committee, which was set up to review the NBN. In its final report, the committee assumed that the median household would require only 15Mb/s by 2023.

It seems especially curious that a government that styles itself as the innovation and infrastructure government should argue this. Because this argument betrays a complete lack of understanding of what the original FTTP NBN was all about.

It was about providing the vital infrastructure that Australia needs in order to remain competitive internationally in the 21st century.

It is arguable that, today, most homes and businesses can get by with speeds of up to 50Mbps. But already there are many home-based businesses that can’t and are demanding 100Mbps or more.

Gigabit services are just starting to emerge elsewhere in the world, so the applications that can take advantage of this type of speed are in their infancy. But we all know they are coming.

To spend billions of dollars on building a major piece of national infrastructure that just about meets demand today, but doesn’t allow for any significant growth over the next ten or 20 years is incredibly short-sighted.

It is such a pity that so much time and effort has been spent on trying to discredit and destroy the original FTTP-based NBN plan. Equally, it’s a pity the Coalition has put its faith in what has turned out to be a short-sighted, expensive and backward looking multi-technology mix (MTM) plan based on copper.

The nation is going to be bearing the consequences of those decisions for years to come – in higher costs and poorer performance in an area that is critical to its long-term future. Betting tens of billions of taxpayers dollars at this time on copper access technologies, as the Coalition has done, is a huge miscalculation.

The number of telcos still focussed on squeezing out the last bit of value from their old copper networks continues to decrease every year. Even the UK’s BT, which has been the poster child for FTTN, is now planning to increase its FTTP deployment, in part as a response to pressure from the UK regulator, Ofcom.

Come the election

No matter what the outcome of the upcoming election, the original vision of a broadband network built largely on a future-proof FTTP solution is now going to happen over a longer period and at a greater cost to taxpayers.

The Coalition is likely to continue with the FTTN and Hybrid fiber-coaxial (HFC) deployments and the peak funding is likely to be in the range of A$49 billion to A$56 billion. It will take a “heroic” effort, as NBN Co’s chairman Ziggy Switkowski has said, to have the network completed by the end of 2020.

Just when the FTTN equipment will need to be upgraded to provide higher speeds is an unknown but given what is happening overseas, it is unlikely to be very long. No one has yet made public the estimated costs of this upgrade.

Should the Labor party win the election, we can expect a managed transition from FTTN to FTTP, increasing the number of premises served by FTTP by about two million.

Given what we now know about the deployment costs of FTTP versus FTTN, I would not expect this transition to FTTP to make a big difference to deployment costs or timing of completing the NBN. It will result, however, in a network that is a step closer to the desired end state.

While it is impossible to turn back the clock on the MTM, it is still possible to make changes to the current direction, without introducing another major disruption. Changes that will get us closer to building the right network for the long term.

It is becoming increasingly obvious, especially to customers, that an NBN based on FTTP is a much better network than an MTM-based NBN from every angle – speed and capacity delivery, maintenance costs, reliability, longevity and upgrade costs.

An FTTP network would be a much more valuable public asset and could generate greater cash flows for the government due to lower maintenance, higher revenues and almost no upgrade costs. And it would be vastly superior in driving growth through the wider economy.

So it is a great pity that before making the shift to the MTM, the Coalition did not heed the words re-quoted by the then independent MP for New England, Tony Windsor: “Do it right, do it once, do it with fibre.”

Mike Quigley, Adjunct Professor in the School of Computing and Communications, University of Technology Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation.


Comments

    Unless Labour gets in, it is just too late to change it... if the ex-communications minister turned prime minister cant admit that the policy he had showed great distaste for while towing the party line under Abbott is wrong now he is in charge and should change. He thinks roads and trains are the infrastructure of the future... its not 1970.

    eh.. i've been informed as construction has "started" on my area.. i'll be receving fttn despite the rest of the town i'm in getting fttp... so just gonna have to try and save up the $15000 to upgrade

    "It is becoming increasingly obvious, especially to customers, that an NBN based on FTTP is a much better network than an MTM-based NBN from every angle – speed and capacity delivery, maintenance costs, reliability, longevity and upgrade costs."

    Labor's FTTP solution has fixed wireless and satellite components. So it too is a multi-technology-mix. There are still going to be the haves and have nots. And the people that most need the equalisation, are still going to be the ones that don't get the speed.

    The destruction that Abbott, Turnbull and their puppet Morrow have wreaked upon the NBN is nothing short of criminal vandalism.

    They have deliberately hobbled the network with inadequate, obsolete technology and relegated Australia to laughable third world digital status.

    Abbott and Turnbull placed political gamesmanship and wilful sabotage ahead of the national interest. Both of them should be charged with treason.

    At this stage I don't see the Liberal government changing there strategy any time in the near future, they have ignored experts, the public and even their own NBN board.

    Their is currently a petition for Royal Commission to investigate the NBN, created by the editor of Delimiter, I believe if it's successful It might be able to fix the NBN.

    https://www.change.org/p/opposition-leader-bill-shorten-we-demand-a-royal-commission-into-the-nbn

    Wrong.. Any premise that states that the original plan was to build an asset for Australia, forgets history. The Original plan for NBN was a tender, where the network would have been built by a private industry bidder. The only problem was one little Mexican was smarter than the entire Labour Government, especially the then minister.
    So we ended up with a bloated, Government Enterprise, being used as a political football.
    Those countries we so envy who pushed their speeds up and therefore our ranking down relied on private industry to build the network and most importantly allowed that industry to decide the technology.

    I find it particularly upsetting that a school of 320 students in Alice Springs will be supplied only FTTN (25/5 guaranteed). What hypocrisy "Education Innovation" NOT.

    FTTP is a bit of a waste when they could just do Fibre to the driveway.. cuts out the super expensive part of FTTP and you still get fibre to the footpath outside your house.

    93% under Labor is a heck of a lot better than the 20% under the Coalition. if Labor get in they will be trying to get FTTP back to almost 40% of premises.
    With BOTH parties recognising that FTTP is the end-goal, why does the Coalition insist on NBN wasting all that money implementing interim technologies at essentially the same price as fibre?

    Is it right to publish this piece without disclosing the author's past involvement with NBN Co?

      It's right there on the second line. "Former NBN boss Mike Quigley explains what’s wrong with the current model and why we need to change it…"

    To me the NBN has been such a disappointment. As a small business we're due to have it available around September but I'm wondering what the point is, as my friends that are already on it are only getting 3-10Mpbs, I'm already getting that on ADSL. This FTTN system is an absolute white elephant cockup. But you're right, the Coalition (including my local member) don't seem to have any interest in changing/fixing it.

    NBN? According to their build out schedule Turramurra (which is fast becoming a very sought after residential area for families in Northern Sydney suburbs) is not on their 3 year build out plan issued in 2015, i.e. not going to get NBN until after 2018 some time (unspecified)? Are you kidding? Currently you can get turtle pace ADSL2 (+ if you are lucky) but it is a joke of poor quality and sporadic non-performance. Having lived in the Middle East for 5+ years, Australia is the stone age of internet and technology and an embarrassment!
    So, they have built out rural areas and places like Tasmania, wasted large amount of labour and costs on long cables with low user connectivity, rather than focusing on the denser populated areas like the big cities and suburbs.
    For the rural areas, do like other countries do and offer a cheap Internet via satellite dish systems instead of trying to connect these with fibre. Yes, not as fast as fibre, but not far off and seems to work everywhere else in the world, except Oz where the government limits permits for internet via satellite to desert rats, stations and special needy people. Talk about lack of planning abilities from pollo's and eggheads, and these guys run our country!

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