By Julian Bajkowski
The Coalition has gambled large on reviving Australia’s ageing copper telecommunications network to supply broadband download speeds of between 25 megabits per second and 100 megabits per second to deliver a heavily pared-down and cheaper version of the National Broadband Network (NBN) it claims will be completed by the end of 2019.
Speaking at the official launch of the Coalition’s broadband policy at Fox Sports studios in the Sydney suburb of Artarmon, Opposition leader Tony Abbott and shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull laid out plans for a Fibre-to-the-Node (FTTN) network they claim can be delivered for far less than Labor’s present Fibre-to-the-Premises that has official headline cost $37.4 billion.
The Coalition’s official costing for its FTTN-based NBN now stands at $29.5 billion – a figure that is $7.9 billion cheaper than Labor’s official FTTP price-tag.
The announcement of the Coalition’s FTTN plans was widely anticipated after months of selected leaking.
However both Mr Turnbull and Mr Abbott have refused to give an estimate for the expected useable lifespan of the copper-based network that Telstra gladly agreed to vend into the NBN as part of a deal to structurally separate the carrier’s retail and wholesale arms.
The question of the realistic useful lifespan of the copper network is a key issue in terms of both costing and service delivery, especially when it comes to any necessity to renew connections directly to houses premises to achieve higher data carriage speeds.
Generally speaking, copper is now widely regarded within the telecommunications industry as being at the upper-end of achievable speeds; while optical fibre, which conveys data using photons rather than electrons, is believed to still have some way to go.
“Obviously all infrastructure has a lifespan, copper has a lifespan, fibre has a lifespan so all infrastructure has a lifespan. Infrastructure over time has to be renewed but there is no reason why most of the copper that is in place can’t continue to be used,” Mr Abbott said in response to a question from Government News.
“One of the problems with the Labor NBN is that it junks perfectly useful infrastructure, it junks useful copper, useful HFC (hybrid coaxial) cabling and we don’t want to do this,” Mr Abbott said just before Mr Turnbull jumped in to better clarify how the Coalition sees the boundaries of copper’s capacity.
“When you roll out a FTTN network you should always do so with a view to having the option of going FTTP down the track,” Mr Turnbull said.
Just how far down the track in terms of time and what optical replacements may later be required is an important factor for communities relying on copper, not least because they could potentially be left behind areas that get fibre.
Another important issue is that if the lifespan of copper in a particular area is relatively short, further upgrades could be later required later at an additional cost.
When asked what the Coalition’s estimate for the lifespan of copper was, Mr Turnbull said “nobody knows” before talking-up copper’s potential to be turbo-charged.
“Copper is delivering much faster speeds today through xdsl, adsl, adsl+, vdsl vdsl2+, vdsl 2+ with vectoring,” Mr Turnbull said.
“All of these technologies are delivering dramatically higher speeds. You’re getting over 100 [megabits per second] on the copper you so deride. [Telecommunication carriers] around the world are delivering this.”
“Putting that additional fibre capacity out to the fibre distribution point is very cheap to do . . . so that’s how you provision fibre on demand, that’s how you provision upgrades.”
These recent developments in making copper faster were not around when the Coalition had previously considered FTTN Mr Turnbull said.
While the Coalition’s commitment to retaining copper and pay-television cabling as a means to deliver faster broadband is unlikely to please most of the local technology industry, the Coalition’s broadband election policy is still substantially more thorough than a previous attempt that saw both Mr Abbott and erstwhile Communications shadow Tony Smith flounder badly on details.
In a tacit admission of how badly askew the Coalition previous broadband policy went, Mr Abbott repeatedly praised Mr Turnbull’s efforts to deliver a policy that he said was one of the best offered yet by an opposition.
Mr Abbott is now effusive in his enthusiasm for the technology that has previously caused the Coalition so many headaches – and cost it votes and ultimately government because of the position of the independents at the last election.
“Our modern lives are absolutely unimaginable without access to broadband technology. I couldn’t do my job without access to broadband technology,” Mr Abbott said – a far cry from his previous directive to Mr Turnbull to demolish the NBN.
“Teachers, nurses, businesspeople, people at home, millions and millions of Australians are using broadband every single day and it’s important that they are getting better broadband services than they are currently getting under this government,” Mr Abbott said.
But there also some important caveats on the Coalition’s reuse of copper, especially in areas where the heritage telecommunications plumbing is experiencing difficulties.
“In an area where there is a lot of ground water and there are a lot of problems, endemic problems with the copper – that’s an area where you might put fibre right through that part of the country,” Mr Turnbull said.
“You just make a rational business decision, a cost effective business decision.”
In terms of implementation detail and timelines, the Coalition has vowed to undertake a “strategic review” of NBN Co. if elected which it expects will report back to it within 60 days on a slew of issues including progress, financial status and the cost and time under existing policies and the costs and times of variations like running FTTN to established areas.
A second probe will come in the form of “a separate independent audit to examine the public policy process which led to the NBN and the NBN Co’s governance.”
And a third review will come in the form of an “independent cost benefit analysis and review of regulation” that will look into the “direct and indirect value, in economic and social terms, of increased broadband speeds, and to what extent broadband should be supported by the government?”
At the policy launch Mr Turnbull confirmed that a cost benefit analysis would also include the present NBN model.
The trifecta of governance and policy investigations constitute prudent insurance for an incoming government because they can act to realign public and industry expectations in terms of any changes to stated election policies base – all based on arm’s-length or independent advice.
They could also buy the Coalition valuable time if the extent of the present NBN rollout makes delivering an FTTN alternative slower, or more expensive, than the Coalition has publicly anticipated.
Both Mr Abbott and Mr Turnbull confirmed that the NBN will stay ‘off Budget’ in terms of its financial treatment in government accounts.
As for selling off the controversial infrastructure asset in the future – which is how Telstra came to become a private rather than a government entity – Mr Abbott said “we won’t sell until it’s ready to sell.”
“The deal will not be bad news for Telstra. Telstra shareholders have nothing to fear from our approach,” Mr Abbott said.
Telstra shares closed higher by 2 per cent at $4.58.
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