Should we mourn the loss of the NBN?

Should we mourn the loss of the NBN?


With a change in government, many people will be disappointed because Labor’s major infrastructure project for the past six years, the National Broadband Network – with its promise of super-fast broadband speeds with up to 1000 megabits per second – will likely be dumped in favour of the Coalition’s alternative.

But should we mourn for its loss?

Jason Cartwright from TechAU and Renai LeMay from Delimiter are obviously sad that the project is now being scrapped in favour of a more technologically inferior product. They are of course right in saying that, because comparatively, the Coalition’s plan offers a guarantee of 25Mbps speeds through its fibre-to-the-node network (where there will be a fibre connection to a street cabinet, and then through copper from the cabinet to your home).

However, Luke Hopewell from Gizmodo Australia takes a different view – that we should not mourn the loss of it. Put simply, Hopewell argues that the savings can be used for something more tangible, like the Gonski education reforms and the National Disability Insurance scheme (both schemes, I might add, were championed under Julia Gillard and have some bipartisan support now).

LeMay called Hopewell’s analysis “ridiculous”, writing, “We’re not talking about Turnbull having a different view than his wife on what colour he should paint his house. We’re talking about the Coalition radically changing Australia’s largest-ever infrastructure project… This isn’t a small deal — the loss of the FTTP model for the NBN is probably the most significant immediate impact of a new Government in Australia.

Last night, I was more inclined to agree with LeMay. It would be devastating to see Australia’s biggest infrastructure project axed because of a change of government who didn’t share the same views.

Today, with a much more sober head (from a sugar coma I was trying to induce), I think we should still mourn for the NBN.

However, we shouldn’t mourn for Labor’s implementation of that idea.

Let’s be frank, it was looking likely that Labor would not be able to build this by the promised 2021 date, despite the reassurances from former communications minister Senator Stephen Conroy and his successor Anthony Albanese.

It has been hit with several delays, though some not the fault of Labor; while the company responsible for the rollout, NBN Co, has continually missed their targets (even when the Government cut them for it to claim it met targets) and had to splurge more money earlier in the year in order to ramp up construction. On top of the subcontractor issues recently plaguing the troubled construction, and reports of cost blowouts of $5 billion, it would be a tough to keep the project on schedule and within costs.

However, for me, I became worried about a different prospect – what would happened if they managed to complete the rollout by the 2021 date, despite the litany of problems we’ve seen in the past two years. That would be one of two things – that the Rudd government got their shit together, or that they had cut corners in order to speed up construction. Given the former point is highly unlikely, if they had won this year’s election, then there would be more problems.

I would rather have a slower but well-constructed network, as opposed to a faster, but rushed network.

And we’re starting to see that even today – rushed construction leading to some shoddy work that would make Today Tonight drool all over. The Australian is reporting that at least 21,000 homes that already are connected contained defects in its construction. Of course, NBN Co is disputing that figure.

And the fact that the Labor government opted to build the network with public funds without a cost-benefit analysis would come to bite them later in the NBN debate. I mean, who builds something without a cost-benefit analysis, especially with public funds? The proposal for a Rowville train line in my area – which has been long-debated for many years – has a cost-benefit analysis for it (and looks like we’re not getting it anytime soon, given the Coalition’s refusal to fund the Melbourne Metro project).

What we should mourn was Labor’s idea and vision of the National Broadband Network: a fibre-to-the-premises network, built with sound and future-proof technology (fibre optic), and rolled out to 93 percent of Australian homes.

Why? Because it won’t be ever suggested again until when we have another debate about our broadband future in the next 30 years or so.

Time to properly scrutinise the Turnbull plan

malcolm turnbull nbn

Our eyes must now turn to the Turnbull’s NBN alternative – affectionately labelled as #fraudband by Labor in the past few months. It may be slower, but it is cheaper and faster to roll out. But it might not be as cheap as people think it might be – and that is largely because of the existing copper network.

First problem is the price of acquiring it. Turnbull says that it wouldn’t cost extra to gain access to Telstra’s copper network. However, some telecommunications commentators are saying that Telstra will charge more for access. Of course, we’ll have to wait and see once Turnbull starts renegotiating the contracts to change the network from fibre-to-the-premises to fibre-to-the-node.

The other concern is the state of the current copper network. Telstra hasn’t given any indication of the state of the network, but according to The Conversation, anecdotal evidence suggests that it could be $1 billion a year. On top of that, we’ll probably need to replace or spend money fixing up parts of the existing the copper network so it can use VDSL because an aged copper line will reduce its performance.

We’re not entirely sure how much of the copper network repairs and replacement costs have been factored in the Coalition’s figures – I assume very little with the large chunk of that $29.5 billion on constructing the nodes and connecting the fibre optic cable to them.  However, put simply, it’s like purchasing a printer. The printer itself is cheap, but it will cost a lot more in the long term to maintain it (e.g. ink and paper).

Another question I have about the Coalition’s plan is where will the nodes be located in order to guarantee a 25Mbps speed, as promised. VDSL still relies on the copper network, and as such still suffers the same faults as ADSL. The further you are away from the node, your speed is reduced; and it could suffer if water gets into the cables.

With Turnbull in government, we can finally start asking proper questions on their alternative – given they have to implement it now.

They can no longer simply talk, they have to act as well.

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