NBN stars collide — waiting for the Big Bang

By LAURIE PATTON | 10 March 2016 

Two stars collided in Canberra last week, but the big bang is yet to be heard.

On Thursday, a leak from somewhere inside NBN revealed that our nation building broadband company has been secretly trialling new, thinner, cabling that will significantly reduce installation costs for the entire fibre-optic backbone, including the technically superior fibre to the premises (FTTP) solution.

On Friday, the Senate Select Committee on the NBN held a one day hearing. It was billed as an opportunity for members to hear from experts who could help decipher the techno-speak that has made what, in the end, is a pretty simple choice look inordinately complex.

Up first was a group of academics with serious grunt when it comes to anything to do with electronic communications, especially of the broadband kind. They largely spoke in unison. Although if you’ve heard the joke about putting three lawyers in a room and getting four opinions you’ll understand that at times the debate got quite heated.

In the end, however, it was pretty clear that the knowledge bank thought that we were having a lend of ourselves if we thought that fibre to the node (FttN) was a long term option any time after the Christmas after next.

In the middle of the day we heard from Chorus NZ. They’re the group building the equivalent of our NBN across the ditch. Under questioning from former communications minister Senator Stephen Conroy, the good folk from Chorus revealed that they have brought down the costs of their fibre installations by a whopping 29 percent [Update: by 2017 it was closer to 50 percent].

Others suggested that this means the cost of running fibre to the premises is starting to be very close to that of copper installations. When you talk about long term amortisation and add in lower running costs, it looks like a proverbial no-brainer. Projects like the Snowy Mountains Scheme weren’t constrained by a short term politically-based budget cycle of course.

Senator Conroy’s forensic examination of the Chorus financial statements was reminiscent of his enthusiastic interrogations of NBN executives at recent Senate Estimates hearings. Except for one thing. The Chorus guys seemed quite happy to play along. In fact, it made me wonder if the Senator wasn’t practicing the old barrister’s trick of not asking a question unless you already know the answer.

It was all good fun, but it raised serious issues for NBN and for the Government’s multi-technology mix (MTM) model. You’ll recall, of course, that FttN was brought into the mix because it was supposed to deliver a broadband network sooner and cheaper.

However, we’ve had well documented delays which are due in large part to the fact that, unlike fibre which is self-supporting, copper wire requires a supply of electricity. So the chance of copper-based NBN services arriving a whole lot sooner for most people seems to be on the slide, just like ADSL speeds as more and more homes in the neighbourhood are connected.

The last to appear on Friday were representatives of the new streaming television services Presto and Stan. They gave a good account of how important fast broadband is for their fledgling businesses. A pity they weren’t around earlier in the day when Greens Senator Scott Ludlam had made it pretty clear he’d had enough of people telling him about the marvellous things you can’t watch on your current sub-par Internet service. The Senator is focussing on other benefits in areas like health, education and, dare I mention that word again, innovation.

Thankfully for us, it turned out Senator Ludlam was very interested in hearing what Internet Australia had to say. He later posted on Facebook: “Internet Australia are the peak body representing users of the Internet. They’re the people we should most be listening to about the NBN”.

When our turn came I went first, before handing over to a couple of board members who have probably forgotten more than most people will ever know about this stuff. Over the previous weekend we’d carried out a survey of our (mostly techie) members. As there were only about 50 respondents we did not claim this to be scientifically rigorous, but we pointed out that the results match the anecdotal evidence that we regularly receive from our members.

Asked about the MTM model, only four percent said they were satisfied, 16 percent were neutral, 47 percent dissatisfied, and 33 percent extremely dissatisfied. You can count too, so you’ve already worked out that 80 percent of Internet Australia’s members think we are on the wrong broadband path.

On whether NBN speeds would be sufficient for them and for their customers’ needs over the next five to ten years, six percent answered yes, 78 percent said no, while 16 percent said “don’t know”.

Next up was our chair, George Fong, who living and working in Ballarat was able to talk with authority about the special requirements of people in regional areas. By the time he’d finished I thought that the Nationals would probably offer George honorary party membership.

Our other trump card was vice-chair Paul Brooks. Dr Brooks is a genuine rocket scientist. In his spare time he’s also on the Board of the Interplanetary Network Chapter of the global Internet Society, where he is working on extending the Internet into space. He explained, among other things, that fibre, once laid, is more or less infinitely upgradable. Copper, on the other hand, has perhaps 10 to 15 years of life left before it will have to be ripped out and replaced with fibre. In the meantime, those stuck with FttN will become second class Internet citizens while those with FttP will be on a continuous upgrade path. Dr Brooks pointed to Singapore and Hong Kong as countries already delivering broadband to their households and businesses hundreds of times faster than our modest long term NBN promises.

“Deploy fibre” was the short and simple answer from Dr Brooks when asked what the Government should do with the National Broadband Network.

If we wish to become a leading innovation nation we’ll need a broadband service able to keep pace with comparable countries. Armed with the information that came to light last week, Internet Australia believes it is time to put aside politics. We need the Government and the Opposition to come together and agree on a bipartisan approach that sees Australia moving forward in the 21st Century in a position to compete in a digitally enabled world economy.

That pretty much summed up the theme of last Friday’s Senate committee session. If they’d just had us up first the honourable senators could have all been on their way home by morning tea time!

(Laurie Patton was CEO / Executive Director of Internet Australia, the NFP peak body representing the interests of Internet users from 2014-2017.)