Shadow Communications Minister Jason Clare is framing an election argument around the government’s “Copperart version of the NBN” as damaging leaks about the slow roll-out, cost over-runs and poor performance continue to undermine the project’s leadership.
And it is the unexpectedly high cost of copper remediation that Labor is jumping on.
Speaking at a conference of technology leaders in the Blue Mountains on Monday, Mr Clare said that leaked documents had revealed that the cost of Fibre to the Node had almost tripled – up from $600 a premise to more than $1,600.
He claimed the cost of fixing or replacing old Telstra copper had blown out by more than 1,000 per cent – and pointed to leaks to the Fairfax media last week that revealed according to standards set by NBN Co, if you have a Fibre to the Node NBN connection and it drops out up to five times per day, this is defined as “acceptable.”
But the NBN election argument is shaping to be all about the copper. NBN Co chief executive Bill Morrow finally revealed last week how many nodes would make up its FttN. The answer is more than 30,000.
“A few months ago NBN Co said that they would need an average of 350 metres of new copper for every node they stood up,” Mr Clare said.
“That means NBN Co has to buy more than 10 million metres of new copper to make all of this work.”
“We really are getting a Copperart version of the NBN. 10 million metres is enough copper to connect us here in the Blue Mountains to Bangalore. It’s enough to connect us to Russia. It’s almost enough to get us from here to Silicon Valley.
“And to add insult to injury, we got another leaked document two weeks ago that reveals that while the cost of [FttN] is going up, the cost of Fibre to the Premise is going down.”
Last year NBN Co ran a trial of a new type of fibre architecture in Ballarat that used a ‘skinnier’ fibre and smaller piece of equipment that could fit more easily into the pits and ducts. The results were remarkable and virtually eliminated the need for civil construction work in the local fibre network (called the LNDN).
“As a result the cost of rolling out fibre from the Fibre Exchange (usually a Telstra Exchange) to the pit in the street at the front of a house has dropped massively – from $1,700 to $900 a home,” Mr Clare said.
This is where the NBN fight will be in the lead up to the next election – regardless of when it is held. And for many, broadband is a vote changing issue. When people thought they were getting access to better broadband speeds sooner than they would have under Labor – albeit through Malcolm Turnbull’s cut-down Multi Technology Mix – they were prepared to wait.
But sentiment has changed as we have got nearer to the election and most people have seen no improvement to network speeds. Revelations contained in the media leaks of the last several weeks have again made the NBN a live issue.
“It is a mess, and at the end of all this we are still left with second rate version of the NBN,” Mr Clare said.
Meanwhile, NBN Co chief Bill Morrow appeared before a Senate Select Committee Tuesday, largely refuting the detail of the leaks that have appeared in recent weeks. He has dismissed entirely the claims about performance, cost and roll-out issues.
“First and foremost, the NBN is accelerating; it is on track, on budget, and performing as expected. Our end users, RSPs, delivery partners, and employees are reporting higher engagement and satisfaction levels than ever before,” Mr Morrow said.
“Yes there are challenges, and we are promptly working through them as you would expect.”
Mr Morrow specifically denied that the FttN component of the roll-out was costing more than expected.
Interestingly, Mr Morrow said the ‘skinny’ fibre experiment had shown great promise and was worthy of further investigation.
“We have been working on something we call skinny fibre which reduces the amount of civil works needed to push fibre down a street,” Mr Morrow told the committee.
“We’ve taken concepts from paper analysis to field trials and have recently completed 4,500 homes in a fibre application using skinny fibre. This area actually went live a few weeks ago and we’ve been studying the data since then. The findings are encouraging,” he said.
“Relative to costs, we were able to reduce the CPP by roughly $450 per premises. Relative to time, we also believe we could shave four weeks off the time of the build.”
“As a result, we believe there is merit in exploring this technology further. When we combine skinny fibre with Fibre to the distribution point (FTTdp), we see opportunities in unique areas that would otherwise be slated for fixed wireless or FTTN.”