Govt NBN backflip is a missed opportunity

Mark Gregory

The government decision to support NBN Co’s $4.5 billion NBN upgrade to provide 75 per cent of fixed line premises with access to 1 Gbps connections by 2023 is a missed opportunity.

Under the Coalition, the cost of the NBN has now blown out to $57 billion and it is anticipated that the final cost to provide 1 Gbps connections to the 93 per cent of premises included in Labor’s 2010 plan will be about $60 billion.

The Coalition’s new plan for premises to be upgraded using a demand-based approach, similar to that used in New Zealand and the UK, could entrench the digital divide in Australia.

One in five premises appears to have been put into the too hard basket and this means that many multi-dwelling buildings and homes in regional areas will be left with underperforming, unreliable copper-based technologies.

cyber security
Ooooh its fibre: Mark Gregory says the upgrade risks a digital divide

Those that cannot afford the currently over-priced NBN plans will also be left with underperforming, unreliable copper-based connections to the NBN.

It should be remembered that the $10 billion blowout to the cost of the NBN that has occurred due to the Coalition Government’s flip-flopping between the copper-based technologies and an all fibre network has meant higher costs to consumers and business.

At a time when interest rates are at an all-time low and there is a need to boost infrastructure spending to help move the nation forward as the economy recovers from the COVID pandemic, the government is missing an important opportunity.

Labor said of their original NBN plan “do it once, do it with fibre.” Whilst the Coalition’s announcement is partially welcomed because it moves the NBN in the right direction, it highlights the folly of their approach.

The nonsense that has been put forward by Coalition ministers and their supporter as justification for the multi-technology mix NBN provides a stark reminder that Australia has gone backwards over the past six years and is now a decade behind our competitors in the global digital economy.

Fibre to the Premises (FTTP) was described by former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull as the “gold-plated-option” and there would be no foreseeable need for FTTP for many years to come.

In 2011, Mr Turnbull’s predecessor as Prime Minister, Tony Abbott said “It’s pretty obvious that the main usage for the NBN is going to be internet-based television, video entertainment and gaming. We are not against using the internet for all these things, but do we really want to invest $50 billion worth of hard-earned taxpayers’ money in what is essentially a video entertainment system?”

If the original NBN rollout had not been stopped, the nation would now be in a much better position. NBN Co would be offering products at far lower cost than it is now, and it would be looking to increase business products and fibre rollout into regional and remote areas.

The announcement today made no mention of replacement satellites nor how capacity might be increased to underserved regional and remote areas.

The Coalition’s announcement today was difficult to understand for several reasons.

NBN Co’s business model is teetering on the edge due to competition from mobile operators and low take up of 50 or 100 Mbps plans due to high cost of the underperforming NBN plans.

Putting fibre into premises was an obvious step in 2010, and in 2020, as the global pandemic continues to affect our lives, there should be no ifs and buts.

Why the Coalition Government continues to fumble telecommunications policy is hard to grasp. Is it ideology?

It should not be about us and them, nor should it be about who can afford an over-priced high speed broadband plan. There must be a realisation by Government that telecommunications is essential and the community and economy benefits when access to reliable high speed and affordable broadband is provided.

Telecommunications is an essential service and every Australian, irrespective of where they live or work, irrespective of their socio-economic standing, should be provided with a FTTP, or equivalent, connection to the NBN at an affordable cost.

Mark Gregory is an Associate Professor in the School of Engineering at RMIT University and is the Managing Editor of the Journal of Telecommunications and the Digital Economy

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  1. Gregory Heath 4 years ago

    Great article which nails the short comings of the LNP approach and the befuddlement of NBN. I live in regional Victoria and am connected to Fixed Wireless, this really is a dud technology with speeds that fluctuate wildly over 24 hour period and NBN not prepared to guarantee a busy hour service of more 6mbps and with FW “Plus” have cut upload speeds from 15 or so Mbps to 3 – 4 range (they claim up to 10 but no one gets it). The latest iteration of the NBN plan just leaves us stranded with an increasingly congested service and no upgrade path and high prices for the service actually get. You would think NBN might be looking at 5G but it seems not, or a roll out of fibre to take the pressure off more congested cells, but no nothing.

  2. Stephen Mackay 4 years ago

    This really is a well-written, insightful and hard-hitting article Mark. I guess many of us got tired of pointing out over the years that the Coalition’s attempt to broadband the country “on the cheap” could turn out to be counter-productive. You not only push this point home but highlight that it’s also become MORE expensive than it should have been and will possibly – probably even – exacerbate a digital divide.

    More please!!

  3. Devin 4 years ago

    I do empathise with consumers who are either on FTTN or FTTC, with inferior performance relative to me, with HFC. However I cannot disregard the thinking that this build may well have been an example of the Agile Architecture approach; which is about iteratively improving the End-product-Architecture (in the course of time). This approach may have enabled NBNCo to

    -> Deliver the current Roadmap point sooner than what they would’ve with Overall-FTTP; enabling it to be available during the Pandemic.
    -> Embark on the second phase knowing FTTN/C and it’s ramifications much better; hence present an FTTP solution based upon demand and best-fit.

  4. Bill Caelli 4 years ago

    BUT – what about those, like us, who live with decaying, old twisted pair copper wire from the roadside hub to the house? It is not just speed that we do not get BUT reliability as many dropouts occur – depending on the weather or anything else. AND we are just a few Kms from the Gold Coast (the “Hinterland”). At least we have had reliable train service to Nerang now for many years – but DEFINITELY NOT the same for the”information superhighway” – or “information goat track” as we call it here.

    • Devin 4 years ago

      “Information Goat-Track” ; just what I need for a Friday evening ????

  5. Mike Sadler 4 years ago

    Upgrade? Partial remediation I’d say. My guess is that this is purely a play by NBNCo to prevent overbuild… overbuild that is destined to happen if the monopoly infrastructure wholesaler provides a sub-standard product. This *may* give Telstra, et al pause to reconsider their *PlanD-10: overbuild and ‘see you in the high court on a restraint of trade brief’*, but it just serves to further entrench the bastardised hodge-podge of the MTM… let alone it adds a ridiculous cost base of ad-hoc civil works that will proceed on nebulous basis of whether ‘people might want faster speeds’ – seriously?

    That this ridiculous ideological exercise is happening under Scotty from Marketing is even more galling. Uniquely Immovable by the Party Room, Scotty could have facilitated a huge long-term productivity boost for the regions and city fringes and an immediate recession busting infrastructure project my making the call to bankroll (I’m even OK if they call it a ‘loan’) an immediate transition to a GPON-all-the-way FTTP NBN… including the original (and often overlooked) 4 port CPE. Scotty is uniquely placed to get the bus to reverse back a bit and then run over the rotting corpses of Turnbull and Abbott a few more times by simply explaining “They was WRONG; IDIOTS – and anyway, stimulus”. While he’s at it, he’d get a chance negotiate gaff taping the mouths of the Nat’s, in return for the increased opportunities an FTTP NBN (and that 4 port CPE) would bring to their regional constituents.

    So yeah; missed opportunity for sure. But is scarcely an upgrade 🙁

  6. Jennifer Herrick 4 years ago

    Great article Mark. I live in Umina. I was one of the first in 4 only ports available thru Woy Woy Exchange in 1998. I won’t bore you with the rest of my experience but suffice to say there have been many moments. Cheers Jen

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