NBN Co chair says copper in 'reasonable condition'

Ziggy Switkowski backtracks on past statements about copper obsolescence

Copper has proven to be more resilient than NBN Co Chairman Ziggy Switkowski once thought, the former Telstra executive has told a parliamentary committee today.

At a hearing of the Senate Select Committee on the National Broadband Network, Senator Stephen Conroy confronted Switkowski with statements he made 10 years and four years ago indicating that the copper network was nearing its end of life.

While the 60-day review of the NBN won’t be submitted to the government until Monday, Switkowski said today that fibre to the node is the most “probable scenario.” An FTTN plan would use copper for the last mile to the home.

However, Conroy noted that 10 years ago, Switkowski described copper as being at “five minutes to midnight.”

Switkowski makes $50,000 a month as NBN Co acting CEO

Switkowski said he had changed his mind about copper. “Copper has since turned out to be more robust than anybody thought,” he said.

“It was an example of assuming that the technology has been around 100 years [and I thought] it would be obsolescent quite quickly. And that proved to be wrong.”

The existing network is not failing, he said.

“There are millions of ADSL customers and services in Australia … running over the copper network delivering speeds up to several to 10 megabits per second range,” with “normal” customer satisfaction levels, he said. “That leads me to conclude the network is in reasonable condition.”

Conroy asked if the NBN project was on track to bring 25 Mbps broadband services to all homes by 2016. A leaked internal NBN Co document has indicated that the deadline is unlikely to be met.

The NBN Co chairman replied, “We are not on target to delivery anything at this stage.”

However, while he said meeting the 2016 target would be “very challenging,” he stopped short of saying the deadline would definitely be missed.

“The most important thing for the NBN to get right is the rollout and the timing of the rollout, and we haven’t got it right,” Switkowski said.

“Part of the problem with the rollout has been asbestos. Part of it has been the overall remediation program. Part of it has been performance on the NBN Co’s part in terms of the design stage, which has been excessively complicated. Part of it has been a poor understanding on the part of the contractors of the challenges of fibre rollout.

“They have all combined to create an issue today where we’re not rolling out nearly fast enough, and that we are in areas of contention with key players of industry that is simply not a position to be in.”

Switkowski gave a few details about the steps that would be necessary to convert the NBN to a FTTN plan.

Renegotiation with Telstra will take “a number of months,” he said. Telstra shareholders and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) will have to approve the new arrangement, he said.

Migration of Telstra networks from copper to fibre and negotiations with Optus will also require regulatory approval, he said. Switkowski couldn’t say when that would be finished.

The hearing experienced a broadband snafu when Senator Scott Ludlam, who had been videoconferencing into the meeting, suddenly lost his Internet connection in Perth.

The committee took a short break until Ludlam could reconnect by telephone.

The NBN committee was established earlier this month on a joint motion by Labor Senator Kate Lundy and Greens Senator Scott Ludlam. The committee does not include either Turnbull or Shadow Minister Jason Clare because neither are senators.

In the first day of the hearing, Conroy pressed the Department of Communications to confirm that a fibre-to-the-node scheme for the National Broadband Network will result in less revenue for the government.

Follow Adam Bender on Twitter: @WatchAdam

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Tags FTTNStephen Conroyziggy switkowskifibrenbn cofttpNBNbroadbandcopper

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