Australia will still need to invest heavily in a fibre optic network to deliver on the goal of providing high-speed broadband to the population regardless of what happens at the next Federal election, according to the head of a representative body leading industry discussions on the National Broadband Network (NBN).
In the wake of the Federal Government celebrating the first birthday of its $43 billion project and comments from shadow communications minister, Tony Smith, that the plan was a “reckless adventure”, Communications Alliance NBN lead, Dr Paul Brooks, said it was likely both parties retained the same goal of getting fast broadband to as much of the population as they can despite the project remaining highly politicized and under threat of being canned should power change hands.
“You’d have to think that the opposition would have an alternative strategy,” Brooks said. “While they may not support the NBN in its current form and you could see that as a bit of tit for tat for what the current government did to the Opel project, they may well look to restart the Opel project or something similar. Either way I think we would get an alternative high-bandwidth network architecture vision and plan rolled out.”
Last week the minister for broadband, communications and the digital economy, Stephen Conroy, claimed that the commencement of the NBN rollout in Tasmania late last year, the launch of the $250 million NBN Regional Backbone Blackspots Program in December, the March launch of Mainland Australia NBN trial sites, and several NBN Co industry consultations were proof that significant progress had been made on the NBN.
In contrast, shadow communications minister, Tony Smith, wrote in his blog that the Coalition believed there were better ways to drive a comprehensive upgrade of Australia’s broadband infrastructure both nationally and in under-served areas, although he didn’t provide further details.
“The Coalition will be looking to implement a very different, responsible and targeted approach that will be designed to deliver better, affordable, reliable broadband services where they are needed without a reckless waste of taxpayer’s funds, as well as encouraging the private sector to upgrade broadband infrastructure,” Smith wrote.
The Opposition, while persistently critical of the NBN, had for some time remained quiet on their own policy on the project and although Smith’s comments are far from outlining a viable alternative, it was the first time the Opposition had stated it would not support the existing NBN plan.
Smith’s move has raised questions in the industry as to how much additional cost would be needed to go through another round of planning and tenders to get to the point of rolling out an alternative network project should the Opposition win power and what the macro-economic cost would be of delaying further.
However, Brooks contends 12-months of industry discussions on the project, including input from NBN Co, Telstra, Optus and other key stakeholders, would not go to waste.
“There is a large part of the Comms Alliance project which would be applicable, irrespective of what ends up getting proposed,” he said. “In a fibre-to-the-node network for example, all the work on end-user premises and what wiring and cabling would be needed inside the home would all be completely valid and true. Operations, processes or how a new network entity would deal with wholesale services and talking to the retail market place – the processes and service provisioning and all that sort of stuff, you would have to imagine would be 95 per cent the same; it would be transportable. We have deliberately structured the output to be discussing the options available and highlighting a number of alternative ways of doing things.”
Brooks added there was little doubt that regardless of what percentage of wireless and satellite technology was used in a high-speed broadband network – the Opposition is suggesting it would use more than the 10 per cent in the existing fibre-to-the-premises NBN plan – a considerable investment in a fibre backbone will be necessary and ultimately optic fibre was a much more scalable and future proof option.
“Whether the locations on the end of the fibre turns out to be a box on the side of the house or a box on the side of the radio tower doesn’t make a lot of difference to the fibre network, other than to a number of end point connections,” he said. “On a national basis the core of the network would be the same anyway. They are complementary.
“There is a long way to go. It is a damn big place to dig all of that in. It is expensive so you get to a stage that once you have built out the fibre to a certain level where the returns to extend it into smaller communities, the number of incremental new customers you can serve doesn't actually justify the cost of the fibre. That is where you will see radio techniques coming in to fulfill that last or second last mile connection. But that is the areas that will have, relatively speaking, lower capacity requirements than the urban core.”