Telstra’s director of government relations James Shaw has defended the condition of the telco’s copper network, saying it’s "difficult to accept" claims that it is “falling apart."
Shaw fronted the Senate Select Committee on the National Broadband Network on Tuesday and fielded questions about the state of Telstra’s copper wire network.
Telstra has agreed to migrate its customers to the NBN and decommission its copper network, and allow NBN Co to access its pits, pipes and ducts under an $11 billion deal originally signed in 2011 with the previous Labor government.
Late last month, the union representing Telstra field staff – the CEPU – estimated that up to 80 per cent of the telco’s “disgraceful" copper wire network pits had been patched together by plastic bags or ring-barked cables.
Shaw said Telstra’s copper remediation program meant that copper would rarely be older than 30 years, adding that the telco spent “hundreds of millions of dollars” each year to improve and expand the coverage and capabilities of the copper network.
“To Telstra, what is difficult to accept is that a network that currently carries over 10 million voice, broadband and data services connecting consumers, businesses and governments is if you believe some of the claims … falling apart,” Shaw said.
“It is true that older parts of the network are susceptible to water and the number of faults we need to restore increases with sustained rain, particularly during the wet season in the north of Australia.
“It’s also true that during these times we sometimes get delays in restoring and connecting services.”
Shaw acknowledged that the condition of Telstra’s copper network had come under significant scrutiny since the Coalition government announced it intended to move to a “mixed technology approach” for the NBN that incorporated HFC and FTTN technology.
“What this may mean for our network assets and services – which under the current agreements we are committed to disconnecting – will form part of the renegotiation of the NBN definitive agreements with NBN Co and the government,” he said.
Shaw said it was too early to speculate on the extent to which Telstra’s current agreements with NBN Co need to be renegotiated. This depended on how the government responded to the strategic review NBN Co’s technology mix, design and construction, he said.
“At this stage, it is too early to speculate on those matters,” he said.
During the hearing, Greens Senator Scott Ludlam questioned Shaw on the CEPU’s claims about the poor quality of the copper in the pits and ducts, particularly since privatisation.
“We do not agree with those anecdotal statements,” said Shaw.
“We invest hundreds of millions of dollars per year in our copper network … there’s an ongoing program of investment to maintain it, remediate it, and in some cases to expand it,” said Shaw.
“Where people are using plastic bags and duct tape to maintain these joints?” Ludlam said.
“We were provided a reasonable amount of photographic evidence – we were told that about 70 per cent of the joints were in that condition.”
Shaw would not confirm or deny the figure or provide an alternative number but said Telstra didn’t agree that the instance of plastic bags in the network “is as prevalent as was put to the committee."
“They don’t form part of our standard work practices in maintaining the network but from time to time, they might be used to protect a joint while work is being done within the network while other investigations might be taking place.
“If those plastic bags have been left in situ for a long period, then that is an oversight and should not occur. If we have the specifics around where instances have occurred, we will get them investigated and get them fixed,” Shaw said.
“We don’t accept they [plastic bags] are as prevalent as [was] put to you last week,” he said.