A recommendation in a recent report from Infrastructure Australia states: “The Australian Government should work with communities and businesses to maximise opportunities created by the National Broadband Network”.
Obviously this makes total sense. Back in 2001 I launched a campaign, The Broadbanding of Local Communities. In all, 70 councils from around the country were represented at the conference I organised and subsequently I assisted 50 of them in the following years.
When the FttH NBN started to become a reality, from 2007-2009 on, most of the local councils took a back seat and left the ‘broadbanding’ in the hands of the Federal Government.
However, the real leaders in local councils didn’t sit still. They began to lobby the government to be included in the first part of the rollout of the FttH network, and these councils are now the front-runners in Australia in the development of smart cities.
In the meantime other local councils have also embarked on smart cities and many more will follow now that the government has announced its own Smart City Policy.
Interestingly none of the councils – and I repeat – none of the councils that fully understand what a smart city is and what impact it has is indicating that all they need is the so-called multi-technology-mix (MtM) solution for the NBN. They all understand that the long-term solution has to be fibre all the way, and increasingly councils are questioning the deployment of the hundreds of thousands of boxes (nodes) in their streets, which they see as obstacles to getting fully-fibred cities.
True, many councils have absolutely no understanding of the concept of smart cities and/or the impact of the MtM NBN, but those in the know are not happy. Some are actively talking to the NBN company and are lobbying for extra money from their state government to increase FttH in their area, but for many others there is little they can do because the NBN company has a national monopoly.
There is already a backlash in towns that are half-fibred (the haves) and those who are now getting, or will be getting, the MtM (the have-nots) and councils have a real problem on their hands explaining this to those affected.
In other areas the FttN, often at least partly based on old infrastructure, is creating severe headaches with a total breakdown (for several months now) of the telecoms systems – people losing their phone connections for a week or more, slower ADSL speeds and congested FttN nodes. Congestion is also starting to occur on some of the fixed wireless systems, and in order to prevent congestion on the satellite the waiting list for new connections has already moved towards the end of the year.
I will be the first to accept that with any new system there are teething problems, but, talking to the councils in the affected areas, none of them are happy. And they are all becoming increasingly confused about the NBN as a whole.
They are deeply concerned about the impact the second-rate NBN will have on their citizens and their economic development and they see the MtM in shrill contract to government’s innovation policy. All of their start-up are demanding fibre connections. They are already getting a backlash from their affected citizens and they expect that the situation will only get worse as more and more people start to understand what a second-rate NBN will mean to them.
For several reasons a rethink of the NBN is necessary and overdue. As well as the abovementioned problem there is the looming funding challenge. Government investment money runs out at the end of the year, and with questions regarding the end value of an MtM NBN there are concerns that private industry will not be prepared to cough up the $20 billion (at least) that is needed to complete the job.
Enough reasons to sit down and regroup. I accept the reality that a Coalition government will not fund an FttH network, but accepting the advice from Infrastructure Australia mentioned above I suggest sitting down with local councils, communities and businesses to sort out what they want.
An obvious issue will be that many will want FttH. So the best way forward would be to open up the market and allow competition to come in to fix the problem. Fttdp is an obvious solution, as is FttH, and (who knows?) 5G linked to deep fibre in the street. If the NBN company changes its model and delivers fibre not to the node but to the street can we then get other companies to invest in either bringing FttH into the house or linking the home to an Fttdp or 5G solution?
Furthermore, as Tim Nulty has demonstrated, there are many rural communities that can be fibred by private companies without the need of the NBN company. If that is the case why not open up the market? There are plenty of examples of such community networks in the USA and in the Netherlands, and in some of the Nordic countries we see that nearly all of the councils are involved in facilitating FttH in their cities and towns. In the Netherlands more than half of the small towns now have FttH networks.
Another worrying element that requires a review is that perfectly good FttH and fibre-to-the-basement networks in multi-dwelling units, operated by private companies such as OPENetworks and LBNCO are being overbuilt by the NBN company, now bringing two superhighways to these homes. How silly is that? This at a time when the majority of Australians are screaming to get one good high-speed connection, and, perhaps even more ridiculous, people living on the other side of the street to those who have two high-speed connections don’t even have one, and the NBN company has indicated that they are not yet on their rollout plan.
It is highly unlikely that the NBN company of itself will ever be able to provide the return on investment the government had hoped for, so let’s face reality, write off at least a large part of it, and use private investors to finish that last mile. Again quoting from the Infrastructure Australia report: “Reforms should aim to deliver an effective and competitive rollout of the NBN, meet demand for telecoms over the coming decades and reduce service disparities between urban and regional areas”.
The bolding is mine, just to counter the minister’s comment that we don’t need a better NBN because today only a few are taking up the higher speeds products. Or comments from another minister that 25Mbs is all that Australians need today to download movies.
Last but not least, the same report states “To prepare for a future sale, it will be important that NBN Co doesn’t enmesh different technologies in a way that cannot be separated later”. This, in my view, occurs when we put in the FttN nodes in order to mesh copper and fibre; and these nodes are the obstacles to moving ahead towards a full fibre network.
I am also happy to turn the arguments around, and as a matter of fact I have always been of the opinion that before we started building an NBN we should have asked ourselves what we, as a nation, wanted from it. That, then, would have established the requirements for such a project.
Infrastructure Australia puts it this way (abstracted) : “With the right infrastructure, such as high-speed broadband, these cities could enable more Australians to live in a smaller city and access employment opportunities in one of our major metropolises (making use of telecommunications to work from home or a local workplace)”.
I totally agree, but if that is an outcome we want from high-speed broadband we need to ask what infrastructure is needed (for decades to come) that will be able to deliver this outcome. The same question should be asked about the requirements of e-health, e-education, smart grids, smart cities and so on). We have never ever done this, and politicians don’t want to do it, as most likely it will tell them that the MtM won’t cut it, definitely not in decades to come.
So my comment to both parties is that, regardless of which party wins the election, let’s sit down and review the NBN. It doesn’t make sense to continue to move in the wrong direction simply because of politics.