WTF with the NBN?

Paddy Manning, The  Monthly

Let’s get one thing straight: Australia’s NBN was not designed on the back of a beer coaster. In early 2009 when the then communications minister, Stephen Conroy, finally caught up with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on a plane from Sydney to Melbourne, to hatch their new NBN plan, the venue for the meeting might have been unorthodox – they were literally on the fly – but Conroy was accompanied by the secretary of his department and armed with considered advice from a heavily qualified expert panel, backed up by the competition regulator. It was no thought bubble.

Conroy proposed a new government-owned NBN running super-fast fibre-optic cable all the way from the telephone exchange to the home or business, known as “fibre-to-the-premises” (FTTP). Fibre-optic cable uses light rather than an electrical pulse to carry a signal, and has a well-established upgrade path to gigabit speeds and beyond: 100 Gbps+ is already on the drawing board. Labor had gone into the 2007 federal election with a plan to establish an NBN based on “fibre-to-the-node” (FTTN) technology, in which fibre runs to powered cabinets, installed next to the pillars in neighbourhood streets, from where existing copper wires connecting each home cover the “last mile”.

This first version of the NBN would have been a public–private venture, with taxpayers chipping in up to $4.7 billion. Written before the social media explosion, Labor’s policy is old enough in internet years that it talks about “user created content communities” such as MySpace and Flickr [sic], and makes no mention of Facebook or Twitter.

Just before the election, Conroy had assembled 400 telecommunications executives at a conference in Sydney to talk through how a Labor government might build the NBN. The industry came back with a better idea, and set up an FTTP special interest group, which produced a 60-page report the following March.

Veteran telco consultant Paul Budde, who had watched the emergence of fibre since the 1970s, wrote the report. It argued that FTTN would limit competition by favouring the owner of the copper network, Telstra.

Re-engineering the copper would be expensive and a waste of money, because the nodes (those grey-green boxes) would not be needed once the network was upgraded to FTTP. The report called for a network that could be scaled up to 100 Mbps+ with “a simple upgrade, not an overbuild” and went on:

“The concern is that FTTN technology has already become outdated … A more appropriate, scalable, long term solution would be to implement a solution that provides an end to end fibre solution ie. FTTP.”