FttP half-truths mask whole-NBN deception

Summary:Malcolm Turnbull has been spruiking 12Mbps minimum broadband for years. Suddenly, it’s "just not satisfactory" — and it's OK for him to continue to dodge any substantive questions around the Coalition’s plan. Maybe that’s because nobody's asking them.

Reading transcripts of National Broadband Network (NBN) press conferences where one was not present can be agonising for journalists.

Y U No

(Credit: David Braue/ZDNet)

Seemingly obvious questions not asked, important answers not given and still more self-contradicting changes in Liberal Party policy foster a sense of irritation and an overriding desire to yell obscenities through the window.

The neighbours are now in therapy, but Liberal telecoms policy remains as malleable as ever, after Malcolm Turnbull this week jetted all the way to Gippsland, Victoria , to join local member for McMillan Russell Broadbent in cutting the ribbon on OptiComm's new fibre-optic network, which has brought fibre services to a housing estate in rural Drouin.

Turnbull's shadow portfolio means that he's not a normal fixture at big broadband ribbon-cutting ceremonies (the bulk of them being NBN related), but this was too good an opportunity to miss: here was a private-sector developer that took Optus Internet backhaul to an area that, like mine, is not scheduled to get NBN services for years to come.

For someone that continues to blindly argue his faith in Australia's private-sector telco industry, it was a great opportunity for Turnbull to spruik his still-opaque NBN policy. One can just imagine the canned applause as Turnbull hit NBN Co with one zinger after another, no doubt feeling quite smug as he emceed the event as one long attack on the NBN.

Turnbull so dominated the doorstop that, halfway through the Q&A, Broadbent interjected meekly, to ask "does anyone want to ask about the details of the announcement?"

Nobody did. The fawning media ignored him and begged Turnbull for more meaty details about how OptiComm had installed better fibre services faster than NBN Co could ever hope to.

NBN Co have, Turnbull said, tried to effectively insist that they should be the only [greenfields] provider, and the consequences being that only a handful of greenfield sites have actually been connected to the NBN."

We know this is true, because Turnbull says it is true. Right?

So, those three other Drouin-area housing estates, where NBN Co is actually installing fibre right now, don't exist?

They're right there on the NBN Co roll-out map. Canterbury Estate, Stockman Wood Estate, Bowen Heights. All are currently being fibre-d by the same NBN Co that Turnbull so proudly proclaimed was being outpaced by OptiComm.

In fact, judging by the map, NBN Co appears to be at some stage of roll-out in dozens of new housing estates around the country. Turnbull must have very big hands.

I'm not looking to diminish the effort of value of OptiComm and its ilk; they have a role to play and it's great that they're ensuring that homes built in the 21st century can be serviced with broadband that doesn't come from the 20th.

The problem is the tendency to point at one example of a successful approach and act like it's going to save the world. The fact is that OptiComm and other greenfields specialists are cherry-picking the easiest and smallest portion of our housing market; to suggest that this is some sort of private-sector awakening, rather than an appropriately opportunistic investment, is deceptive and wrong.

Turnbull has long argued that the Coalition’s fixed-wireless policy in rural towns would deliver the same 12Mbps services as NBN Co’s. Now, because Turnbull has jumped aboard the good ship FttN, 12Mbps services are suddenly “just not satisfactory”? …. isn’t this the same shadow minister who’s been loudly shouting from the rooftops that speed doesn’t matter?

I have addressed Turnbull's misplaced faith in the private sector numerous times in the past (for example, here and here ) and will not bore you by doing so again. Use your reading time to instead read Turnbull's post-event doorstop — which is available, without a blush, for reading on Turnbull's website, where visitors have continued the time-honoured tradition of trashing Turnbull's Fibre-to-the-Node (FttN) ideology on his own blog. Kudos to him for not moderating them into oblivion (although, if he did, there would be no comments left).

There is much to say about this amusing event, but for now, let me direct your attention to two glaring problems.

First is that Turnbull continues to avoid addressing any of the real question marks around his policy. While simultaneously attacking Labor's supposed 100 megabits per second (Mbps) NBN dogma, Turnbull continues pandering to a mainstream media that is concerned only with sensationalised claims about 100Mbps vs. 50Mbps, 25Mbps, 24Mbps and 12Mbps.

This lets him completely avoid the real questions around his policy — which are not being asked by reporters, who mainly seem keen on being drip-fed statistics with which to bag the NBN.

If Turnbull wants to suggest that what OptiComm did in Drouin has any bearing on the rest of Australia and his broader FttN strategy, he should have been asked questions like:

  • When will OptiComm extend its fibre network to service the rest of the Drouin area, and what level of Coalition subsidy will be necessary to make this happen?

  • How will the Coalition assert control of Telstra's local loop across the rest of Drouin, to ensure copper-connected residents can access their choice of FttN provider?

  • ADSL2 Exchange heatmaps suggests that residents outside the immediate centre of Drouin are peaking at under 5Mbps over existing ADSL services. How many additional fibre nodes would need to be installed, and where, to bring the entire town up to spec with the Coalition's FttN plan?

  • How will the government ensure that residents in greenfields estates aren't technologically isolated by the spread of private-sector operators who are ignoring NBN Co specifications?

The second curious thing about the announcement is Turnbull's very curious twists of phrase. His new catch-cry — in which he slams NBN Co's plan to deliver fixed-wireless services to rural towns with fewer than 1000 premises — has come out at every recent appearance, yet in this latest launch, it seems to have occasioned yet another policy back-flip.

Turnbull is now arguing that even tiny bush towns will get a speed bump with the installation of VDSL services that will service the centre of town, with what he claims will be up to 80Mbps services. This, mind you, over the same copper lines that are in such bad shape that many rural residents are still struggling to get more than dial-up speeds.

Turnbull is now arguing that even tiny bush towns will get a speed bump with the installation of VDSL services that will service the centre of town, with what he claims will be up to 80Mbps services. This, mind you, over the same copper lines that are in such bad shape that many rural residents are still struggling to get more than dial-up speeds.

Undeterred by reality, Turnbull now sees VDSL as an alternative to fixed wireless (favoured by both NBN Co and, a few months ago, the Liberal Party). In Drouin, he argued that "the difference between fibre-to-the-premises (FttP) and fixed wireless is gigantic."

No kidding. But there's more.

"You're talking about very high speeds, upwards of 100Mbps down to 12 m[bps]. Now, that's just not satisfactory."

Turnbull has long argued that the Coalition's fixed-wireless policy in rural towns would deliver the same 12Mbps services as NBN Co's. Now, because Turnbull has jumped aboard the good ship FttN, 12Mbps services are suddenly "just not satisfactory"?

The Coalition's policy continues to mirror that of Labor, as Turnbull seizes on his new-found love of VDSL and proudly proclaims its ability to deliver at least 5Mbps at 1km from the exchange — and that "many of them would get 80Mbps".

Isn't this the same shadow minister who has been loudly shouting from the rooftops that speed doesn't matter? Why, then, is he now arguing that the Coalition's FttN will magically deliver speeds nearly as fast as fibre?

It is, of course, because he's decided to play the speed game against Labor's NBN. "Under our approach," he said, "we could very cost-effectively, and arguably more cost-effectively than fixed wireless, deliver fast wire line broadband to a lot of smaller country towns and, in particular, a lot of regional towns, particularly Gippsland."

Telecoms journalist-cum-guru Richard Chirgwin has penned a nice explanation of why this proposition is utter bunkum, so I will not reinvent his wheel here, or mention that many internet users in areas like Drouin are using old copper connections that barely support ADSL, much less VDSL.

This approach also violates Turnbull's claims that he is technology-agnostic. In reality, Turnbull has been picking one technology after another, floating one technology after another at the press, until he can find one that sticks. He most definitely has a favoured technology this week, and that technology is VDSL.

As he continues dodging the real devil-in-the-detail questions about his deployment strategy, Turnbull is dancing around a mainstream media that has a duty to demand more real answers about his proposed alternative, but lacks either the technical nous or the genuine interest to do so.

His disingenuous promotion of private-sector fibre projects, as though they were a national solution, belies their restricted scope and potentially anti-competitive nature — and highlights just why Australia must expect more from the man who would unpick the NBN.

What do you think? Is Turnbull right about VDSL? Does he owe Australia more clarity about the policy complexities around his ever-changing policy? Or is he on the right track?

Topics: NBN


As large as the US mainland but with a smaller population than Texas, Australia relies on ICT innovation to maintain its position as a first-world democracy and a role model for the developing Asia-Pacific region. Award-winning journalist David Braue has covered Australia’s IT and telecoms sectors since 1995 – and he’s as quick to draw le... Full Bio

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Related Stories

The best of ZDNet, delivered

You have been successfully signed up. To sign up for more newsletters or to manage your account, visit the Newsletter Subscription Center.
Subscription failed.