Is Scenario 6 really the best NBN choice?

Summary:The NBN Co Strategic Review proposes that Malcolm Turnbull change the network into a hodgepodge of access technologies known as Scenario 6. But will this cheaper Optimised Multi-Technology Mix look as appealing during 2014 as relative benefits are weighed and strategies revised?

The much-vaunted Strategic Review can't have been everything Malcolm Turnbull wanted for Christmas, since it exposed the soft underbelly of the Coalition's NBN policy and left him in an extremely difficult position going into 2014 as he seeks to execute a series of minor miracles in very little time.

The magnitude of the turnaround task facing Turnbull was not lost on a family member, with whom I shared a beer and the many NBN revelations that surfaced during December, clarified Turnbull's position going into 2014 eloquently: “So, basically, he's pushing shit uphill."

ForkInRoad
The NBN has reached a fork in the road in 2014 – but which route will Turnbull take? Screenshot by David Braue/ZDNet Australia

That just about sums it up. Yet the fact that a review contrived from the get-go to deliver a preordained outcome would put the government that commissioned it in such a difficult position, reflects the ever-challenging dynamics of a heavily politicised project that, almost refreshingly, enters 2014 free from the looming threat of a change of government or even of PM.

As questionably constructed and selectively factual as it may have been – more on that in coming days and weeks – the review has at least given the industry a touchstone from which we can productively and consistently ponder the next steps for the project.

For the first time in his years in a communications portfolio, we have a document loaded with empirical evidence that Turnbull cannot dismiss out of hand. No longer can he simply try to discount considered technical opinion by labelling it as outdated and partisan , as he did when NBN Co issued clear warnings during the caretake period that the FttN architecture presented all manner of complexities .

Despite Turnbull's repeated attempts to politically distance himself from those NBN Co findings, which were spelled out in great detail at ZDNet Australia and elsewhere, the same issues reared their ugly heads throughout the Strategic Review – which he now has little choice but to accept as gospel.

Ditto the latest figures from the NBN rollout effort, which suggest that the project is indeed finally starting to ramp up just as the previous Labor government had promised it would, over and over and over again. Some close to the project have told me that, had there been another six months for the NBN to continue growing before the election, Turnbull's arguments would have been cut off at the knees; after significant efforts to improve the rollout and trim costs, the NBN would have become recognised as a project that was actually working.

For the first time in his years in a communications portfolio, we have a document loaded with empirical evidence that Turnbull cannot dismiss out of hand.

This reflects the natural process by which massive infrastructure projects slowly gain momentum, particularly after the fits and starts encountered by the NBN effort: at some point, enough changes will have been made, enough problems fixed, that things will just start to work.

As the latest figures show, the NBN is now getting to that point – just in time for it to be potentially gutted by Turnbull in an extraordinarily complex change of direction that is outlined in the Strategic Review as Scenario 6 and includes 18 specific tasks for the government to now undertake.

If you haven't read the document yet, it's worth a bit of your time (get it here) and thought before you blindly accept NBN Co's cost-based recommendation that Scenario 6 – which involves muddying the current FTTP-fixed wireless-satellite rollout with the addition of fibre-to-the-node (FTTN), fibre-to-the-basement (FTTB), and fibre-to-the-distribution point (FTTdp) as well as the takeover of Telstra and Optus HFC networks – is the best way to go.

Despite the many legislative, technical and procedural difficulties it presents – not to mention practical showstoppers and as-yet-uncalculated costs – this scenario is supported mainly, through my careful reading at least, because it will deliver some sort of broadband sooner and more cheaply than the current rollout. All in the name of presumed cost savings, the report glosses over the real-world performance of technologies that have never been tested in anger within Australia.

This is a fundamental problem with the Strategic Review (or, perhaps, limitation is a better word since the Review did satisfy the limited scope it was designed under): it deals only in costs, and presumes to recommend a technological direction without regard for the real-world implications of the technologies it advises.

It says nothing about the potential benefits of any technological approach – nor does it imply that they even matter, even though everybody involved in this discussion knows that they vary considerably between the six scenarios outlined.

If he's honest about NBN reform, Turnbull must this year open himself to considering all options and allowing his ultimate decision to be tempered not just by the cost-based recommendations of the Strategic Review – but by the service and revenue-based story that will be spelled out in the cost-benefit analysis (CBA) to come.

If he's honest about NBN reform, Turnbull must this year open himself to considering all options and allowing his ultimate decision to be tempered not just by the cost-based recommendations of the Strategic Review – but by the service and revenue-based story that will be spelled out in the cost-benefit analysis (CBA) to come.

The cheapest option isn't always the best one, and Turnbull would be doing himself and the country a gross disservice if he accepted the Strategic Review's assumptions without balancing them against the relative benefits outlined in the CBA. If the more-significant long-term benefits of Scenario 2 mean the Coalition should spend a little more now to do Labor's rollout properly, he should be open to that (Scenario 2 basically involves building Labor's FTTP network but using cheaper building materials and faster rollout techniques to shave $10 billion plus change off the cost). Ditto Scenario 4, which leans more heavily on HFC and the attendant complexities that strategy includes (more on that later, too).

In the end, however, Turnbull would need some very, very good reasons to ignore his own review's advice; perhaps he'll find them in the many further studies yet to be done this year.

In the meantime, we'll all be waiting and wondering just what form the new NBN will actually take. Although 2013 saw many questions about the future answered, 2014 has opened with even more questions still very much up in the air.

What do you think? Is Scenario 6 a foregone conclusion? Or could the CBA give Turnbull the excuse he needs to backtrack towards fibre?

Topics: NBN, Australia, Broadband, Fiber, Government : AU, Telcos

About

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

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