It's five FttN NBN customers down, over 11 million to go

Summary:Malcolm Turnbull would have been quietly relieved to preside over the unveiling of Australia's first FttN NBN customers. But the launch did nothing to clarify questions around the government's relationship with Telstra, the competitive stance of the Coalition's NBN, and the nagging suspicion that Turnbull is digging himself into a deep, deep hole.

Not too far from the corner of Britannia Street and Trafalgar Avenue, in the coastal NSW town of Umina Beach, NSW, is the fibre-to-the-node (FttN) cabinet that has become the Patient Zero of Malcolm Turnbull's revamped National Broadband Network (NBN).

Like a viral outbreak, from this unassuming corner installation will spread the technology that Turnbull has spent the last four years trying to convince the country is a better and cheaper option than the previous government's fibre-to-the-premises (FttP) plan.

Yet, even as the confetti is swept up and Telstra settles in to first wire up more houses around that quiet intersection — emboldened by the terms of a so-called trial with the government that will see it roll out around 1,000 such cabinets in as-yet-unannounced timeframes — it is worth considering the true cost of the implementation of this technology.

It could not be a more obvious reference to the Coalition's love of all things British that the first FttN node in Australia's revamped NBN would be located at such an Anglophonic juncture, since Turnbull has repeatedly and forcefully worked to replicate the experience of British ex-monopolist BT in extending the capabilities of its monopoly local access network with VDSL2 technology.

That VDSL2 works has never been in question, even though Turnbull has spent much of his many television appearances trying to convince incensed voters that it is somehow equivalent to fibre. It is not, but it is better than ADSL — in the right circumstances.

That it worked well, as it seemed to do in the B-roll footage featuring Turnbull rather quizzically sat staring at a SpeedTest screen as if to say "This is what my entire political career is based on?", is a good sign that, technically at least, the government is not steering broadband towards a complete technical disaster — although it remains as limited a technology as ever, and Turnbull still has not elucidated any kind of coherent future expansion policy.

What the widely covered launch did not, however, address — nor has Turnbull — is the fact that delivering this long-promised outcome is forcing the new government to wind back the telecommunications industry to 1997, when a host of presumed infrastructure competitors were counting down the days until massive legislative change would free the country of its crushing domination by Telstra.

The single-minded and often desperate effort to wrestle control of Australia's broadband future away from Telstra has died a quick and painful death — replaced with a series of pandering decisions that have left the rest of the telecommunications industry up in arms and questioning their role in the Coalition's New Telecoms Order.

Seventeen years later, the single-minded and often desperate effort to wrestle control of Australia's broadband future away from Telstra has died a quick and painful death — replaced with a series of pandering decisions that have left the rest of the telecommunications industry up in arms and questioning their role in the Coalition's New Telecoms Order.

Statements by NBN Co CEO Bill Morrow, made seemingly to assuage the industry, did nothing of the sort. Just because companies other than Telstra will be given contracts to build the NBN, as Morrow promised (as though supplier diversity weren't already an entrenched principle of government procurement), doesn't mean that the resulting infrastructure will be operated with the kind of flexibility that was envisioned by the architects of competition policy back in the 1990s.

That vision was based on ideas of free and open access to competing infrastructure; a competition watchdog that aggressively policed and acted upon the expected monopoly abuses that Telstra had been warned off; and an industry development policy that would, it was somehow believed, allow competing organisations to build thriving businesses on the dregs that Telstra Wholesale left over once its retail arm had a bit of spare capacity to sell.

The deficiencies in this model are obvious from one simple fact: Telstra has had plans to build FttN for most of the past decade, but has not bothered to do so because (a) it had no reason to do so, and (b) it did not have to do so. Once the government tried to force the point by building FttN at open tender, Telstra decided a perfectly acceptable alternative was to throw a bomb into the procurement process , sit back, pour itself a collective drink, and watch the fallout.

It was only when the previous Labor government threatened Telstra with limitation of access to mobile spectrum and an impingement of its HFC Internet business, that Telstra actually sat up and listened. An often and needfully bellicose Stephen Conroy dragged the company to the table and locked the doors until it could work out a policy that would result in better outcomes than what Telstra cared to deliver.

Those threats are no longer present: Under the new government, competition has been replaced with kowtowing (on the government's part this time), and what Turnbull promised would be a congenial and short-lived renegotiation is dragging on with no end in sight — and no deliverable but a non-binding and parenthetical supposed commitment for Telstra to sell the government a network it has no business buying.

Without the broader questions answered and a real vision of a Telstra-free future somehow elucidated, Turnbull's own NBN vision is as wan and immature as Labor's own rollout was five years ago, when the Coalition sneeringly referred to NBN Co as operating a network with more employees than customers.

On what basis the current government feels it is suddenly wise to purchase Telstra's network — especially when NBN Co advised against it, and when even the current minister recently campaigned on the laissez-faire philosophy that the government has no business owning infrastructure — we may never fully grok, apart from understanding that it is the most expedient means to the Coalition's limp, shortsighted, and uninspiring policy end.

With Telstra now empowered by the government's desperate desire to prove it was right by not implementing FttP, it's clear that we are still a lot further from a clear broadband future than even those residents in Umina's English Quarter might appreciate.

Turnbull remains elusive and evasive when it comes to the finer points of his broader telecommunications policy, and is likely to do so until the Vertigan cost-benefit analysis (CBA) is handed down to validate the CBA-less strategy along which Turnbull has led us. He has not jumped the gun, he will say, but simply acted upon the obvious and unavoidable truth that Vertigan has elucidated.

Expect that CBA to land any day now, now that Turnbull can brag of having a handful of customers using FttN technology; if it doesn't blindly laud the merits of FttN over every other alternative, I and many other observers will be lining up for big platefuls of stewed crow. Yet without the broader questions answered and a real vision of a Telstra-free future somehow elucidated, Turnbull's own NBN vision is as wan and immature as Labor's own rollout was five years ago, when the Coalition sneeringly referred to NBN Co as operating a network with more employees than customers .

The shoe is on the other foot now, and Turnbull's laces are still tied together. The next few months will be critical in determining whether he can truly deliver on his many promises — or whether Telstra, now somehow entrusted with building what will be its biggest competitor and facing no penalties if it drags out this rollout at snail's pace, can finally be trusted to deliver the broadband it envisioned but shelved a decade ago.

What do you think? Is the connection of the first FttN customers a step forward, or the beginning of the end?

Topics: NBN, Broadband, Fiber, Government : AU, Telstra

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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