Mixed messages on Telstra copper complicate FttN NBN case

Summary:Is Telstra's copper network dead or isn't it? Experts just can't seem to agree – nor can those people that were supposed to be Malcolm Turnbull's allies, who are compromising his Telstra renegotiations and his case for rural FttN at the same time.

Despite strong declarations over the years that it is both an absolute disgrace and a shining example of legacy infrastructure, Telstra's copper remains the subject of great confusion – with mixed messages from Malcolm Turnbull, NBN Co, Telstra and others confirming that nobody really knows whether Telstra's pivotal copper access network (CAN) is up to the task of delivering next-generation broadband or not.

Detractors have certainly had their say: iiNet CTO John Lindsay recently said parts of the network were " dilapidated " and many others have followed suit – including recent NBN Co board appointee  Simon Hackett, who has previously harangued Telstra's " blackmail " of the NBN; argued for government ownership of Telstra's CAN; said Telstra will ultimately control  how the Coalition's policy is rolled out ; turned to Clarke & Dawe to explain the Coalition's NBN policy; and in April this year delivered a speech entitled 'The Problem with FttN'.

BringOutYourDead
"I'm getting better". "No, you're not; you'll be stone dead in a moment." "I feel happ-ee-ee-ee". Is Telstra's CAN about to kick the bucket or not? Screen shot: David Braue / ZDNet Australia.

Most famously, a decade ago – under Switkowski's watch, no less – Telstra group manager for regulatory strategy Tony Warren told a Senate committee that the company's network was "at five minutes to midnight" and that the company was already engaged in "the last sweating...of the old copper network assets."

At the time, co-witness Bill Scales tried to qualify Warren's statements by saying that they were looking ten years into the future. Well, that was ten years ago – and here we are, still being told that Telstra's network is struggling – and that it has actually never felt better.

Back in June, Stephen Conroy warned that Telstra CEO David Thodey was hardly going to give away its copper and expected money  for any deal on the network, which Thodey was already arguing was fit to support 25Mbps service as per the Coalition's NBN design. However, at that point nobody was interested in such piddling details, least of all what would turn out to be the incoming government.

Over six months later, Telstra is still arguing that its network is fit for purpose, with wholesale division managing director Stuart Lee arguing that it's like a " grandfather's axe " that has been repaired as needed to continue serving its purpose.

If you have somehow lived this long without seeing Monty Python's 'bring out your dead' bit, take a moment to watch it now. This is exactly where we are with Telstra's copper network.

Still not convinced? Just ask Ziggy Switkowski, a onetime Telstra CEO who now heads NBN Co and last week told a Senate Estimates hearing that Telstra's copper network is " robust " and that critics suggesting it was not up to the rigours of an FttN NBN were "misinformed".

A decade ago, Telstra said its network was "at five minutes to midnight" and that the company was already engaged in "the last sweating...of the old copper network assets."....[Yet] here we are, still being told that Telstra's network is struggling – and that it has actually never felt better.

This would all seem to complicate Turnbull's proclamation – made before the election and repeated on many occasions – that Telstra knows its CAN is worthless and will gladly give the government the whole kit and caboodle for free . Turnbull wants this to be the case because his entire argument for a "fast, affordable, sooner" NBN is predicated on it.

Upon reading those words in the morning papers, one suspects the shrill screams emanating from Malcolm Turnbull's kitchen would have not been because he had burned his hand on the sandwich press.

Here, after all, is the new CEO of NBN Co, who was hand-picked by Turnbull to make his copper-based NBN vision a reality – something that will only become possible if NBN Co can get reasonably cost-effective access to Telstra's copper – talking up the value of that copper network.

Turnbull chose him for his alleged network-building expertise, but Switkowski has so far mainly succeeded in giving the upper hand to the very same organisation with whom he will soon be fiercely negotiating to get access to, or ownership of, its CAN. Getting a fair price for that access – or, in Turnbull's ever-dwindling dream world, getting it for free – becomes harder and harder every time Switkowski sings the network's praises.

The new CEO of NBN Co isn't the only one causing problems for Turnbull's copper worldview: also stuffing things up was Alcatel-Lucent's global president of fixed networks Federico Guillen, who recently went on record describing the results  of NBN Co's VDSL trials over copper.

The trials were, we were told, a resounding success – and it may well be that VDSL vectoring works as beautifully, over short distances, as Turnbull has been banging on about for months.

Good for Alcatel-Lucent. But if you keep reading, you'll note a qualifier that would probably have seen Turnbull's toast sailing across the kitchen at full speed.

"The landscape is huge but in the end there is a significant portion of the population in the cities. So in that regard it is not that different," Guillen said. "Of course there are rural areas which are quite different, and in those areas I would go with wireless. In dense areas, it is the same. It all depends on the loop length."

I'm sorry, but did the global head of one of the world's largest manufacturers of the technology on which Turnbull's NBN vision relies, just say out loud that it's unsuitable in the rural and regional areas that still – after 16 years of deregulation – represent a big black hole when it comes to broadband connectivity?

Did he really just recommend that regional and rural areas be serviced using wireless instead?

Did the global head of one of the world's largest manufacturers of the technology on which Turnbull's NBN vision relies, [really] just say out loud that it's unsuitable in the rural and regional areas that still – after 16 years of deregulation – represent a big black hole when it comes to broadband connectivity?

That can hardly have been what Turnbull wanted to hear; it wasn't too long ago, remember, that Turnbull was talking up the possibilities of 1Gbps over copper and arguing that the Coalition's NBN model would be better for the bush  than Labor's.

The basic conceit of that argument, if you recall, was that the Coalition's FttN model would use VDSL to squeeze the most bandwidth possible out of the existing copper in the ground, whereas Labor's fibre-based model would bypass many small regional areas and outlying suburbs of regional centres.

"If you've got a community with 500, 600, 700 premises within... a couple of kilometres from an exchange building which has got fibre in it, you could easily see that you could readily provide good VDSL either from that exchange, or from that exchange plus a couple of nodes," Turnbull said at the time. "It gives you another string to your bow in terms of providing broadband solutions to the bush."

Apparently, however, that's not actually the way it works: if even someone as technically knowledgeable as Guillen believes regional areas should be serviced by wireless, what hope is there for even FttN in regional areas? Guillen believes the copper network in those regional areas simply isn't up to the task – and that VDSL is not fit for purpose for delivering rural broadband.

Voters have already rejected a Coalition NBN policy based largely on wireless technologies , which residents in rural areas have only accepted grudgingly upon realising they were too remote to be included in the FttP footprint. If technical advice now forces Turnbull to once again spruik a wireless solution for the areas of Australia that need good broadband the most, well where does that put his position?

Just to recap: the technical advocate who was supposed to support the government's FttN claims is now saying they're only half correct, while the status quo is being talked up by the new head of NBN Co – who is preparing to enter into what were supposed to be civil but firm negotiations in which the government would politely offer to take Telstra's supposedly decrepit, underperforming and therefore valueless CAN off of its hands.

If this is progress, I for one can't wait to see where it leads us.

What do you think? Have Guillen and Switkowski compromised Turnbull's FttN hopes? Or, can he push on with his FttN vision despite the ongoing confusion over Telstra's copper? 

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