After resoundingly negative feedback, the government may consider letting National Broadband Network (NBN) customers opt-out of the mandatory battery backup for the network termination unit (NTU), a parliamentary committee on the NBN has heard today.
In the event of power outages, analog phones attached to the fixed copper line currently draw power from the exchanges in order to ensure people are still able to make phone calls. A similar system is not feasible for the NBN, so NBN Co has committed to rolling out battery backup units with every NTU to ensure that if the power is cut off, customers will still be able to make phone calls for up to five hours.
NBN Co CEO Mike Quigley today told the parliamentary committee on the NBN chaired by Independent MP Rob Oakeshott that customers in the first release sites of the NBN were resoundingly displeased with the battery backups.
"The reaction from end users to the battery backup unit is quite negative," he said.
The reason for this, Quigley said, was because the unit itself was bigger than the actual NTU.
"It's not so much that there's a battery there, it's the size of the unit. These days a network terminating device is quite small," he said. "The battery back up unit is bigger than the actual active electronics."
This made it an eyesore for customers who had their NTUs installed inside the home. Quigley said his personal preference would be for customers to be allowed to opt out of having the battery installed because many people wouldn't need the battery for their phone service.
"I think there's also a recognition that a smaller percentage of people have a true analog phone over the copper network that isn't cordless of some sort or [voice over IP]," he said, adding that it was ultimately a policy decision for the Federal Government.
"We're supplying information to the department on various costs and technical issues and people's response in the field to the battery backup issue," he said.
Deputy secretary of infrastructure with the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Daryl Quinlivan, told the committee that it was considering different options, but said that if an opt-out system was implemented then it would be important to ensure that customers knew the implications of not having the battery backup.
"This is a live issue, there are a range of options and views. The one thing that is essential in all of them is that people are able to make an informed decision," he said.
For now, NBN Co will continue to install all battery units until the government makes a decision. When a battery requires replacing it will be up to the retail service provider rather than NBN Co to provide a replacement.
On the question of the cost of running a phone service on the NBN, Quigley pointed to Primus' voice-only product at $24.95 per month, stating that the basic NBN Co offering provides access seekers with the ability to offer voice services at roughly the equivalent cost that Telstra offers today.
Roll-out plans and fibre to the node
Quigley also indicated at today's committee hearing that the 12-month roll-out schedule will be released next week.
"We will be releasing, next week in fact, some further details on everything we're doing for the next 12 months," he said.
This document will indicate where construction on the NBN will begin over the next year. While it will be specific to suburb, Quigley clarified that it wouldn't pinpoint every house to get fibre.
"The issue we have is, we can't establish precisely a footprint down to the premise until we do what is called the network design document ... that goes street by street, premise by premise," he said. "Until you're really 12 months from turning on services, you don't lock down the boundary, on a premise level."
Quigley also once again sparred with Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull over the issue of whether the NBN could be scaled back to a fibre-to-the-node project in some areas.
Quigley told the shadow minister that a fibre-to-the-node project would be incredibly difficult in Australia, as Telstra would still own the last run of copper from the node to the home, and that in order to achieve the speeds Turnbull had suggested — around 80 megabits per second — it would require the installation of many more cabinets.
"If you want to provide reasonably high speeds ... these are just very, very difficult to apply in Australia," he said. "You would need a huge number of cabinets to get those kinds of speeds.
The chief executive has offered to spend half a day with Turnbull to explain why the proposal wouldn't suit Australia, to which Turnbull responded on Twitter that he would be "delighted to do so".