NBN: Fibre to the world

In this feature, ZDNet explores how fibre deployments across the UK, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States are being achieved, at what cost, whether they have been successful, and how they compare to Australia's NBN.

Independent MP Tony Windsor said famously in deciding to support Prime Minister Julia Gillard in forming a minority government in 2010 that "you do it once, you do it right, and you do it with fibre". Following the Coalition's defeat, newly appointed Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull set out to prove that doing it with fibre was not how the rest of the world was actually delivering better broadband.

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It's true that Australia's National Broadband Network (NBN) is like no other project in the world, but no broadband investment in any one country is the same.

There are many factors that determine why a company or government decides to move away from a copper network to a fibre network. All have the same basic premise underpinning it: Provide faster internet services to the public to allow them to do more things online that have not been possible with the existing networks in place.

And whether it be fibre to the premises (FttP) or fibre to the node (FttN), you can find just about every sort of major fibre network rollout occurring in many countries across the globe.

Some are backed by governments, some are funded through the private sector, and some are a mix of the two. The reasons vary, and for all the differences that Australia's AU$37.4 billion network has with the rest of the world, there are many familiar reasons why governments and businesses have been pushing for faster broadband.

The method usually comes down to one factor: The economics. Australia's ambitious NBN was announced in the depths of the global financial crisis, when government investment in building infrastructure was seen as a good way to turn the economy around. In many countries, however, governments and businesses have opted for what they perceive as the cheapest option to get as fast speeds as they can out to as many people as possible, while still making it commercially viable.

Network types

FttN or fibre to the cabinet (FttC) involves replacing the copper network up to a certain point, either on each street through a cabinet or at one point up to a few kilometres from each premises. From there, the existing copper lines going from the cabinet or node are used to provide VDSL broadband services to each premises.

Although the speed on the copper is limited compared to fibre, based on the distance from the node or cabinet to each premises, the upgrade is considerably cheaper in the short term, as it doesn't require installing a new fibre line into each premises. For this reason, the upgrade can also take considerably less time to complete.

Speeds range up to a maximum of 80 megabits per second (Mbps) down, depending on the length and quality of the copper line. Anywhere farther than 300 metres from the cabinet or node sees a massive reduction in speed.

A new method of getting even higher speeds across the copper, known as vectoring, cuts down the noise on the copper line, allowing those higher download speeds of over 100Mbps with upload speeds of up to 40Mbps. A number of telcos have committed to introducing vectoring.

Generally, across the world, the deployment of FttN has been done by the owner of the network, and it is commonly run with just the one provider on the network. The introduction of vectoring makes it harder to have an open-access wholesale network in the way it is done today, with the telco accessing the copper line and putting its own equipment in the exchange. Alcatel-Lucent has said that it is possible to wholesale a bitstream service directly from the owner of the network, similar to how NBN Co wholesales its fibre product today.

FttP involves fibre at every step of the way, from the premises to the network core. This can be achieved either with a direct fibre for every connection or a passive optical network that shares connections through the use of a splitter at some point in the field, as NBN Co has rolled out with its Gigabit Passive Optical Network (GPON). The speeds on offer over FttP are much higher than anything on the copper network, and can travel a much greater distance. Higher speeds are constantly being pushed out on the fibre every day. Services available to end users currently sit at a maximum of 1 gigabit per second (Gbps).

Both types of network are common across the world. Network vendor giant Alcatel-Lucent told ZDNet that it has supplied equipment to more than 100 FttP networks across the world, including Verizon, France Telecom, China Unicom, and China Telecom. It has also worked on more than 80 FttN VDSL2 deployments with companies such as Telecom NZ, Telmex, AT&T, SK Telecom, and KPN. Alcatel-Lucent is deploying vectoring with Belgacom and Telekom Austria.

Chinese network giant Huawei told ZDNet it has been selected to roll out a number of national networks across the globe, including BT's mixed network, Singapore's FttP network, Telekom Brunei's FttP network, New Zealand's FttP network, and Malaysia's FttP network.

One of the main criticisms of reporting about the NBN from Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull is that Australia's project has not been compared to what is happening in the rest of the world. In this feature, ZDNet sets out to compare and contrast the NBN to the networks being rolled out in New Zealand, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada.

But first, we need to look at where the debate began in Australia.

Contents:

  1. Australia
  2. The United Kingdom
  3. New Zealand
  4. The United States
  5. Canada
  6. What it all means

Australia

  • Project: Fibre to the premises, wireless, and satellite

  • Area: 7,692,000km2

  • Population: 22.6 million

  • Premises to be passed: 12.2 million premises on fibre by 2021, 1 million covered by fixed wireless and satellite services

  • Percentage: 100 percent: 93 percent by fibre, 4 percent by fixed wireless, 3 percent by satellite

  • Cost: AU$37.4 billion in capital expenditure to be paid off by 2040

  • Government/private/mix: Government bonds with a minority of funding to come from private investment

The Labor party went to the 2007 federal election with an AU$4.7 billion policy for a fibre-to-the-node broadband network for 98 percent of Australia. However, when it came to government, it took over a year of discussion about proposals with the industry before ultimately rejecting all proposals in favour of the NBN policy announced on April 7, 2009. This policy was for an AU$42 billion wholesale, fibre-to-the-premises network that would reach 90 percent of the population.

The policy came in the depths of the global financial crisis, and a period of peak antipathy between Telstra and the government. Telstra, which was originally owned by the Australian government, retained the copper access network when it was privatised in the 1990s. Telstra was not only in the best position to get its network upgraded, but also to help the government achieve its policy goals. The company had previously attempted to get the Howard government to invest in an FttN upgrade in 2006, but in 2008, when the Rudd government sought proposals for a broadband plan, Telstra , under CEO Sol Trujillo, did not meet the government's requirement for the proposal , and the government ultimately decided to move ahead with the full fibre-to-the-premises NBN.

Since the 2009 announcement, the policy has changed to become an AU$37.4 billion network with 93 percent of the population covered by fibre, 4 percent by fixed-wireless long-term evolution (LTE) networks, and 3 percent covered by satellite services.

NBN Co was set up by the government to construct, establish, and run the network as a wholesale operator, with an eye to make a 7 percent rate of return on the network to ultimately pay off the government's investment. Along with the government, NBN Co  negotiated with Telstra under the more government-friendly leadership of CEO David Thodey to structurally separate its retail and wholesale arms, lease ducts and pipes to NBN Co for its network, and transfer customers from the copper network onto the NBN for a total value of AU$11 billion.

Under the deal, Telstra will also cease using its hybrid fibre-coaxial (HFC) network to deliver broadband in Sydney and Melbourne. Optus is also set to receive AU$800 million to decommission its own HFC network.

To ensure the viability of the national network, in conjunction with buying out Telstra and Optus customers, the government enacted new legislation to ensure new networks that would offer comparable broadband services to the NBN could not be rolled out unless they offered similar wholesale access to their networks. It means that companies cannot target profitable areas, like the inner city of Sydney or Melbourne, and roll out a new network that could undercut the NBN on price.

The NBN offers a range of speed tiers on the fibre network: 12Mbps down and 1Mbps up; 25Mbps down and 10Mbps up; 50Mbps down and 20Mbps up; and 100Mbps down and 40Mbps up.

As of the end of December 2012, the network had passed 339,700 premises, with a total of 34,500 active services. The vast majority of premises are so far covered by the satellite service, with 250,000 covered and 23,100 using satellite. There are 17,300 premises that can access fixed-wireless services, with 1,000 active services, and 72,400 premises able to get fibre services, with 10,400 active services.

There are around 40 retail service providers (RSPs) able to offer connections to the NBN, and plans start from AU$29.95 and go up to AU$164.95.

The construction of the network has been slow, and most recently the company revealed it was three months behind schedule due to issues with construction companies not employing the numbers of workers required as fast as was needed. NBN Co has said it would make up the time by maintaining its peak run rate of over 6,000 premises passed per day for longer than originally planned. The network is scheduled to be completed in mid-2021 if it runs to completion. 

The federal opposition is against the scale of the project, stating that an FttN network would be more cost effective and completed faster than Labor's NBN. If the Liberal-National coalition wins the federal election on September 14, it is unlikely that the NBN project will remain in its current state.

Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has not yet released his policy in full, but he has said it would be similar to the fibre-to-the-cabinet roll-out currently underway in the United Kingdom.

The United Kingdom

  • Project: Fibre to the cabinet and fibre to the premises

  • Area: 242,910 km2

  • Population: 62 million

  • Premises to be passed: 19 million

  • Percentage: 66 percent

  • Cost: £2.5 billion (AU$3.6 billion)

  • Government/private/mix: Private

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Image: BT

Openreach, the wholesale infrastructure arm of British telco giant BT, is spending £2.5 billion to roll out 3 million kilometres of fibre and 50,000 new cabinets for a fibre-to-the-cabinet and fibre-to-the-premises open-access regulated wholesale network that will be completed by mid-2014. It will service 19 million premises, around two thirds of the United Kingdom, and the network already has 1.4 million active services across 50 internet service providers (ISPs), including the big three: BT, TalkTalk, and Sky.

Speaking exclusively to ZDNet, Opeanreach's director of network investment, Mike Galvin, said that BT would not have been able to justify the cost of deploying fibre to the premises across the UK.

"Fibre to the cabinet is considerably cheaper. It varies from site to site, but in brownfields, it is typically four times cheaper, maybe even more," he said.

"We would not have a business case for doing that if we were doing fibre to the premises, simply because of the additional cost. Even as it is, it is a long-term investment with payback in the mid teens of years.

"Fibre to the cabinet has made the deployment possible, as a non-subsidised deployment."

Galvin stressed that fibre to the home is best for new housing sites, but said that a cabinet deployment at a maximum of 1km from each premises significantly cuts down on the cost of deployment, and makes it roll out much faster. The company is currently passing over 100,000 premises per week.

"Fibre to the cabinet has made the deployment possible, as a non-subsidised deployment." — Mike Galvin

"There's a very strong argument that says fibre to the cabinet is a minimum-disturbance technology, and if you're equipping a city like New York or London, you're not having to dig up masses of streets and do a lot of retro fit work," he said.

"It's something that can be overlayed on the current network, so it is a much more reliable and quicker deployment."

The power required for each cabinet is about half of that required for DSL services today, and each cabinet comes with a battery backup and an alarm.

Galvin said that the network has the potential for a lot more development, and while speeds are currently a maximum of around 80Mbps down and 20Mbps up, the company is testing out vectoring, which would see the speeds increase dramatically. Galvin said vectoring would likely be deployed into the network later in 2013.

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Mike Galvin Image: BT

"We see vectoring as one of the cornerstone technologies going forward that will extend the capability and the life of the fibre-to-the-cabinet product," he said.

One of the biggest criticisms of a fibre-to-the-cabinet deployment is that it uses legacy copper lines to the premises that are often described as being too old or damaged to be usable for high-speed broadband. Galvin rejected this suggestion.

"That's not our experience. I can't comment on what the Australian local network is like, but a lot of our network goes back to the great expansion in telephony services in the '50s and '60s, and that network is perfectly good for carrying these signals," he said.

While copper has an asset life of 30 years for telecommunications companies, Galvin said it can continue to be used long after that.

"It doesn't mean that after 30 years and one day, it stops working. We've got copper in our network that goes back to the 1920s, and it is absolutely perfect," he said.

"Age is not necessarily a guide. It depends how well the network has been maintained, how well it has been looked after, and the quality of the original installations."

But not everyone has agreed with BT's approach.

Earlier this month, the chief techology officer of one UK ISP Timico, Trefor Davies, reportedly had problems with his own connection to the network achieving only 6Mbps speeds, and it was only after a technician came and examined his copper line, that it was determined that the line from the telegraph pole to his premise had deteoriated and needed to be replaced.

Last March, the company's former CTO Dr Peter Cochrane (PDF) said that FttC was "one of the biggest mistakes humanity has made".

"It ties a knot in the cable in terms of bandwidth and imposes huge unreliability risks," he said.

"The number one fault problem with copper is water ingress. Fibre does not care about water. The fault level in an optical network goes down very low. You can reduce manning, buildings, power consumption and everything."

Cochrane admitted that most of the cost in going to fibre-to-the-premise was in the civil construction of building the pits and ducts to each premise, and he suggested the UK government could fund some of the smaller construction players to boost competition and reduce prices for BT to go to the premise.

"It doesn't mean that after 30 years and one day, it stops working. We've got copper in our network that goes back to the 1920s, and it is absolutely perfect." — Mike Galvin

Customers who are on BT's network via a cabinet but want the full fibre connection can pay for the privilege. Openreach is currently trialling a user-pays system, but Galvin said that the connection cost doesn't come cheap, and users can expect to pay up to £3,500 for the installation of a full fibre connection that would offer download speeds of up to 330Mbps.

Prices with BT start at £29 pounds per month for a 38Mbps service with 40GB of monthly use up to £37 per month on a 76Mbps service with unlimited data. Sky offers a £34.50 per month plan for unlimited data use.

Galvin said that the key to the network's success is its speed of deployment.

"It's been the fastest deployment anywhere in the world. That comes partly with the technology we're using, but partly because we're running a production line," he said.

"We think that's the secret to success. Business wise, it's been a success, as well. For the commercial deployment, there is no government subsidy, we've done it in a regulated environment, we have an open network, and we've made a success of it," he said.

A second initiative to cover the remaining one third of premises not covered in Openreach's rollout is being subsidised by local councils as well as the UK government and the European Union. There are around 35 projects, and BT has won all of the bids so far.

New Zealand

  • Project: Fibre to the premises with part fibre to the cabinet and wireless component

  • Area: 268,021 km2

  • Population: 4.5 million

  • Premises to be passed: 1.35 million by fibre to the premises

  • Percentage: 75 percent for fibre, 97.8 percent in total including wireless and fibre to the cabinet

  • Cost: NZ$1.5 billion (AU$1.2 billion) from government for fibre to be "at least matched by the private sector", NZ$300 million (AU$238 million) for regional areas

  • Government/private/mix: Public-private partnership with four companies

Australia's neighbour across the Tasman, New Zealand, is investing NZ$1.5 billion, with the private sector to "at least match" that investment, to roll out an open-access fibre-to-the-premises network to 33 towns and cities representing 75 percent of the country's 4.5 million population by 2019.

It was first announced as part of the election campaign of the conservative-leaning National Party, led by now-Prime Minister John Key in 2008. In February 2009, even before Australia had announced its own fibre-to-the-premises rollout, then-Communications Minister Steven Joyce explained why a fibre-to-the-premises network was needed in New Zealand.

"Most of us are still reliant on copper to link us up with the main fibre network. While copper was cutting edge 10 years ago, it's a Morris Minor compared with the Ferrari fibre we need to compete. Copper has done very well, but it can't carry the amount of data at the right speed to service the internet applications that we will come to rely on," he said.

"The volumes of data and the speed that copper can carry it at are just not even comparable to fibre. There is no doubt in my mind that the future for broadband will involve replacing copper with fibre."

The rollout is being done as a private-public partnership headed by the government-owned Crown Fibre in conjunction with Northpower, Ultrafast Fibre, Enable Services, and Chorus. The latter, a separated entity from Telecom New Zealand, gets the lion's share of the rollout, at 69.4 percent.

Explaining the government's decision to invest in the project back in 2009, Joyce said the New Zealand economy stood to make between NZ$2.4 billion and NZ$4.4 billion per year in benefits, and the country couldn't afford to wait for private investment to replace the copper network.

"Left to the market, the replacement of the bulk of the copper access network with fibre could take a long time, possibly more than 30 years. As a country, we can't afford to wait that long," he said.

The focus has been on schools, businesses, hospitals, and greenfields sites initially, and it is expected that the network will pass 1.2 million premises by 2019. Unlike the NBN, where the rollout is targeting metropolitan and remote areas, New Zealand is targeting areas of high demand, or where there is high density and the government can build on existing networks.

"Left to the market, the replacement of the bulk of the copper access network with fibre could take a long time, possibly more than 30 years. As a country, we can't afford to wait that long."
— Steven Joyce

Wholesale prices offered on the network are set by Crown Fibre. Around 50 internet service providers have signed up to offer services over the network, and early retail pricing plans on the network range from NZ$69 to NZ$229.

New Zealand has fewer tiers for plans on the fibre compared to Australia. Just two are on offer at the moment: 30Mbps down and 10Mbps up; or 100Mbps down and 50Mbps up.

The take-up on the network has been generally slow in New Zealand. As of the end of December 2012, 131,366 premises had been passed, with a total of 3,806 users taking up services so far. To have the fibre rolled out to a premises, there is no cost if the premises is 200 metres or less from the curb. There was originally a charge in excess of 15 metres from the curb, but this was extended at the cost of NZ$20 million in order to get more customers to sign up for fibre services.

The government has a separate NZ$300 million program for regional New Zealand to roll out fibre to schools, as well as having Vodafone New Zealand upgrade and build more mobile towers, and for Chorus to roll out fibre to the cabinet in rural areas, offering speeds of up to 20Mbps. So far, New Zealand has upgraded 131 of 387 towers, and built 30 of 154 new towers. Chorus has upgraded 347 of the 1,224 cabinets, with 36,100 households reached so far.

The combination of the two programs will mean that by the end of 2019, 97.8 percent of the New Zealand population will have access to faster broadband.

The United States

  • Project: Fibre to the node with wireless component

  • Area: 9,827,000 km2

  • Population: 314 million

  • Premises to be passed: 16.3 million by AT&T

  • Coverage: 22 states for AT&T: Alabama, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin

  • Cost: VDSL2 upgrades to cost US$14 billion (AU$13.4 billion), overall investment US$98 billion (AU$94 billion)

  • Government/private/mix: Private

AT&T is rolling out a mixture of FttN and FttP across 22 states of the US for its U-verse network that not only provides broadband, but also TV services. FttP is generally reserved for new housing premises in affluent areas. AT&T embarked on its fibre-to-the-node project in 2006, and estimates put the total number of new premises getting VDSL at 90 percent.

An AT&T spokesperson told ZDNet that by the end of 2015, the company will have 75 percent of its customers covered with a fixed service, either by fibre to the node or fibre to the premises. The rest of the 300 million who live outside of that coverage will be able to sign up to AT&T's 4G network by the end of 2014. The process will see AT&T decommission its DSL network.

The spokesperson said that AT&T decided to go for a mix of FttN and FttP because it is faster and more cost effective to deploy "bandwidth needed to support both broadband internet access and [the] AT&T U-verse video service".

FttP is reserved for new premises, multi-dwelling units (MDUs), and businesses, the spokesperson said.

"As a matter of fact, with Project VIP, our fibre deployment is expected to reach 1 million additional business customer locations, covering 50 percent of multi-tenant office buildings in AT&T's wireline service area by year end 2015."

The maximum speed on offer for broadband over both FttP and FttN for residential is 24Mbps down and 3Mbps up. AT&T offers scalable Ethernet connections for business customers.

The pricing for U-verse services varies from US$41 per month for a 4Mbps plan up to US$66 per month for 24Mbps. Each plan comes with 250GB of data per month. AT&T doesn't wholesale services on its network, meaning that AT&T is the only provider on its network.

In November last year, the company announced expansion plans that will increase its high-speed access to offer speeds of up to 75Mbps using vectoring.

AT&T isn't the only company with fibre services in the US. Verizon was one of the first companies in the US to explore fibre to the premises as its choice of network, launching FiOS back in 2005.

It's unclear how much Verizon has spent on the fibre rollout. The company has invested US$23 billion in FiOS since 2004, but that is contested.

There are 5.4 million subscribers on the FiOS network, and it extends out to 17.6 million premises.

The company is continuing to upgrade its legacy copper network over to fibre, saying that it is targeting the "high-maintenance portions" of the network. The company migrated 223,000 premises in 2012, and has set the target of moving over 300,000 in 2013. The service is already available in at least 16 states in the US.

FiOS has a number of tiered speed plans (PDF), starting at 15Mbps down and 5Mbps up, right up to 300Mbps down and 65Mbps up. Prices start at US$69.99 per month for the lowest-speed plan, and range up to US$209.99 per month for the fastest service.

Google, famously, is offering relatively cheap 1Gbps plans on its FttP network in Kanas City for, at most, US$120 per month. While Google is expanding this network, it has not announced plans for a major network rollout across the US.

Canada

  • Project: Fibre to the premises

  • Area: 9,984,670 km2

  • Population: 34 million

  • Premises to be passed: 3.3 million by Bell, including 800,000 by Bell Alliant

  • Percentage: Not yet finalised

  • Cost: Unclear

  • Government/private/mix: Private

Bell and Bell Aliant in Canada are both now going down a fibre-to-the-premises path for Eastern and Atlantic Canada, respectively.

"The business case has evolved as we've learned along the way. Just like with anything, the more you do something, the better you get at it." — Bell Aliant

Bell Aliant was the first to cover a city with fibre in June 2009, rolling out FttP in Fredericton and Saint John in New Brunswick. Since then, the rollout has expanded to cities big and small, from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to small areas like Sudbury, Ontario. The company aims to have 800,000 premises passed by the end of the year, which is more than half of the homes in Atlantic Canada.

The company currently has 110,000 subscribers on its FibreOP network, and Bell Aliant is the only provider on the network. The initial rollout cost Bell Aliant CA$60 million (AU$56.4 million), but each new town the company has brought into the network has added tens of millions of dollars to the project each time.

A spokesperson for the company told ZDNet that it had begun to notice cost savings in deploying the network as it went along.

"The business case has evolved as we've learned along the way. Just like with anything, the more you do something, the better you get at it. Since 2009, we've built efficiencies into the process," she said.

"Now that the infrastructure exists in many of our larger centres, we're able to go back in and extend the build where it makes good sense, adding nearby communities and suburbs, again, where the business case exists."

Plans come in a number of tiers, starting at CA$29.95 for a 20Mbps down, 5Mbps up service with unlimited data usage. The company offers a top speed of 250Mbps down, 30Mbps up for CA$249.95 per month.

Bell Canada has an FttP network in Quebec City at a cost of CA$225 million (AU$211 million), and FttN services in Montreal and Toronto, as well as legacy DSL services.

BellTech05

The reason why Quebec City was chosen for FttP is that 85 percent of the premises in the city are serviced via aerial infrastructure, meaning there was no need to get into each duct to replace the existing network, making it "competitive to FttN" on a cost basis. Following the completion of this rollout, Bell said it would likely roll out more FttP to new housing developments.

Depending on the service availability, plans range from 5Mbps down and 1Mbps up at CA$34.95 per month up to 175Mbps down and up for CA$99.95 per month. For an extra CA$10 per month, the data allowance is unlimited.

What it all means

This is just a snapshot of some of the rollouts around the world. There are a number of other networks already deployed, or in the process of being deployed, in a number of other countries. The French government recently announced its intention to deploy a fibre network, and is likely to follow in Australia's footsteps with fibre to the premises.

South Korea, Japan, China, Singapore, and many countries in Europe have also deployed FttP networks, and just as many have deployed FttN networks, including Belgacom in Belgium, Telekom Austria, and Deutsche Telekom in Germany.

There's no government project of the NBN's size anywhere else in the world, but it's easy to see that no two network deployments are alike. There's legacy infrastructure to consider, and who owns it. Australia's situation is made all the more difficult because of Telstra's ownership of the existing infrastructure, whereas for most of the rest of the world, the owner of the infrastructure is the one rolling out the upgrades.

This is not just a problem for Labor's project, but also for the Coalition's proposal. Obtaining the copper line to the premises was not part of the existing NBN deal, and getting hold of it for Turnbull's fibre-to-the-node network still remains a major obstacle for the viability of the proposal.

From there, the Coalition will also need to determine the number of nodes required, and whether the product offering will be different than what is available on the NBN today. NBN Co CEO Mike Quigley told ABC's Inside Business on Sunday that while the current NBN has speed tiered plans, a FttN NBN may only be able to offer one size "best effort" plans.

Debate over the best method of delivering broadband in Australia is largely fractured. NBN advocates focus on the technology benefits and the currently intangible benefits down the track, like telehealth and telecommuting, while opposition to the NBN largely focuses on the cost and the amount of time it is taking to cover the entire country with the network.

The argument is being approached from two different places within Labor, too. While also looking at the long term benefits, the party argues that its FttP network will be commercially successful, but no commercial business would roll out a network of that size in the rest of the world. As Openreach's Mike Galvin said, it wouldn't be commercially viable.

The Coalition approach is from a pure business perspective. BT, Bell, and AT&T have all shown that they are upgrading their networks in places where it is cost effective to do so, and finding other ways of providing broadband in those places that aren't. Either through government subsidy, or through alternative technologies like 4G. The quick approach that gets faster broadband out sooner and has short to medium term benefits but, as Quigley has noted, would require maintaining the copper network, at a higher cost over the longer term.

As a long-term government investment in infrastructure and nation building, an NBN that delivers fibre to the premises for 93 percent of the country will stand out proudly from what the rest of the world is doing. But commercially, for the near future it is going to appear to be to be an unviable and expensive project. No amount of claims of future benefits focusing on telehealth or HD video would be enough to convince detractors that the current spend appears to be worthwhile from a commercial point of view.

The NBN was a key factor in winning the federal election for Labor last time around, and according to the last Essential poll, the policy still remains popular with 73 percent in favour of the project. But the circumstances are different this time. Far from threatening to "rip out the fibre" as Labor has claimed, the Coalition is now committing to finishing the NBN — just their version of it. Continual construction delays in the last three years for the NBN, and proof that FttN can be much faster to complete, may change the views of those less than rusted-on NBN supporters.

The question for Australians comes down to how NBN Co's role is viewed.

Is NBN Co a nation-building infrastructure company that will service all Australians for decades to come, or is it a government company running as a commercial business delivering the quickest network upgrade where return on investment is key?

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