NBN: Fibre to the world

Summary: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.

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?

Topics: NBN


Armed with a degree in Computer Science and a Masters in Journalism, Josh keeps a close eye on the telecommunications industry, the National Broadband Network, and all the goings on in government IT.

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