Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has leapt upon the developing DSL standard G.fast that vendors have promised will be able to deliver 1Gbps over copper.
The International Telecommunications Union is moving toward making G.fast a DSL standard by March 2014. G.fast promises fibre-to-the-premises (FttP) speeds over short distances of copper through a combination of DSL technologies, including pair-bonding, vectoring to eliminate cross-talk on VDSL2, and "phantom mode", which creates virtual pairs between copper pairs.
The high-end speeds of up to 1Gbps can only be achieved over very short distances of copper, between 100 metres and 200 metres.
Speaking at a Business Spectator lunch in Sydney yesterday, Turnbull said that this new standard is something that was not included in his fibre-to-the-node (FttN) National Broadband Network (NBN) policy, but suggested that it is something that could be assessed should the Coalition win the federal election later this year.
"There is an even more souped-up version of that called G.fast, which is just starting to be deployed commercially, which, over short copper runs, I mean 100 metres, can deliver over 1[Gbps]," he said.
"What has happened in relatively recent times is that that difference [between copper and fibre] has compressed. Now you're seeing a difference in the service level that is available in fibre to the node, fibre to the basement has become much less."
The proposal would mean that in many locations, the node would need to be brought much closer to the premises, such as in the basement of multi-dwelling units, in order to reduce the distance enough to achieve those promised speeds.
Turnbull said the argument that the Coalition's policy is using outdated technology falls flat when looking at all the innovations in the uses for the existing copper line.
"The Labor party will say our party is using an old technology. The technology we're talking about using, whether it be vectored VDSL or G.fast, they are not old technologies; they are the latest," he said.
Under the Coalition's proposal, around 22 percent of premises will still receive fibre to the premises, but this will mostly be for new buildings where the NBN is already rolling out, and in areas where the copper line has degraded and cannot achieve a minimum of 25Mbps. Turnbull indicated that more premises could get fibre if the price is right.
"We've set out what we expect an NBN Co configured in a more rational manner will look like, but if we can do more fibre than we've anticipated, that would not be a bad thing. I'm not arguing that fibre to the premises is a bad technology; if money and time were no object, I would certainly do it."
First and foremost after the election if the Coalition wins, Turnbull has said that an analysis will be undertaken in NBN Co of the cost of the current rollout, and the best alternative to proceed with to see the network rolled out fastest and in the most cost-effective manner. He said that he believes this would only take 60 days, because staff in the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy as well as NBN Co would already be working on it.
"Our aim is to get it done in 60 days. I would expect that there is a fair bit of preliminary work being done both in the department and in NBN Co, because government departments always do anticipate a change of government," he said.
"I think if we do win the election, we won't be presented with a blank sheet of paper; there will be a fair bit of work done already."
Turnbull also floated the idea of NBN Co taking over running Telstra's hybrid fibre-coaxial (HFC) network, rather than shutting it down as the current deal with Telstra stipulates.
"With the HFC, there is more talking to be done. One option is the HFC becomes part of the NBN Co network," he said. "We're open at looking at different solutions there. One option is that it is operated by Telstra there as a wholesale asset."
Any option would be better than the current plan, he said.
"There's got to be a better solution than paying Telstra billions of dollars to switch off a HFC network that is capable of delivering very high-speed broadband now and into the future. On one level, that is an extraordinary episode of asset destruction."
But Turnbull said that the HFC network would be dealt with later, as NBN Co under the Coalition would not prioritise the HFC areas for overbuilding with the fibre-to-the-node network.
"The HFC areas where people can get 100Mbps you wouldn't be overbuilding with the current technology in the next three years," he said.
Turnbull said that if he had been able to start from scratch, the ideal broadband policy would have been to structurally separate Telstra's fixed-line asset into a separate company, and then organise for the company to upgrade its network, subsidising the upgrades in the more expensive regional locations.
He said that the New Zealand model, where Telecom NZ split its wholesale arm, Chorus, into a new company, is the best way to do it. However, he said that it is "fantasy football" at this point, because Telstra isn't interested in doing it.