Don't count on Albo to change the NBN anytime soon

Don't count on Albo to change the NBN anytime soon

Summary: While the Australian telecommunications industry has put forth proposals for changes to the NBN, it's unlikely that we'll see any made in the near future.


Since the return of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, everyone has expected a significant shift in a number of policies that were troublesome for former Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

The policy on how to assess asylum seekers who arrive by boat was going to lurch to the right, school funding reforms were going to get a bit more time to work, the carbon tax was going to be scrapped for the floating price, and so on and so on.

The new paradigm is that he's Kevin, he's from Queensland, and he's here to think differently.

The telecommunications industry was also pretty keen to get a change of policy on the National Broadband Network (NBN). New Communications Minister Anthony Albanese joked that he'd been asked whether he was going to change the NBN policy before he'd even been sworn in as the minister.

It's not all that surprising. Former Communications Minister Stephen Conroy's biggest strength as a minister responsible for the NBN was also one of his biggest flaws. He was so dead set and absolutely single-mindedly focused on realising the current policy design of the NBN — with 93 percent of premises getting fibre, and 7 percent getting wireless and satellite — that he wasn't open to the idea of any change at all to the network.

It's not like people haven't tried. The industry has made noises about alternatives for years. NBN Co itself, seeing what was happening on the ground with the difficulty in rolling out fibre into multi-dwelling units (MDUs), put forward a proposal for a fibre-to-the-basement (FttB) alternative for apartment blocks, but was rejected by the Cabinet. Quite likely on Conroy's advice.

When FttB became something that Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull began to consider as part of his own policy, there was no chance that Conroy would even think about it.

But we have a new PM and a new communications minister, and it is the opportune time to consider a revised policy without having any of the hangups about what came before it. Or it would be, if there wasn't an election due in the next few months.

I've lost count of the number of times people have asked me over the past few weeks about whether the Labor party is going to change the NBN, and, indeed, whether NBN Co will look at an FttB alternative for those apartment blocks and other MDUs that are tricky to install fibre into.

Anything is possible, I usually tell them, but I doubt it'll happen anytime soon. There's a couple of reasons for this.

Firstly, after NBN Co released its premises passed figure last week, that could be the very last time we get figures from NBN Co before the election. From Labor's point of view, it doesn't need to make changes to the NBN to boost that figure up now before the election if we're not getting any new total.

Secondly, an admission that any facet of the NBN policy is not right would play into Turnbull's arguments about the government taking the wrong approach for the entire project. Again, not something that the government would like to see happen before the election.

Thirdly, it would require a new corporate plan. NBN Co has been working on a new corporate plan for the government since before the change of leader. The company has spent months working on it, and the government would spend months assessing it. A critical change in policy would require extensive work on developing the processes for implementing the policy and working out the costs. Anything that would be ready before the election would not be relied upon.

This means that any potential change would happen after the election, but I'm already having my doubts about whether there would be changes at all. When Rudd returned, he highlighted that the NBN, climate change, and same-sex marriage are three key issues that are important to young people in Australia. Then, in Darwin last week, Rudd said that fibre is the only way for the NBN.

"For the future, it is fibre optic, every modern economy around the world is laying out fibre optic," he said. "In 10 years' time, we will look back on this day and say 'why didn't we do it 10 years earlier?' That is what we will say.

"If in 10 years' time, the other mob get in and they decide to go back to good old 19th-, early 20th-century copper, everyone will shake their heads in wonder as to how this pack of mugs in Australia, the alternative government of Australia, could think that this was a solution for the future."

Issues with delays for the NBN aside, the policy as a whole still remains pretty popular. Any shift in the policy after the election, even if it is pragmatic and would see the NBN rolled out faster, would likely alienate many of the people who back Labor. Pragmatism and a desire to get more premises passed quickly may ultimately win out, but I doubt we'll see a change over the next few months.

Topic: 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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  • Do you ever have a positive story.

    It's sad i had to register to voice this but have you ever written a positive story about the nbn? You always come across as negative as someone "with a degree in Computer Science" Are you not embarrassed by the coalition and im guessing your paycheque
    • oofa can you explain how this is a negative story? Seems pretty neutral to me.
      Hubert Cumberdale
    • all he said was

      don't expect news any time soon. and he's probably right. how is that negative?
      • Anything not gushing is negative in their eyes

        Soon they'll accuse him of being Malcom Turnbull;-)

        Personally I'd be surprised if they don't move on the MDU issue before the election. The solution has been obvious (even to NBNCo) and there last rollout figures show the impact of ignoring it.
        Richard Flude
        • For once I may agree with Richard

          Do we know the actual average expense required to get fibre to every apartment? Or is it a time delay thing? Getting fibre to the premises is comparatively easy, but I CAN imagine multi floor dwellings may indeed be a bridge too far. Especially if it is an older apartment block where no consideration has been made for future cabling.

          I DO notice a few newer apartment blocks near me have Cat6 to each apartment. I don't see the problem of putting a "Node" in the basement and utilizing the Cat6, as Cat6 over that distance can easily support 1Gbps or more to each apartment.

          The ones that only have RJ11 (single twisted pair) can indeed be a major stumbling block and only offer near 25Mbps.
          • Appears too hard -- let's give up!

            If FTTH in MDU's is feasible in places like Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore or Paris, where most of the population lives in apartments, why would it be in a "too hard" basket in Australia, where only a fraction of the population lives in apartments?

            With this attitude, we'll never amount to much as a nation.
        • I agree with you on this one Richard

          I've been saying for months they should use FTTB for any MDU with "issues" (be they body corp or just poor/old building standards).

          They'd be on VDSL2+ and, being on sub 100m runs, would be able to get speeds well in excess of 100 Mbps (300Mbps-1Gbps depending on the wiring of the place).
    • for once I have to back Josh

      While usually his articles are negative towards the NBN or quote verbatim someone else being negative this article is quite neural. Considering the political situation and the very real questions being asked after the Rudd return. Gillard annihilated policy when she got in to push the dirt under the carpet. MRRT anyone.

      Thanks for the article I enjoyed reading it :)
  • whipped

    honestly i only got to the 2nd paragraph but what do asylum seekers have to do with an nbn debate. All it shows to me is the authors allegiance. do i need to say more?
    • if you keep reading

      he doesn't actually weigh in on the issue, he's just framing the current political landscape. and regardless of your position, you have to admit it's practically all politicians talk about these days.
      • Bingo

        I was actually quoting Rudd's own comments about asylum seeker policy from 2010.
        Josh Taylor
  • Why would he change it?

    Why would you change from the best plan (FTTP) to the 3rd worst plan being FTTN? With only keeping the current mess of copper (worst plan) and wireless lte for all (lol) being the 2nd worst.

    Seems pretty simple to me, we deserve the best, not some 2nd or 3rd rate crap that the LNP promise but when the time comes will fail dismally to deliver.

    • FTTN is a long way from FTTB

      FTTN - you have crap quality cable for the last (200? 500? m) including the stuff inside the home.
      FTTB - for multilevel MDU's, you've got new CAT5/6 for the basement-apartment, and it exists. Getting buy-in from all the residents to replace this with fibre is going to be difficult, and probably unnecessary.
    • They don't need to change the whole thing

      FTTP is the way to go for the majority, but they definitely need to address the problem MDU issues so the same problems that happened with HFC don't happen to the NBN.
  • Don'e believe the hype


    Really am surprised at you.

    What is completely missed is the cost of upgrading to FTTP when FTTN runs out of puff because it can't and will not cope with the needs of Australia past 2020. It is this kind of thinking the Coalition want you to ignore. They don't want you to think of the future, they want you to think of right now. Rather short sighted for a project that is supposed to be for Australia's communications future.

    As for spending all that money, put it in context. The initial build cost will be paid by debt funding arrangements. I should be noted that debt funding is the typical funding model for large infrastructure projects, the NBN is no different. However in this case they expect a conservative return of 7% which was confirmed to be on target as of three weeks ago. The NBN may be behind but it is still on budget. Certainly the project is delayed but any project of this scale will encounter unexpected delays because you simply cannot predict everything.

    This debt will be paid for by Australians, when you pay for your Internet service to your ISP. The ISP's in turn pay the government for the wholesale NBN network, just like they do now for any wholesale service that is supplied to them. The conservative estimates of income for the government at completion will be 380 million a month for fibre alone. This will pay down the debt funding that was used to build the NBN.

    All things considered, 93% of Australian premises will get fibre to their door and won't pay an extra cent for it. There really is no issue here. The people who continue to complain about the premises passed figure are being fuelled by the raging rhetoric from the Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP who does a disservice to his office by behaving in this way.

    NBNCo is a wholesale provider, they do not control the third parties who provide a retail service. They provide the underlying infrastructure then it is up the negotiation between retail parties to get the tail end up and running. So the premises passed figure is an accurate measure from a *wholesale perspective*. Thereafter the retail players will get organised to provide service to an area. Premises passed never represented a "you can connect" figure.

    Don't believe the hype.
    • At last, the facts and nothing but the facts.

      Good one rtfmoz, you've stopped them in their tracks.

      Don't be surprised if you don't get a ZDNet job offer or any mainstream media outlet though. The facts presented in a thorough, professional manner may not appeal to management in many cases, judging by the populist rubbish they "accept" from existing staff.
      Ray Noel
    • Erm

      I wasn't opining on the merits of FttB vs FttP, I was only putting in the political context of whether we could expect a potential change of policy.

      As for the last part, NBN Co has told me they can provide a figure for how many people can connect, but they are insisting I go through the FOI process to find that out, so stay tuned.
      Josh Taylor