Following NBN Co's own reporting that the cost of rolling out fibre to every premises is between AU$2,200 and AU$2,500, Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has said that the Coalition could increase the number of premises getting fibre to the home, should the party win the September federal election.
Under the Coalition's AU$29.4 billion National Broadband Network (NBN) alternative policy, 22 percent of premises would receive fibre-to-the-home services, compared to 93 percent under Labor's policy. The other 71 percent would receive fibre to the node, with the Coalition seeking to utilise Telstra's existing copper line between the node and the premises.
The Coalition had claimed that the cost per premises for NBN Co to pass by fibre would amount to approximately AU$3,400, but NBN Co CEO Mike Quigley today provided evidence to the joint parliamentary committee overseeing the NBN that showed that NBN Co's current per-premises cost is much lower, at between AU$2,200 and AU$2,500.
Speaking outside the committee hearing in Sydney on Friday, Turnbull said that if the cost turned out to be accurate, then a Coalition government would roll out more fibre.
"If the cost of fibre to the premises is considerably lower than what we've assumed, it might be that we could cost effectively do a larger percentage of the build as fibre to the premise," he said.
"We know fibre to the premise is the best technological solution, and if you can build it cost effectively, then you should do so. If we're able to build more of it cost effectively, then we would do so."
But Turnbull said he is sceptical about NBN Co's accuracy on the cost.
"NBN Co hasn't had a great track record of meeting any of its estimates to date," he said.
Turnbull said he is pleased that NBN Co has confirmed that it is assessing running fibre to the basement in existing apartment blocks.
"I think the most important thing to come out of this morning's evidence from NBN Co is the knowledge they are looking very actively at alternative technologies of the kind we're proposing — fibre to the node, VDSL especially in multi-dwelling units — which would have the effect of reducing the cost and the time of the roll-out," Turnbull said.
But he said that NBN Co is being prevented from acting on going down that path by the federal government.
"You've got a team of professionals there who are capable of doing it, who are obviously wanting to do it ... but they've been told by their political masters that no alternative to Labor's NBN is to be entertained," he said.
"[Labor] Senator [Doug] Cameron jumped on the young chief technology officer from the NBN Co and basically chastised him in a manner of an old Soviet commissar for deviating from the party line, as though he was about to be hauled before the central committee for having impure thoughts."
On the cost of gaining access to the copper network and remediating the copper, Turnbull said his policy makes some assumptions about the cost, which was built into the overall cost.
"But, can I just say, of course Telstra knows what the state of their copper network is, and that's why you've got to involve them in a fibre-to-the-node build," he said.
He claimed that the fault rate would be very low on the copper lines.
"The fault rate is very low, and under our approach, the only copper layout that is left is the last 400, 500, or 600 metres. So most of the copper is replaced. It's only that last copper tail that is replaced."
The cost of maintaining the copper would be "a very small amount of money", he said.
"The bulk of the copper maintenance is spent in regional areas where you've got the longest loops and climatic extremes, and that's going to continue [under Labor] through [universal service obligations].
"We're assuming it will cost a little bit more to maintain ... but it is interesting that you'll see that people with a lot of practical experience doing it have not found that to be an issue."
Syntheo had been called before the joint parliamentary committee hearing today to provide evidence as to why it has fallen so far behind in construction of the National Broadband Network project, but the company failed to bring along any executives.
Instead, the only executive to appear before the committee was Dale Connor, chief operating officer for Lend Lease. Lend Lease is a joint-venture partner with Service Stream in Syntheo.
Connor told the committee that he was there to express support for Syntheo, but when asked specific questions about the rollout of the NBN, he responded that he could not speak on behalf of Syntheo.
"I'm only about to respond on behalf of Lend Lease," he said.
As a result, Connor's appearance before the committee lasted just over 4 minutes.