The difficulty with 'doubt' in the NBN

The difficulty with 'doubt' in the NBN

Summary: People who are claiming that "doubt" has been cast over the Coalition's alternative NBN proposal are ignoring the level of doubt in the existing project rollout.


In my two and a bit years reporting on the National Broadband Network (NBN) rollout, I've realised that it is a bit of a Rorschach test; people only see what they want to see.

At the NBN Realised forum last week, we heard from some of the construction companies on the ground, which are rolling out the fibre across the country. One question put to Stephen Ellich, Service Stream director, and Dan Birmingham, Silcar's project director, asked whether fibre to the node (FttN) would be cheaper. This is what Ellich said in response (emphasis mine):

We don't really get into the parts and politics. I think it is not as simple as changing from fibre to the premises to fibre to the node.

For example, at the node, you have no electronic cabnetisation that exists out there as a start, so if you went to the node ... you still have to change from one media to another, which requires some form of electronics out there; it will require power to that electronics, presumably.

I don't think it is a simple question that can be answered off the cuff by any of us here. I would not presume to be an expert.

But I just don't think it is as simple as people think that you just stop providing fibre in the last 3, 500 metres or even the last kilometre from where it might be a pillar, for example, where the copper intersects with the distribution copper, and then you turn that into, you know, all the way through.

I think it is unknown at the moment as to whether it is actually faster or it actually is cheaper, because there is a whole lot of other work that will happen that is not required under this rollout.

Others also piped in, saying that power to the node would be an issue, and that the use of the copper, which in some places hasn't been maintained in the last three years, is also a problem with a fibre-to-the-node rollout.

These are issues worthy of exploring, no doubt. And I hope we hear more from the construction companies, network vendors, and other experts over the next year to provide insight on a fibre-to-the-node approach, but saying that such comments cast "huge doubt" over the cost of the Coalition's proposal ignores a few factors.

Firstly, as Ellich pointed out, he is not in a position to say that overall, it would be more or less expensive. He just outlined some of the factors that would have to be considered. I read into this that the constructors don't really want to be drawn into the politics of it, and that they aren't keen to give proof one way or the other.

Secondly, it ignores the simple premise that the Coalition is not set on fibre to the node. It will definitely be a component of the Coalition's policy, but Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has said that the Coalition would stick with fibre to the premises in areas where it is more affordable to do so. If, once a proper analysis is done, it is determined that fibre to the premises is cheaper, then he has said that it would be used.

Thirdly, there still remains a substantial amount of doubt over the costs associated with the current NBN model. The company has already revised its corporate plan once, and it still doesn't have a set way to roll out fibre into multi-dwelling units (which could end up being fibre to the node if it is just run into the basement of every apartment building), and we are still nine years off the completion of the project. Throw in some other unexpected factors, and it could end up running over budget and being delayed further.

When asked about whether the project will be completed on time and on budget on Friday, even NBN Co CEO Mike Quigley didn't provide solid guarantees.

"As you know, the history of big infrastructure projects, whether they're by the way, whether they're government run or private run is not always good," he told the ABC. "We're feeling reasonably happy with the progress we're making. We're aiming to finish the build of this network by mid-2021. That looks eminently doable, and we're quite happy with the way we're progressing on costs. These kind of exaggerated claims you hear about huge delays and overruns really are not accurate."

Much of the debate around the NBN focuses on calling out inaccurate statements thrown about by coalition MPs and conservative commentators, and rightly so. But there appears to be an almost double standard when it comes to the Coalition's own policy. Part of the confusion around the policy is the Liberal party's own doing. Saying that broadband will be delivered faster and cheaper, but not saying exactly how much faster or how much cheaper is a major cop-out, and not something that you can take to the election. Turnbull also has the unfortunate problem of being frequently contradicted about what the policy will actually be by the likes of Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey.

The party has a long way to go in fleshing out its policy before the 2013 election, and a fully costed, detailed policy would assist in providing a tangible method for the public to be able to tell the difference between Labor and the Coalition on broadband issues.

The current NBN has the home-ground advantage. The project is passing more and more premises by the day, with more customers signing up for services. The construction crews are confident that they can reach the target of passing 6,000 premises per day at the peak of the rollout, and that is only going to look great on paper for the government come election day.

Until then, speculation about the costs of either the Coalition's NBN, or what lies ahead for Labor's NBN, is just that.

Topics: NBN, Government AU, Australia


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.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion

    شات مصرى
  • You seem very "glass half empty" on the NBN

    Its good to ruminate on uncertainties, but you seem quite dismissive of concrete realities as well, For example saying "passing 6000 homes per day is only going to look great on paper for the government come election day". Well it doesn't only "look good on paper", it actually is going to be pretty bloody good in practise as well. Its like you can only see the political dimensions of this project.
    • Professional cynic

      Journalists need to be fairly cynical about everything. Hence "good on paper" is me actually being pretty optimistic.
      Josh Taylor
    • But it isn't a concrete reality

      NBNCo is not even close to "passing 6000 homes per day", it's a throw away line.

      History is not uncertain; the NBNCo forecasts are measurable by actual performance. Underperformance is a concrete reality!
      Richard Flude
      • The usual suspects...

        What again is being overlooked by the same old tired dooms-dayers (that's the 21 Dec isn't it?) is there is at least a plan and light at the end of the tunnel for the NBN. Rather than here-say, rhetoric and idealistic desk thumping.

        Whilst not gospel of course, the NBN has an analysed plan. Being so, we have two options.

        1. The current NBN which has...

        * A plan analysed and/or costed by McKinsey/KPMG, Greenhill Caliburn (iirc) and also by NBNCo which will cost around $40B (for arguments sake).
        * A plan for funding via debt not direct income taxes.
        * A plan for a full ROI of that debt from NBN usage (so no impost for taxpayers).
        * A plan for an affordable future proof network - yes wireless is improving, but so too is fibre and wireless needs fibre, anyway.
        * A plan for ubiquity.
        * A plan for affordable access (via cross-subsidisation - "user pays") as government service rather than profiteering is the primary goal
        * A plan to finally relinquish Australia's complete comms control from the incumbent.
        * A plan for a fully paid, state of the art network, which will be owned by, profited from and used by all Aussies, which will due to it's nature and analysis, make Australia more productive and competitive on the world stage.

        2. The opposition's alternative network which has...

        * No actual plan but an estimation that was (from the little they knew) costed at $17B by Citi Group. But, that didn't including any (suggested elsewhere up to $20B) deals with Telstra for their copper/HFC or Optus' HFC
        * No clear plan that we know of for funding avenues (do we assume taxpayer impost)?
        * No plan that we know of for ROI (do we assume profits will go to company/shareholders rather than to repay the network)?
        * A plan (from the little we do know) which will roll out copper (meant for telephony) reliant therefore already obsolete FttN and also rely upon access to obsolete, shared medium (meant for TV) HFC.
        * A plan (from the little we do know) that may be ubiquitous
        * A plan (from the little we do know) that may cost consumers more to access, as profiteering will be the primary goal. And in their 2010 broadband policy, the opposition also had a clause that rural would pay no more than urban for like services (cross-subsidisation) for 15 years.
        * A plan (from the little we do know) which will hand back full power to the incumbent (who owns the copper and one of two HFC networks)
        * A plan (from the little we do know) which totally ignores future needs of FttP and the ADDED COST thereof.
        * A plan (from the little we do know) for a network which will be paid for by taxpayers, but owned by private companies who will profit from it, which will also, but to a much lesser degree, make Australia more productive/competitive (but only if you live in a city and near an exchange - due to the same old copper issues).

        And guess what?

        The political/$ driven NBN naysayers, refuse to even consider plan 1 to have any credence (in fact they spread incessant negativity 24/7) whilst blindly accepting the no detail, nothing and obsolete before it starts, plan 2?

        Yes right, those who oppose the NBN "are impartial and not politically idealistic and/or driven by their own greedy wallets" *rolls eyes*
        • For the pedantic... my faux pas

          In relation to FttN ROI should read do we assume 'revenue' (thought I'd better add that before it's honed in on *sigh*)
        • I see now you're costing your strawmen argument, very novel

          Critiquing your plan 1 doesn't mean an acceptance of your plan 2!

          I, for one, have been very critical of the lack of Liberal policy. If it contains massive public funding and wasteful retirement of competitive infrastructure I'll be criticising it as well.

          Neither changes the historical reality of the NBNCo performance to this point.
          Richard Flude
          • *huge sigh*

            HELLO... we only have two choices Richard.

            Opting for 3. when we only have the choice of 1. or 2. is ridiculous :/

            No... you have once or twice offered token criticism in relation to the Coalition's alternative, whereas you are here daily bagging, without any basis whatsoever, the NBN.

            So crunch time Richard, of the two actual alternatives we have - the NBN or the Coalition's alternative, which is better?

            I look forward to either stunned silence, a side-step to embarrass the greatest AFL, NRL or Rugby great or waffling nothingness.

            Please don't let me down.
          • Infinite choices

            Those of us sourcing data connections in the realworld experience the reality. Getting out of Australia regularly also helps.

            You see the world as two competing Australian political parties. Many more alternatives are available, sadly you have neither the experience or knowledge of them.
            Richard Flude
          • As expected...

            The prophesied side-step....LOL. Thank you Richard.

            But also then the old, not having an answer to said question, try to belittle the questioner and turn the heat back on them...

            And you masquerade as a professional :/

            So again let me repeat by asking...

            'Of the two actual alternatives we have - the NBN or the Coalition's alternative, which is better, Richard?"

            If you are as you claim.. experienced and knowledgable, please educate us all with an answer to a very simple question, rather than making lame, squirming, laughable excuses.
          • Still

            RS it isn't a choice between two plans as you present.

            That's not evading the question, simply pointing out your question is ridiculous.

            What colour is the sky? 1) red 2) green
            Richard Flude
          • "simply pointing out your question is ridiculous."

            The question isn't ridiculous at all. Even though there may be alternatives he is asking of the two options in question which is better. It is pretty simple. However if you want to make life difficult for yourself name every "alternative" you can think of and then rank them.

            "What colour is the sky? 1) red 2) green"

            Of these colors which in visible light is the best match and nearest to the color of the sky?

            Hubert Cumberdale
          • Rather than lame excuses, why not just answer? Here's why...

            Is the 'self proclaimed vastly knowledable and experienced' one, unable to answer a simple question?

            No, he has an answer, but he's simply too afraid and embarrassed to now spit it out. So as his (lame) excuse, he instead infers it a silly question... how delicious.

            Why won't he just answer?

            Because even with all of his 'knowledge and experience (ahem),' an, according to him, inexperienced and unknowledgeable poster (me)... has him squeezed tightly between a rock and a hard place... more delicious.

            How so?

            The 'self proclaimed vastly knowledgable and experienced one,' has agreed with the Coalition across the board, 99.9% of the time. But if he now says he believes the Coalition's plan is better (after his only minor derision of the Coalition ever, being that he believes their broadband plan is a bit thin on detail) he will simply reaffirm ZD's worst kept secret. But of course, having bagged the NBN more than probably anyone else here, he even more so, can't (and would never anyway) now admit that the NBN is a better alternative...

            Ultimately delicious :)
      • I'm not stupid

        I noticed he was talking about future targets, my point was that Josh seemed to be saying he would be underwhelmed even if they met their targets.
  • Yes it really makes sense

    to listen to Luddite conservatives who really don't understand anything but the benefits of spreading FUD.

    Malcolm Turnbull actually knows better and the rubbish he spouts about the NBN lowers his chances of being a reasonable Liberal Party leader.
  • Nodes at multi-dwelling locations

    Even though NBNco has not finalised plans for multi-dwelling locations. A node in the basement in these locations still makes it possible for residents to be able to take advantage of maximum speeds. It would take the "last mile" connection out of the hands of a conglomerate and put it into the hands of the body corporate. This to me is more favorable than a node in some random street location with the use of aged and dieing copper berried in a street pit.
    • What MDU drama's

      I really can't see what the so-called drama's are with cabling up an MDU. After working on the Telstra network as a designer and installing Foxtel in MDU's it is quite simple, use the method that works and that method is the one Foxtel use. An RBS is usually placed in a comm's room or in a rooftop room, cables are run from there through channeling on each floor and a "line" is left out the front of each unit for a connection to the "lead in" cable, nice and neat. The NBN model, as it stands now, is to run a 20mm conduit for each unit back to a comms room on each floor, very messy and won't be approved by a body corporate, easy option is: substitute the conduit for a discrete channel, take the lead in's back to the comms rooms to a joint which is connected to the FDH or TFAN in the basement comms room, which is the design process now, where access to the street is available. Really does it take 50 scientists to work it out?, sort it out NBN it's not that bloody hard.
  • would assist?

    "The party has a long way to go in fleshing out its policy before the 2013 election, and a fully costed, detailed policy would assist in providing a tangible method for the public".

    "would assist in providing" or "is essential to provide".

    A bit more journalist's cynicism is indicated.
  • NBNCo can't power FTTN Cabinets yet Telstra power RIM's?

    Just about how many FTTN cabinets would be so remote that powering them would be a difficulty, yet the location is not remote enough to utilize LTE services?

    Just how can NBNCo claim there will be difficulty in powering FTTN cabinets, yet Telstra already manage to power plenty of Remote Integration Multiplexers?

    Whilst NBNCo may not wish to get into the parts and politics, they show a stark 'technical' preference for FTTH against FTTN.
    beau parisi
    • RIMs powered through their copper connection. No power through fibre

      RIMs sit at the end of copper from the exchange, and so can get power over the wires.

      Fibre cannot power ANYTHING to which it connects, so finding power to cabinets to convert fibre to copper IS a big issue.