Is Coalition's NBN endgame up in the air?

Is Coalition's NBN endgame up in the air?

Summary: It's still not clear just how the Coalition plans to meet its difficult FttN NBN goals. But as new information about its operating parameters continues to emerge, it's worth considering one way it might make everything work.


With his draft strategic review finally in hand, Malcolm Turnbull will now be planning the Coalition's next moves on the NBN very carefully. By connecting the dots, however, it's becoming increasingly possible to figure out just what he might be planning – and it ain't pretty.

Somewhat out of character, this time I mean that literally, and not figuratively.

Could this be the new home of the Coalition's FttN NBN?

Clues come from the recent proposal by Tasmania's Labor premier Lara Giddings, who recently lodged a proposal with the Commonwealth government that it roll out the fibre-optic cables supporting the fibre-to-the-node (FttN) network across existing telephone poles around the state.

It's an approach that has been tried before, successfully, in the NBN's pilot trials in Townsville. Indeed, Labor's original NBN Co plan included plans for around 25 percent of the cables to be strung up this way – although under the previous Labor government NBN Co struggled to resolve an impasse with New South Wales' Liberal government over the price of such access.

Those with slightly longer memories will remember the last major rollout of cables across power lines, when Telstra and Optus chased each other through the suburbs stringing hybrid fibre-coax cables as they went their merry way. This rollout was widely opposed by citizen action groups, which argued vociferously that the cables were unsightly intrusions of modernity into bucolic lives where telephone poles and wires were... well, they were already everywhere.

But that's a minor technical detail. The upshot is that the rollouts were eventually stopped, neighbours on network footprint boundaries had to visit each other to get access to premium TV channels, and Telstra eventually bludgeoned Optus into a pay-TV stupour.

Turnbull's real trick

Reviving the overhead rollout approach would facilitate the delivery of the fibre part of the Coalition's FttN policy – and do so in such a way that the fibre-connected nodes could literally be serviced by broadband from Heaven. So to speak.

More importantly, it would also reduce the Coalition's reliance on underground Telstra cabling ducts – already leased from the government for a tidy $11 billion and change –so that the FttN rollout could proceed more quickly and reach more properties than if the project had to continue being shoved through asbestos-riddled Telstra ducts.

Put it all together his is where it may very well all be coming together to justify Turnbull's long-held (and often-questioned) assertion that the government could access Telstra's entire copper network at no additional cost.

The only way that would be possible would be if the government could renegotiate an arrangement that would substantially reduce the actual amount of duct required – such as the almost ubiquitous use of overhead lines.

As mentioned above, Labor struggled with this – but Australia's current red-washed political landscape means the Coalition government should find state governments far more receptive to allowing NBN Co to string up its fibre on their poles.

Doing so would give the government credit in the bank, so to speak, that it could then use to fund the purchase or leasing of Telstra's copper access network (CAN). Telstra hasn't yet fixed an asking price on the value of that network, but I'd bet that with a bit of cajoling and the promise of a looser regulatory environment Turnbull might be able to get Telstra CEO David Thodey to do exactly what he wants.

If this is Turnbull's endgame, it is hardly going to be an easy innings. People power has a way of interfering with things like overhead rollouts, although there's no telling whether a politically-fatigued public would even be able to muster the grassroots willpower to make a dent in the policy.

Then there are issues such as the underlying financial position of any FttN rollout, which is becoming more and more challenging every day given the steady stream of revelations from the recent leak of NBN Co documents.

Those documents have highlighted a range of issues facing the project, including "high risk" IT systems redevelopment; the recommendation that the rollout be completed in one go and not two as the Coalition is currently planning; and challenges around the deployment of FttN cabinets and ramping up skills.

Then again, Turnbull may have an entirely different plan up his hand; all will only become clear when the findings of his Strategic Review are published. Given the potential for the Senate to force its publication, it may not be long.

What do you think? Would it work? Should it?

Topics: NBN, Broadband, Government AU


Australia’s first-world economy relies on first-rate IT and telecommunications innovation. David Braue, an award-winning IT journalist and former Macworld editor, covers its challenges, successes and lessons learned as it uses ICT to assert its leadership in the developing Asia-Pacific region – and strengthen its reputation on the world stage.

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
  • Politicians

    Politics is show business for ugly people, political parties have a habit of selecting people with bi polar disorders as their front men. Just have a look at Pyne and Abbott's performance in regard to education spending this week. How can anybody suggest that they have their nuts and bolts screwed together properly, when all that occurred was bizarre delusional behaviour from both of them. Like denials of things that occurred that was on widely circulated video footage.
    Have a look at Tony here
    He's not all there, never seen anybody behave like that that wasn't nuts.
    Why does he go through phases where he "disappears from public view for weeks at a time"?
    Why won't he appear where he is interviewed seriously?

    The NBN should be purely a technical issue not a political or cost issue it's about a 100 year future of telecommunications, the initial rollout expectations were set too high for political purposes. It's quite clear the NBN rollout is going to take longer and cost more than originally thought. The training of workers was not implemented properly and Labor wasted too much time and money with Gillard's school halls and handouts instead of focussing seriously on the NBN.
    Labors problems was the dysfunctional leadership of Rudd whose qualities are largely shared by Abbott.
    Why can't political parties turf these loons or is the "high energy" politics generated by bi polars necessary to run a political campaign in todays media environment.
    Kevin Cobley
  • We can stop this calamity

    The achilles heal of the Half-NBN:

    Power poles and large node cabinets.

    People power stopped the Optus cable from being strung up on power poles in many areas. It will happen again. In addition, people and councils will oppose the hot power-guzzling node cabinets that have to be installed everywhere.

    If they put the Half-NBN in your street, you will never get it upgraded to full-fiber in the future. You'll be stuck with the half-copper monstrosity.

    So it's in everyone's interests to stop it, so when a change of government occurs in the future, the roll-out of full-fiber will continue.

    It is in everybody's interests that local government councils oppose the cable on power-polls, and oppose the streetside cabinets.
  • Who is laughing now..

    Except Josh, you missing out a point, is that with the way states are now, against Federal Coalition (RE: Gonski Fallout), NSW was one of the first states, to ask for more money for lease of the Polls.

    As per noted earlier:

    So I doubt you get this any further, sooner, quicker, cheaper.

    Remember, this network, is a chance to get it done right, the first time.
  • Maybe in your town, but not everywhere!

    I am told that in storm-poor regions of Australia, people still use telegraph poles, but in more affluent regions, where residents can afford the luxury of regular cyclones, these are things of the past. In Darwin, for instance, most power and communication wiring was moved below ground years ago to keep it safe from wind, rain and lightning. This was nothing to do with esthetics; it was strictly practical. Back in ancient days, when we had elevated wiring, it seemed to be hit by lightning every other day, and blown away completely every alternative Tuesday. Power poles are just too darned expensive; I don't see anyone bringing them back, not even to please Malcolm Turnbull!
  • Aerial is not the ultimate solution

    Of course Lara wants NBN to increase the aerial portion of the fibre network.
    Aurora Energy, the state government owned power authority will have their substandard poles renewed curtesy of the Federal Gobernment project, not to mention the healthy margin they make on top of it, and also recieve ongoing annual pole access fees from the NBN.
    The choice between aerial or underground deployment should not be pre-determined at a high level, but selected based on the most economical method of servicing each premise.
  • Deja Vu

    The GFC was largely caused by Merchant Bankers Marketing and heavily promoting Worthless Junk Bonds as AAA Securities with the collusion of the experts (the ratings agencies)
    Abel Adamski