It's five FttN NBN customers down, over 11 million to go

It's five FttN NBN customers down, over 11 million to go

Summary: Malcolm Turnbull would have been quietly relieved to preside over the unveiling of Australia's first FttN NBN customers. But the launch did nothing to clarify questions around the government's relationship with Telstra, the competitive stance of the Coalition's NBN, and the nagging suspicion that Turnbull is digging himself into a deep, deep hole.


Not too far from the corner of Britannia Street and Trafalgar Avenue, in the coastal NSW town of Umina Beach, NSW, is the fibre-to-the-node (FttN) cabinet that has become the Patient Zero of Malcolm Turnbull's revamped National Broadband Network (NBN).

Like a viral outbreak, from this unassuming corner installation will spread the technology that Turnbull has spent the last four years trying to convince the country is a better and cheaper option than the previous government's fibre-to-the-premises (FttP) plan.

Yet, even as the confetti is swept up and Telstra settles in to first wire up more houses around that quiet intersection — emboldened by the terms of a so-called trial with the government that will see it roll out around 1,000 such cabinets in as-yet-unannounced timeframes — it is worth considering the true cost of the implementation of this technology.

It could not be a more obvious reference to the Coalition's love of all things British that the first FttN node in Australia's revamped NBN would be located at such an Anglophonic juncture, since Turnbull has repeatedly and forcefully worked to replicate the experience of British ex-monopolist BT in extending the capabilities of its monopoly local access network with VDSL2 technology.

That VDSL2 works has never been in question, even though Turnbull has spent much of his many television appearances trying to convince incensed voters that it is somehow equivalent to fibre. It is not, but it is better than ADSL — in the right circumstances.

That it worked well, as it seemed to do in the B-roll footage featuring Turnbull rather quizzically sat staring at a SpeedTest screen as if to say "This is what my entire political career is based on?", is a good sign that, technically at least, the government is not steering broadband towards a complete technical disaster — although it remains as limited a technology as ever, and Turnbull still has not elucidated any kind of coherent future expansion policy.

What the widely covered launch did not, however, address — nor has Turnbull — is the fact that delivering this long-promised outcome is forcing the new government to wind back the telecommunications industry to 1997, when a host of presumed infrastructure competitors were counting down the days until massive legislative change would free the country of its crushing domination by Telstra.

The single-minded and often desperate effort to wrestle control of Australia's broadband future away from Telstra has died a quick and painful death — replaced with a series of pandering decisions that have left the rest of the telecommunications industry up in arms and questioning their role in the Coalition's New Telecoms Order.

Seventeen years later, the single-minded and often desperate effort to wrestle control of Australia's broadband future away from Telstra has died a quick and painful death — replaced with a series of pandering decisions that have left the rest of the telecommunications industry up in arms and questioning their role in the Coalition's New Telecoms Order.

Statements by NBN Co CEO Bill Morrow, made seemingly to assuage the industry, did nothing of the sort. Just because companies other than Telstra will be given contracts to build the NBN, as Morrow promised (as though supplier diversity weren't already an entrenched principle of government procurement), doesn't mean that the resulting infrastructure will be operated with the kind of flexibility that was envisioned by the architects of competition policy back in the 1990s.

That vision was based on ideas of free and open access to competing infrastructure; a competition watchdog that aggressively policed and acted upon the expected monopoly abuses that Telstra had been warned off; and an industry development policy that would, it was somehow believed, allow competing organisations to build thriving businesses on the dregs that Telstra Wholesale left over once its retail arm had a bit of spare capacity to sell.

The deficiencies in this model are obvious from one simple fact: Telstra has had plans to build FttN for most of the past decade, but has not bothered to do so because (a) it had no reason to do so, and (b) it did not have to do so. Once the government tried to force the point by building FttN at open tender, Telstra decided a perfectly acceptable alternative was to throw a bomb into the procurement process, sit back, pour itself a collective drink, and watch the fallout.

It was only when the previous Labor government threatened Telstra with limitation of access to mobile spectrum and an impingement of its HFC Internet business, that Telstra actually sat up and listened. An often and needfully bellicose Stephen Conroy dragged the company to the table and locked the doors until it could work out a policy that would result in better outcomes than what Telstra cared to deliver.

Those threats are no longer present: Under the new government, competition has been replaced with kowtowing (on the government's part this time), and what Turnbull promised would be a congenial and short-lived renegotiation is dragging on with no end in sight — and no deliverable but a non-binding and parenthetical supposed commitment for Telstra to sell the government a network it has no business buying.

Without the broader questions answered and a real vision of a Telstra-free future somehow elucidated, Turnbull's own NBN vision is as wan and immature as Labor's own rollout was five years ago, when the Coalition sneeringly referred to NBN Co as operating a network with more employees than customers.

On what basis the current government feels it is suddenly wise to purchase Telstra's network — especially when NBN Co advised against it, and when even the current minister recently campaigned on the laissez-faire philosophy that the government has no business owning infrastructure — we may never fully grok, apart from understanding that it is the most expedient means to the Coalition's limp, shortsighted, and uninspiring policy end.

With Telstra now empowered by the government's desperate desire to prove it was right by not implementing FttP, it's clear that we are still a lot further from a clear broadband future than even those residents in Umina's English Quarter might appreciate.

Turnbull remains elusive and evasive when it comes to the finer points of his broader telecommunications policy, and is likely to do so until the Vertigan cost-benefit analysis (CBA) is handed down to validate the CBA-less strategy along which Turnbull has led us. He has not jumped the gun, he will say, but simply acted upon the obvious and unavoidable truth that Vertigan has elucidated.

Expect that CBA to land any day now, now that Turnbull can brag of having a handful of customers using FttN technology; if it doesn't blindly laud the merits of FttN over every other alternative, I and many other observers will be lining up for big platefuls of stewed crow. Yet without the broader questions answered and a real vision of a Telstra-free future somehow elucidated, Turnbull's own NBN vision is as wan and immature as Labor's own rollout was five years ago, when the Coalition sneeringly referred to NBN Co as operating a network with more employees than customers.

The shoe is on the other foot now, and Turnbull's laces are still tied together. The next few months will be critical in determining whether he can truly deliver on his many promises — or whether Telstra, now somehow entrusted with building what will be its biggest competitor and facing no penalties if it drags out this rollout at snail's pace, can finally be trusted to deliver the broadband it envisioned but shelved a decade ago.

What do you think? Is the connection of the first FttN customers a step forward, or the beginning of the end?

Topics: NBN, Broadband, Fiber, Government AU, Telstra


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.

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  • me OK

    In a week or two I will have FTTP, so for me, all this talk about FTTN is largely academic. I'll be OK.

    My thoughts are that the NBN should build FTTP where ever possible and then in more difficult places like large buildings and apartment blocks it should put a node in the basement and use the existing cabling. If the tenants and owners of these buildings want FTTP then they should be allowed to do that at their own expense.
    • Actually, no you won't

      Thus kind of short sighted attitude really winds me up. Sure, you have FTTP, but the pricing structure will not continue the way it was originally envisioned - it would have reduced in price over time due to high RPU plans being subscribed to in greater than planned numbers. That is no longer a possibility - NBN Co is going to lose money hand over first, with the only remaining option to mitigate the loss by increasing margin across the board - everyone will pay more.

      But that's not even a significant impact - a far greater problem will be a lack of services. High speed fibre is only helpful as long as services are available at comparable performance. That will be fine for your ISP delivered services and large enterprise who can afford dedicated fibre, but the vast majority of small to medium businesses in this country will receive no significant improvement under this plan. That means fewer opportunities, less economic stimulation, less creativity, less entrepreneurialism and fewer startups and innovative businesses remaining in Australia.

      So yea, you'll have better access to FetchTV or Foxtel digital and a few other things, but you are personally, and we as a nation are, significantly worse off and disadvantaged by this situation.

      And that barely scratches the surface of what the LNP are setting us up for long term...
      • TrevorX - The most negative uni student in Australia.

        "but the vast majority of small to medium businesses in this country will receive no significant improvement under this plan"

        So you think we'll have 1Mb links like most of melbourne/sydney do now? Are you joking? Less than 20% of Australia has ADSL2 speeds...

        "less economic stimulation, less creativity, less entrepreneurialism and fewer startups"

        hahahahahahahahahahaha... wow graduated uni yet? so theoretical...

        If you can't see the opportunies if everyone had ADSL2+ speed (20M) that is enough for anything a consumer could do.

        I'm going to be disadvantaged with 30M+ instead of 1M... I think you're living in a virtual reality buddy. Everyone in my area has 1-2M ADSL 1... tens of thousands, just in Vermont/Wantirna/Ringwood area...

        I think you're in dreamland Trevor, negative pessimistic dreamland.
  • 140 meters for a clone FTTP

    So you need to live about 140 meters from the node to get speeds of about 96 Mbs d/load. That's great if you live that close BUT how may live more than 1 km and above, what will be the speed then. What a waist of money. And when the copper breaks down, it will be back to square one. FTTP does not require power at the node as a hub only splits the fibre and fibre is not affected by corrosion or even lightning strikes. Can't wait till they throw these clowns out of government.
    • poor

      speeds after 1km drop down to adsl2+ levels.
      • I'd love that!

        Give me ADSL 2+ speeds and I'd be in heaven, like MOST of Australia who are getting 1-2M throttled ADSL1...

        If you have ADSL2+ count your lucky stars, and to get faster than that is our wildest dreams - not that you need faster than that for... well anything that you can consume at the moment.

        I download around 500Gb of machine images and stuff from my home office on ADSL1, so can't wait for at least ADSL2+!

        • Interesting

          You seriously don't think that things will become more data hungry in the future. That uploading, which adsl2+ cannot do to any capacity worth mentioning, and vdsl not far behind, will not become more prevalent in our increasingly online worlds.

          That as companies become more online, having a good quality highspead up and down connection WON'T become more necessary for every type of business, including start ups. That this WON'T stifle creativity and progress. At least the uni student realises the reality of the future.

          We don't all want to live in your crt screen world of dial up.
  • As usual

    Spot on David.
  • Shoe and Foot

    If Turnbull was still in opposition, he would be screaming, slapping the top of his head and grinding his teeth over this many installations in 12 months.
    That we were perfectly able to replicate the same technology tens of thousands of kilometers away from the UK should not result in such child-like joy.
    I bought a digital thermometer from the USA once and guess what !!! It worked in Australia.
    Geez, I mean wow !!!
    Luke Warm
  • pardon mwah

    Love your work David, but your choice of big words is difficult for the masses.

    If we want to win this battle, even the stupid have to understand it. Not just you and I.

    All best.
    • Speaks to a larger problem

      You might think of this as an analogue to the broader problem - we're in this position because the majority are both uneducated and refuse to improve their level of understanding.

      Here's a suggestion for anyone reading this article (or, indeed, anything) where they come across a word or phrase they don't fully comprehend - look it up. You're using the Internet after all - it couldn't be easier to look up things you don't know.

      But then, that assumes you're talking about reasonable people who are willing to admit when they don't know something, something plenty of Australians are incapable of. They're experts on everything, remember? Just ask them...
      • Understanding

        Yeah like the twats who think most people have ADSL2+... talk about uninformed.

        Oh and the people who say they NEED a 50M connection at home.

        Guess people aren't as dumb as you think.

        Oh TrevorX, my favourite Uni student... back to your theory.
        • I love the short sighted.

          I do have fttp. I do have 100 mbps down and 40 up. We don't often use that full speed, but it sure is great that everyone in the house can use the internet to stream, download upload and skype, all at the same time, with no lag. With 4 young, internet hungry people.
          All this plus 1tb of data at $100/m, the price is about the same as telstras adsl 200gb plan.

          Should we stagnate Australia so you MIGHT get some internet a little bit faster?
  • It won't be 11 million FTTN

    Turnbull's current MTM policy is for a lot less than 11 million FTTN connections. There will be no FTTN in areas where HFC is available, and it is also likely that many outer urban areas will get wireless because of the distance limits of FTTN.

    The planned 93% FTTP coverage of NBN will be cut by about half for the FTTN part of Turnbull's MTM proposal. There are going to be a lot of very unhappy people when this becomes known.
  • Some will be Happy

    Graffiti vandals will have a field day & so will those wanting a bountiful source of free heavy duty batteries.
  • Ever been positive - or been single and loneley your whole life?

    The 'writers' (not journalists) at this personal blog wouldn't say anything positive about the NBN if it delivered the only thing they do all day (porn) faster.

    I think your whole team needs an attitude ajustment, or just fire the lot and hire a qualified tech journalist perhaps.

    Seriously worry for your personal lives, you're a bunch of self-serving tossers.

    MOST of Australia is on 2M ADSL1 or less, how will anything over 30M be absolutely amazing and more than adequate in the next 10 years? Seriously.

    As someone who DAILY deals with bandwidth, any new system will be amazing for 99% of people, just getting everyone to ADSL1 will make many more than happy.

    I'm sick of the Turnbull-bullies and NBN-deniers like yourself not touting the MANY MANY MANY benefits we are getting, instead talking about what you didn't get.

    Let me help you - you didn't get a GOOD ATTITUDE, A JOURNALISM DEGREE and I doubt you and your team have ever been grateful for anything.

    You'd describe your first child as 'a burden on the family that delivers nothing of value now or ever' if you wrote about it.

  • I get your statement

    But should we limit ourselves for a plan that is clearly a waste of money.

    You are suggesting that, as a wealthy modern nation, we should CHOOSE to stagnate ourselves by building a network that is shown to be only a little bit better, on old copper that is ageing fast, for a price that isn't appreciatively cheaper over that with of a clear, long term upgrade. This alternative will also be REQUIRED to be replaced by about the time it is built to keep up with demand and be completed in a time span not appreciatively shorter than FttP.

    On top of that it is not known if FttN WILL be cheaper in the long run because all the information the government has given, which I assume you prefer to listen too, is most likely biased. Just like a lot of information on this website.

    In the end it is not the idea, or the weeping over what could have been, that drives these journalists. It is the sheer stupidity and lunacy of the plan this government has decided, before a CBA it itself cried foul for, to choose.