Let's build our own damn NBN

Let's build our own damn NBN

Summary: If there's fibre running to the node down my street by the end of 2009, I'll eat my own shoes with mustard sauce.


Perhaps the most frustrating thing about the national broadband network (NBN) bid is that it's so utterly predictable.

Telstra puts in its bid, Optus (and friends) put in theirs, a few others try their hands. And the outcomes are limited:

  • Telstra wins and faces an explosion of pressure for separation
  • Optus (and/or friends) win and Telstra delays the whole process with an interminable series of lawsuits over niggling procedural issues

Either way, we will see industry bodies fling one narky press release after another: wash, rinse, and repeat. If there's fibre running to the node down my street by the end of 2009, I'll eat my own shoes with mustard sauce.

(Credit: WordRidden)

Nowhere, it appears, are we getting some real, fresh thinking about the NBN: which makes me think that, despite the pejorative Telstra has often used to describe foreign involvement in Australia's network, perhaps NBN contenders really should be looking overseas for inspiration.

A good first stop would be Canada, where the realisation of a years-long dream for at least one die-hard telecoms geek promises to revolutionise thinking about broadband. That dream: get customers to buy their own fibre-optic connections. The idea is the brainchild of Bill St Arnaud, a seasoned telecoms type who currently serves as chief research officer with CANARIE, Canada's equivalent to our universities-only AARNET.

Like AARNET, CANARIE basically came into being because Canadian universities realised there was no point paying third-party telcos to talk to each other. A glut of investment and collaboration followed, and the result was one of the world's fastest nationwide specific-use networks. At the core was, and is, fibre-optic cable: loads and loads of it.

St Arnaud's theory is to replicate this project across Canada's homes by redistributing the massive debt burden of building NBN-like networks, away from the telcos and towards home-owners, accelerating Fibre to the Home (FttH) roll-outs by getting them to contribute to the cost themselves.

It's not as expensive as you might think. St Arnaud has been thinking about this stuff for years, and his latest presentation, dated June 2007, projects amortised FttH costs of around CA$400 per year per customer over five years.

Because they would own the fibre, one model would have them able to sub-lease access over their trunk: becoming, effectively, mini-ISPs delivering a raw feed to other customers in their neighbourhoods. Think Fon, but for fibre-optic cable instead of Wi-Fi.

Here's the really interesting part: to cover the cost of this potentially lightning-speed connection, St Arnaud recommends utility companies get in on the game, letting customers pay off their fibre using a per-kWh or per-MJ charge on their existing utility bills. In other words, customers would get fast broadband by adding a few cents to their normal gas or electricity rates. If this encouraged them to reduce their power consumption, they'd be getting the broadband for virtually free, and reducing their carbon footprint at the same time.

(For those with some time on their hands, St Arnaud's and other related presentations can be found here.)

Bill St Arnaud
(Credit: St Arnaud's blog)

Now, St Arnaud's idea might have drifted to the bottom of that infinitely large barrel of save-the-world ideas, except that it has been picked up and is this year apparently being trialled in Ottawa, the country's capital. Comparisons with TransACT's forward-looking roll-out of fibre across the ACT notwithstanding, this seems like a Very Good Thing.

It also makes me wonder: with all the same-old, same-old regarding the NBN, why isn't anybody talking more seriously to the utility companies? After all, they and Telstra are the only ones that have real, usable right-of-way to every house in the country.

The right partnerships, fuelled by a shared-risk model and kick-started by $4.7 billion of government money, could go a long way towards producing a far-reaching FttH network that would totally sidestep concerns that the NBN will favour either Telstra or Terria. That network could be administered by a totally impartial third-party operator with no legacy investments to protect and no other lines of business to subsidise with expected NBN returns.

Of course, there is one little problem: Australia's utility companies don't have a very good track record in this area. Years ago, when fibre was new and we joined the world in something of a fibre-optic land grab, discussions about governments snaking fibre-optic cabling along train lines and gas mains were common.

Yet none has made a major difference to much of anything: the most promising technology, broadband over power lines (BPL), effectively died a quiet death this year after long-running trials by operators such as Tasmania's Aurora and NSW's Country Energy were unceremoniously abandoned.

Could a revitalised BPL strategy form part of the core of the Tasmanian Government's NBN bid? Could Canada's Axia NetMedia be transferring St Arnaud's strategy to its own bid? Could community ownership be a hidden, secret differentiator in one of the bids currently being frantically prepared? Could a secret alliance with regional electricity companies emerge as the thing to actually make the NBN viable?

Don't hold your breath, but it would do for NBN contenders to consider all options rather than taking their normal blinkered approach. In the meantime, I'll be taste-testing the mustard.

Topics: NBN, Broadband, Telcos, Optus, 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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  • What about HFC?

    The thing nobody seems to be mentioning is that high speeds are equally achievable using the hybrid-fibre-coax network we already have in (some) parts of Australia. It's a lot cheaper than FTTN and much less distruptive to the existing network.

    The whole architecture of HFC is around moving the fibre closer and closer to the end nodes as and when bandwidth usage requires it. So it starts out with a few subscribers in a suburb and one fibre for the whole suburb. As more people sign up and start watching HD VOD or whatever, it rolls out until you have fibre at the end of your street. Still massive amounts of bandwidth available over the coax, and much MUCH cheaper than FTTN.

    Of course, if Telstra went and built a network right behind their competitor like they did with the original HFC rollout, we'd end up with neither being profitable. Again.
  • $400 per annum, I'm paying $360 pa now

    I just finished paying Telstra $300 for a copper connection to my new home, for the express purpose of Broadband. Over the next 12 months, I will paid another $360 for line rental.

    If I could have paid $400 per year over a period of a few years for a FttH connection, well I'm effectively paying it now, to Telstra. I think I could find another $40.

    As long I as could select my provider like my electricity, and have access to plans equivalent or better at a reasonable price or the same price I am paying now, I would not have a problem in the slightest.

    With my ISP + Line rental, I'm paying $80/month now.
  • HFC

    Nothing technically wrong with HFC. The problem is given a choice between HFC and compeditive ADSL offerings quite a few people would take the ADSL.

    Plus Telstra/Optus are NEVER going to wholesale services on those networks.
  • Ditto

    Or let the Government roll out fibre along the side of the road and consumers pay to have fibre run between the street and the home.

    Those that can't afford to do that continue to use the copper and get ADSL.
  • customer own fibre

    I'd be willing to pay that $400 extra a year for FTTH/FTTP.
    and maybe a little extra to do the whole street if i could sub-let it. or even a community driven approach where everyone puts in some money would be great.
    the question we need answered is how much will it cost?
    once the cost figures are out then we will select a provider.
    if it cost me $1000 to have my place hooked up now i would gladly pay it but i know it would be proberly 10 times that or more.
  • pointless

    It is pointless having high speed connections if you cannot get beyond the great wall of australia at much over 200kbps.
  • Telstra all the way...

    To look at the situation logically here, the most efficient way to get this FTTN network going is just to award the NBN to Telstra.

    Its going to piss Optus and the others off, but they will get over it. Telstra have the resources, the network know how etc... They can get it done (reasonably) quickly and we're not going to be waiting another 10 years.

    If Optus or anyone else gets their hands on Telstra's line, you can be sure this will wind up in the High Court, afterall, the network is owned by Telstra 'shareholders'.

    Luckily though, ADSL2 is more the sufficient considering the bulk of the websites we're visiting aren't even capable of delivery the content fast enough. The input must be equal to the output.
  • Wha about the cost factor?

    The cost of running the fibre would be huge though, that's why the overall cost of the NBN is going to be so huge. And unfortunately now the government is in a situation where it doesn't have the technical resources to do it themselves, hence the NBN.
  • I smell propaganda

    "If Optus or anyone else gets their hands on Telstra's line, you can be sure this will wind up in the High Court, afterall, the network is owned by Telstra 'shareholders'."

    The Telstra network is owned by Telstra shareholders, that's it. It may come as a shock to you but Optus lease bandwidth off Telstra right now (ie. they use a Telstra line) and that isn't going to court, just like Telstra lease bandwidth off Optus in certain locations, and once again that isn't going to court.

    Illegal taking of a line yes, but no-one has even mentioned utilising the private assets of another telco with no payment.. The sole reason why the other bidders have asked for Telstra network details is so they can lease bandwidth in certain areas in order to roll the network out quicker, after what is the point in delaying the rollout while waiting a fibre to get laid when there is adequate bandwidth on a fibre already there that can be leased.
  • Some "Tierra" facts

    Terria - " We dont particularly care who builds the NBN . . . . . "

    Terria - "The first thing I'll do if we win is call Telstra to offer the most significant equity stake in Terria" !!!!

    Terria - "Our NBN proposal is based on us getting a complete monopoly"

    Terria - Our proposal is based on Telstra forced to put approx. $7 billion dollars p.a. worth of fixed wire traffic across the NBN.

    If the aim was to delay Telstra building FTTN Then they have succeded.

    But as graphically demonstrated by OPEL fumbling $946 mill worth of FREE Govt money.

    They have no chance of doing the NBN.
  • $400 in Canada, ? in Oz

    The $4.7B is only one part of the cost, the government contribution; the total cost is expected to be about $20B or more.

    With about 6 million households, about a 40% take up of this concept (which is a very high estimate) you get 2.4 million homes.

    This becomes $8,333 per home, more like $1,700 per year. Then you add the value added services on top such as the internet plans, TV, security etc etc you add another $600 per year.

    Now my question is ... How many of you will be willing to pay $200 per month for internet access?
  • 2 things Terry

    1. Where does Telstra use Optus bandwidth? Simple answer - in your dreams.

    2. there has been no talk of using the assets with no payment, there has been a lot of talk of actually taking the asset away from Telstra altogether
  • Telstra

    This Telco needs to go.

    Technology in this country is being delayed by the "shareholders of this company".

    The only people who are stupid enough to use Telstra and get ripped off by them are the same people who are 'shareholders'. (Yes Mums and dads).

    Give me a break! I finally stopped paying telstra last month when I switched to Naked ADSL. Its good to hurt the 'shareholders' of telstra.
  • $400 pa vs $150 ULL now

    You're not paying $360 towards the underlying copper though, which I'd guess is what the $400 equates to.

    The underlying copper is something around $12/mth depending on how close to the city you are (I can't remember exact amount sorry)
  • Moores Law

    One thing is for certain, technology will only get faster and cheaper. I hope they concentrate on the backbone of the network, super fast connections to Asia and the US, mulitple connections to all major cities (so they don't get cut every 6 months).

    I like the idea of the user option to run fibre to their home, it will be pricey at first but in a few years will be cheap. Just make it worthwhile, give me a Gigabit connection to the world and I'll pay a few thousand dollars, don't do a TransACT and offer something slower then ASDL2.

    Other option is to go wireless and ditch the expensive cables to homes - just run fibre to broadcast towers around the Australian suburbs and then we connect using 3G. Surely this is more forward thinking - not only get high speed to all homes but also enable some amazing mobile apps to be created.
    Surely the most expensive part of the network would be the labour putting into 10 million homes - remove this completly with wireless.
  • Let's build our own damn NBN

    asking people to pay for the fibre themself is ridiculous, households dont need another bill in the current economic environment, Only those with large incomes or with little responsibility's would like the idea. It would create a second class internet citizen in australia.
  • Facts are only facts if they are true

    "But as graphically demonstrated by OPEL fumbling $946 mill worth of FREE Govt money."

    How exactly did they fumble that money when they never actually got that money?


    "1. Where does Telstra use Optus bandwidth? Simple answer - in your dreams."

    Not for primary links but there is bandwidth leased for redundant paths.

    "2. there has been no talk of using the assets with no payment, there has been a lot of talk of actually taking the asset away from Telstra altogether"

    Can you provide a link for that? I have seen nothing indicating the removing of Telstra's assets at no charge. Doing that would be illegal anyway since Telstra is a pubically listed company, the government can't just acquire assets from them on a whim.

    And nice name by the way, pity (as I've said numerous times before) I'm not really for Terria winning the bid either.
  • Another Anti-Telstra Rant!!

    These comments show what "idiots" the Anti-Telstra brigade are!!!

    "Its good to hurt the 'shareholders' of telstra."

    Obviously you would rather not support an Australian company & see prophets go to foreign owned SINGTEL/OPTUS!!
  • "True Competition"

    "But as graphically demonstrated by OPEL fumbling $946 mill worth of FREE Govt money."

    Still crying over spilt milk. Senator Conroy should be congraulated!!!

    What this country NEEDS Senator Conroy is "True Competition" not the over regulated stuff OPTUS has sponged off under the HOWARD/COOONAN years!!

    Only then will we ALL get the NBN for the future!!
  • Tasmania

    Word about town here in Tas is that the state govt's NBN proposal will probably feature some degree of FTTH for metro areas and wireless last mile delivery.

    They already have the fibre backbones in place (a steal when they bought them from Downer EDI), additional fibre, radio towers, power poles and other easements via Aurora and Transend, they have the deployment experience through TasCOLT.

    Most of all, they have a premier who is not just IT savvy, but has a degree in the subject. If they drop the ball with a weak proposal, it's going to be VERY embarrassing for him at a personal level.

    BPL was canned because it was viewed as a dead end, particularly in a state which may well have the most publicly owned optic fibre per head of population.