Rural councils playing chicken with NBN Co?

Rural councils playing chicken with NBN Co?

Summary: NBN Co's recent wireless knockback shows that it is far from infallible. Was this a rare anomaly, or does it suggest that rural councils are willing to stand up to the government to get the fibre they really want?

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It wasn't entirely surprising to hear that the rural Golden Plains Shire Council had knocked back a proposed NBN Co wireless tower, but with a host of similar applications waiting in the wings, and councils under pressure from residents to push for a better solution, it also wouldn't be entirely surprising to find out that there was far more to the rejection than concerns that the towers are ugly.

The installation of 2300 transmission towers to support the National Broadband Network's (NBN) fixed-wireless service was always going to be controversial, particularly given the long-term antagonism of residents in both rural and urban areas to the explosion in mobile-phone towers. Cue the usual protests, lobbying, concerned citizens and blustering politicians.

Since we already know how to camouflage towers well enough, do council knockbacks reflect a different agenda?
(Wuzhen Xizha image by Gerbil, CC BY-SA 3.0)

For rural communities that have long struggled with substandard telecommunications, the introduction of ubiquitous data services — even if they are running at a relatively slow 12Mbps — is a major step forwards. Yet, reports suggest that many local residents feel that wireless is a second-rate solution; popular reports have questioned the decision, and many councils have been lobbying NBN Co to extend its fibre footprint to include their areas (with some success — the company's Network Extension Trial (PDF) at least confirms that such an extension is possible).

Whether the residents are au fait with the difference between 3G mobiles and fixed LTE wireless is an entirely valid point; in this area, NBN Co still needs to do considerable education work. Yet, I'd suggest that there are many people who simply aren't interested in anything but a fibre-equivalent solution — and assume that wireless simply cannot provide it. If those people happen to work for a regional council, NBN Co could have big problems.

It's worth noting that Golden Plains Shire has approved several other NBN Co towers, contributing to NBN Co's previous 100 per cent success rate. However, this knockback shows that NBN Co is far from impervious — and could potentially force the company along one of three courses of action.

First, it could revise its LTE plans, and try to site its 40m tower somewhere else. This is unlikely to succeed, because residents now have a precedent to fall back on, so residents in the new area are unlikely to be any more welcoming of the tower.

There are many people who simply aren't interested in anything but a fibre-equivalent solution.

Second, it could try to revise its plan by using a smaller tower, or — who knows? — modify the existing proposal so it will be disguised to look like a big, big tree. This is the most likely course of action, although it introduces problems, because it will force a remapping of the local radio-frequency landscape. NBN Co likely had entirely reasonable technical reasons for putting the tower there, so providing equivalent coverage might require two or more shorter towers spread around the area. Cue the usual protests, lobbying, concerned citizens and blustering politicians.

Third, it could simply walk away. NBN Co executives have already publicly said that councils that reject LTE towers will be serviced with slower and less-reliable satellite services instead. That means either accepting the 6Mbps Interim Satellite Service that's already in place using leased Optus capacity, or waiting for the 12Mbps service to be delivered from 2015 at the earliest, using NBN Co-owned satellites.

None of these are particularly palatable for residents, many of whom love living in the country for many reasons, including its wide, open spaces and unadulterated horizons. Yet, councils have been approving similar structures for years (and while I concede that 40m is a tall tower, I don't think it's unprecedented). So, when a critical piece of rural infrastructure is knocked back basically because it's ugly, I can't help but wonder whether there are ulterior motives at play — and whether the council is pushing for the unstated fourth option.

That option would be to attempt to pressure NBN Co into formalising its network extension, extending its fibre network further out from the confines of its existing footprint. If the council can foster a resistance movement of sorts amongst councils, it could theoretically create an urgency for NBN Co to reconsider its position, because failure to accommodate council requirements could leave the wireless NBN incomplete — and critical voters entirely unimpressed.

In a tight political climate, Labor can't afford to get too many more people offside. It's a point that the councillors of Golden Plains Shire surely cannot have missed; the federal seat of Corangamite, which Labor won in the 2010 election by a two-party preferred winning margin of just 0.41 per cent, is on a knife edge. And if its residents can't be assured of better (read: fibre) broadband, and face a similar wireless service regardless of what party is elected next year, many would have little incentive to vote Labor again.

Whether the council is intentionally playing political games is not clear; this will be much more obvious if NBN Co's other applications suffered similar knockbacks in succession throughout the year. However, the pressure for NBN Co to extend its roll-out is real, and councils have little to lose by squeezing NBN Co — which came off as being a bit cocksure when touting its previous 100 per cent success rate — to see what compromises they can wring from it.

If residents face a similar wireless service regardless of what party is elected, many would have little incentive to vote Labor again.

Of course, those compromises would cost money — lots of it. They would blow out the cost of the NBN and throw NBN Co's forthcoming updated corporate plan into turmoil. And that's why NBN Co cannot afford to give in; just one concession to such radiofrequency terrorism would set a dangerous precedent that would undoubtedly snowball as the company pushes through with the other 99 per cent of its planned wireless base stations. A clearly defined, co-funded network-extension process is one logical possible compromise, but, in its absence, NBN Co may find itself caught in a game of chicken that neither it, nor Australia's rural councils, can win.

What do you think? Does NBN Co need to redesign its antennas so as to not spoil the views? Are rural folk being oversensitive? Or is there a stronger undercurrent of defiance behind the council's decision?

Topics: NBN, Broadband, Government, Government AU, Networking, IT Employment

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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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Talkback

42 comments
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  • Golden Plains Shire have already indicated they are keen to work with NBN Co to find an alternate site, so its not like they don't want it and I think local Governments in rural areas realize that under a possible coalition government wireless is all they will be getting anyway.
    Daves post
  • Regardless of the reasons they don't want fixed wireless it all points to the same thing: Everyone is demanding fibre and the faster speeds it will provide. I'm not surprised however this does put NBNco in a difficult position and I think people living in these areas know it and are willing to exploit it. NBNco should take a somewhat diplomatic route in these cases but my suggestion is give them satellite and say "Take this for now, after we've finished the other 93% we'll seriously consider rolling out fibre in your area, in the mean time you are quite welcome to raise the money to speed up the fibre rollout in your area, here's an application form, have a nice day!"
    Hubert Cumberdale
    • So now we see you true colours - typical city dick who only thinks of themselves.

      Just as you have previously been unable to answer just why regional areas should accept sub standard satellite or wireless, you are now unable to give intelligent comment.

      Fact: 12Mbps is SUB STANDARD for both wireless and satellite technologies - why should anybody accept them? They should not. If they require either of these, then the services should be of the highest standard. Its simply a case of people in rural and regional areas being shafted yet again.

      I would hardly call Ballarat regional or remote, its a sad joke. The standard should be this: If somebody already has a copper phone line, then they should get fibre, simple as that. But they won't, because the world is full of dicks like Humbert.
      Backzlider
      • Fred, what are you talking about? Ballarat most certainly IS getting fibre rolled out - in the "town" areas, and several close surrounding townships. Have you even seen the maps at http://www.nbnco.com.au/rollout/rollout-map.html ?

        The inescapable fact is that average costs per connection start to soar enormously once you get into the final 7% (in effect, properties that lie outside suburban/township density areas, and very small towns
        Gwyntaglaw
        • Huh? Badly truncated post there! What happened to my last three pars of dense yet cogent argument? CENSORSHIP!!!

          [That, or snafu.]
          Gwyntaglaw
          • Ha ha ha ha!

            I don't accept your argument. Telstra was able to plonk in a whole bunch of poles to bring me a phoneline, I only paid $30 for the last pole. Root the cost there boyo, if you can get FTTH, I want it too!

            If they could get copper there, thenNBN.co can damn well get fibre there also.
            Backzlider
          • Look everyone nuthugger is back! Just like to remind everyone that he doesn't live here or vote so his opinion on these NBN matters is effectively null and void. You do not count.
            Hubert Cumberdale
      • You are quite welcome to have fiber provided you are prepared the $25,000/per kilometer that it costs to lay.

        In the city, this is spread across thousands of customers passed by each kilometer of cable making the rollout expensive, but affordable.
        Goresh
  • As someone living in a relatively rural area in Victoria (which, granted has very small 'rural' distances to cover compared to other states). I'm struggling a bit to understand why we aren't having fibre rolled out everywhere? I mean, we found the budget for covering the whole country with power lines didn't we? And I was under the (perhaps deluded) impression that the *point* of the NBN was that its a big expensive project that gets high speed (in my mind cable/fibre) to regional Australia.
    Call me old fashioned, but I just don't trust that once the 'second rate' (wireless) solution is in place, it'll be cooling in hades before they get around to spending the cash on putting the 'final solution' (fibre) in place. I'd rather the gov. just bite the bullet and *really* futureproof the network.
    arbitraryTag
    • We've also been rolling out powerlines across the country since 1863.
      It took 64 years from lighting the first lamp in Sydney to get power to 34% of Australian homes.

      If you're willing to wait 150 years for fibre to be rolled out everywhere then I'm sure we can proceed with ye olde method of waiting for corporations to get around to it.

      If you want it everywhere and in 10 years then the price is going to go up a smidge. If you can talk everyone into paying more tax, I'm sure we can get fibre to you.
      anonymous
      • Its a fair point that it took a while for power lines to be installed. As a side note, one would hope that our technology for laying cable/putting up poles has improved somewhat in the last 149 years. (By a factor of ten? Maybe? I'd be guessing...)

        But the original point I was trying to make was that this *would* be the responsible thing to do - in the long run. I'm willing to be educated here, but my impression is that fibre is not only the widest bandwidth, but also the widest bandwidth foreseeably possible. If that is the case, then why bother screwing around with these second rate solutions? Its just a case of a 'cheap tool now' that will be more expensive in the long run when you end up buying the right tool for the job.

        I'm generally an opponent of 'government works', but I see this as a (possible) solution to two problems - economic stimulation (using public money to keep workers in employment), and a *real* futureproof network. With all the 'roads to nowhere' being built, this seems like a worthwhile capital works project and therefore worth spending the cash on getting fibre everywhere.

        Like I say, predicated on fibre being a definitive network solution for the foreseeable future...
        arbitraryTag
    • Are you prepared to pay the same each year for NBN access as you pay for electricity?

      Remember that the vast majority of that electricity bill is NOT for the actual cost of generating the eelectricity, it is for the infrastructure to get it to you.
      Goresh
  • While I believe it would be wonderfull to have everyone with fiber, no mater how many kms they are from anyine else, at some point you have to be prudent with the purse. You pay a lot more for power then you will for the NBN, so it can be extended further economically. In addition, power has been slowly extending it's reach for decades, where the NBN is starting from scratch.

    Perhaps the Liberal party with their love of subsidies will extend the fiber...

    Certainly that would be better then wasting it on FTTN.
    Paul Krueger
    • The argument from the pro-NBNers is that fibre is cheaper than copper. It naturally follows then that if there is copper there, then they should also get fibre.
      Backzlider
      • Thats 'Assuming' the backhaul is there to service high-speed DSL or Fibre.
        Master_T[RG]
      • Fred,

        Power costs a lot and has had ages to grow. As someone pointed out earlier, it has taken over a century and a half for it to cover this country. Now, if you're living in the middle of bumfvck, there is no business case for fibre there. Several thousands in expenditure for say 6 families, their sheep and cows? ;)

        Also, the returns would be just laughable. While it is quite normal to pay $400/quarter for electricity, there would complete anarchy if they're charged that for NBN connectivity.
        binurry
  • will we Australians get unlimited internet with high speeds like the rest of the world or are we still going to be paying out of the noise for internet for a bs 500 gig up and download for where the rest of the world pay up to $120 for unlimitedinternet WITH cable/fiber running? i used to live in Canada and they pay no more then 110 per month and they get for that price unlimited internet download PLUS home phone is nbn.co going to offer the same or still goudged us aussie's for every red cent for this GRAND HIGH SPEED THAT IS ONLY 20 YRS BEHIND THE REST OF THE WORLD.
    wolfpac30
    • No, you will get sorely shafted with miserable download limits and exorbitant fees for going over your limits.
      Backzlider
    • You mean the unlimited internet that is slowly being canned by telcos around the world because it's costing them too much now that people have fibre internet connections and they can't absorb the costs any longer?
      anonymous
  • One council having a problem with one tower is hardly a crisis.

    The councils have a clear job to do in protecting the livability of neighbourhoods. Big towers might be a necessary part of the broadband delivery landscape, but residents have a right to object and to have those objections assessed. This isn't new for councils - every significant development draws significant objections.

    If the council processes are too slow (or produce an unworkably high rejection rate) then governments can legislate to go around the councils.

    The NBN rollout has been painfully slow to date. Someone needs to work out why. Lack of the required legislative support could be one reason.
    Pragmatic-3e05f