An FttDP NBN is within reach, but no one wants to touch it yet

Stuck under a government that is ideologically attached to FttN, and an opposition that persists in remaining silent, an interim solution to NBN woes is just waiting for someone to own it.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor

If Malcolm Turnbull's time as communications minister is to provide only one lesson for the future, it would be not to change horses mid-race, unless you are absolutely certain that the switch can be done quickly and with minimal fallout.

Australia is having its third attempt at executing this strategy successfully with its prime ministers, and is still in the midst of undergoing a technology switch in the National Broadband Network (NBN) that started life after the 2013 election.

While the citizen jury is still out on Turnbull's switch to the PM role, and looks set to deliver its electoral verdict sooner rather than later, it's clear that the switch of technologies for the NBN isn't working out exactly as Turnbull planned.

When Tony Windsor returned from retirement last week, he revealed a thinly veiled truth of the Vertigan cost-benefit analysis.

"A benefit-cost analysis it will give you what you put into it," Windsor told reporters Turnbull had said to him when he asked how the analysis would measure community benefits.

When driven by politics and ideological arguments, it should be no surprise that the company responsible for rolling out the NBN across Australia has begun to take on the form of a colander once science and technology could disprove the fibre-to-the-node religion.

So far, the NBN has experienced leaks regarding the cost to repair copper, the inadequate state of the Optus cable network, delays and budget overruns for FttN, and smaller kit that could reshape the fibre technology used throughout the network.

Yesterday, the Senate Select Committee on the National Broadband Network was told by NBN CEO Bill Morrow that it has been a year since the NBN board was made aware that fibre to the distribution point (FttDP) was closing in on becoming the most cost-effective option for NBN to deploy.

However, despite FttDP now being only AU$400 more expensive than FttN -- even though it is not being developed and deployed at scale, unlike FttN -- the NBN board will not budge on allowing the company to use the more future-proof technology, because it is worried about peak funding and is driven purely by the need to roll out the cheapest and easiest-to-deploy technology.

"At this point in time, it is still more expensive to do full-scale FttDP ... however, we would be very enthusiastic in using DP technology when it fits into the statement of expectations that we abide by," NBN CFO Stephen Rue told the Senate committee.

Morrow even said on Tuesday that FttDP is something that NBN itself wants to use.

"We see FttDP as a great upgrade path to be able to take the node and push that fibre closer to the house," he said. "We would love to find ways to be put more fibre in -- you like to joke about fibre zealots, we are all fibre zealots -- there is no power issue, there is less maintenance elements, but it is still more expensive and takes a bit longer."

"If those prices can continue to come down, and [we] can continue to find ways to shave off more weeks, more months of that construction build, then we will move into and use this technology over that of FttN."

FttDP would allow for gigabit speeds for users; BT hit 5Gbps over 35 metre copper pairs in a trial last year without the laborious time and expense of needing to dig through gardens and footpaths.

The option to reduce the labour needed to connect a premises should not be overlooked. Last week, New Zealand wholesaler Chorus told the NBN Committee that labour was the highest cost in its rollout of fibre.

"The main cost of this program is labour," Kurt Rodgers, Chorus network strategy manager, said. "If we can provide technology -- tubes, ducts, pipes, and widgets -- that takes someone five minutes to install instead of 30 minutes to install, then we do not mind spending a bit more on the material. We do work closely with our vendors on coming up with innovative technologies that will reduce the labour time."

For those "fibre zealots" that Morrow says are within NBN, it must be galling to see a better "multi-technology" option be driven off the board table by strict budgetary concerns less than a year after the company's expectations were changed by then-Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann.

The sword hanging over the head of NBN is that its government funding remains capped at the AU$29.5 billion mark set in 2014, and until it is given direction and extra funds, it will continue to demand that FttDP must be cheaper than FttN before changing tack.

Given the government seems to have decided that FttN is a hill it wishes to die on, and all Labor has said about its post-2013 NBN policy is that it will involve more fibre than the Turnboolean NBN, it would appear that the situation is ripe for Shadow Communications Minister Jason Clare to waltz on in and collect the plaudits by making a declaration that a post-2016 Clarite NBN would go FttDP where ever it could.

Such a pronouncement would in fact simply be confirming expectations that Clare himself set in October last year.

"I think it is likely that sometime between now and the next election, the new minister will announce that NBN will be rolling out fibre to the curb -- using G.Fast," he said.

"It will be evidence that Labor was right and Malcolm Turnbull was wrong."

A year earlier, Clare had said a future Labor government would be hard pressed to switch back to a fibre-to-the-premises NBN.

"None of it is simple, and Malcolm Turnbull showed just how hard it is to change from one model to another," he said in November 2014.

In an interview on Wednesday morning with Sky News, Clare would not be drawn on what Labor would announce as an NBN policy.

"I have said that Labor will roll out more fibre. We'll announce our policy closer to the election," he said. "What is astounding here is that Malcolm Turnbull has known for a year that you can roll out fibre to the front of people's homes for roughly the same cost as fibre to the node, and give people 10 times faster internet speeds, and they've done nothing about it."

It is clear that Clare's options are very limited, and will end in the letters D and P.

In recent days, Internet Australia, the self-described peak body for Australian internet users, has called for politics to be removed from the NBN.

"It's time to take the politics out of this game," said Laurie Patton, CEO of Internet Australia. "We need the government and the opposition to sit down and say: 'What is in the best interests of the country? What do we need if we are going to be a truly competitive innovation nation?'"

It's a nice idea, but with one side wedded to its own technical and political choice, and the other side remaining silent due to politics, it cannot be done.

Born of politics, created because prior politics had failed, what NBN needs now is an infusion of politics, the right kind of politics.

It needs a politician to spend some political capital to give NBN the ability to move on, to grasp the obvious choice on the way to the inevitable all-fibre endgame the nation is waiting for.

Given the current crop of politicians, however, such action is unlikely to be seen, and we will remain in the same mire in which we are currently stuck -- especially if the current government is re-elected.

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