Clare's NBN criticisms fall flat as industry tires of technology debate

Optus, Nokia, Vocus, and NBN have complained that the NBN technology debate needs to stop, with companies to instead focus on how to realise its benefits.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

Yet another speech by Shadow Communications Minister Jason Clare criticising the fibre-to-the-node National Broadband Network (NBN) has failed to stir up debate among the telecommunications industry, with others emphasising that the technology choice debate needs to end, and for the focus to return to realising the benefits of a high-speed network.

Clare, speaking at the CommsDay Summit in Sydney on Tuesday, questioned why the government hasn't decided to "ditch" FttN in favour of fibre to the distribution point (FttDP) -- apparently missing the point that the Coalition's policy involves not only FttN, but rather a multi-technology mix (MTM) encompassing FttN, FttDP, fibre to the premises (FttP), fibre to the basement (FttB), hybrid fibre-coaxial (HFC), fixed wireless, and satellite -- after a spate of leaks have showed FttN to be taking longer, costing more, and providing slower speeds than first expected.

"The only reason we've got this information is because of documents that have leaked out of NBN. Not because the government is willing or wanting to share this information with everybody," Clare added.

Other speakers at the same event, however, complained that the industry has spent too long debating and criticising the broadband technologies being used for the rollout, instead of realising its benefits.

"This is a multi-technology mix. I don't care what technology they deploy. I think it's a secondary debate, and one that's not important," said Vocus COO Scott Carter.

"It's not a debate that I need to be having. Technology will change. Technology does evolve."

Optus VP for corporate and regulatory affairs David Epstein said the debate has unfortunately been "reignited" by the ongoing "de facto election campaign", which is unlikely to die down until after the federal election later this year.

"Dare I say it: Think beyond debate about NBN rollout methodologies, notwithstanding what Jason Clare had to say," Epstein said, adding that those who get bogged down in it "often miss the point".

Despite agreeing that the technology choice debate needs to stop, NBN CEO Bill Morrow spent time pointing out that even with some technologies relying on the legacy copper network, the MTM NBN will enable around 50 percent of the Australian population to reach speeds of up to 1Gbps in future.

"With the current trajectory plan, nearly half of this nation will have access to a 1Gbps service," Morrow said at CommsDay.

"And the majority of the other half can have access to between 50 and 100Mbps."

This will be achieved through what Morrow called each technology's "evolutionary" upgrade path: Those on FttP can utilise Gigabit Passive Optical Network (GPON) to get up to 1Gbps and then 10-GPON for 10Gbps and above; customers on FttN can use G.Fast to reach speeds of up to 1Gbps, and XG-Fast for 5Gbps; HFC users can tap into DOCSIS 3.1 for 10/1Gbps and Full-Duplex DOCSIS 3.1 for 30/30Gbps; fixed-wireless users will gain access to more advanced antennas as well as 5G in future to take speeds above 100Mbps; and Morrow said the "Terabit satellite era is on the way" to attain speeds of 100Mbps.

Nokia head of Australia and New Zealand Ray Owen agreed, saying every technology being used can and will be upgraded continually -- particularly those leveraging the existing copper network.

"This is a political minefield, but the fact of the matter is that NBN is following the predominant global deployment trend in its application of a flexible toolkit of access technologies," Owen said.

"We call this approach 'fibre to the most economic point', and yes it does include fibre to the premises -- but it also recognises the extraordinary innovation pathway now maturing in the copper network domain, with technologies like VDSL Vectoring, G.Fast, and XG-Fast, and deployment options like FttN, FttB, and FttDP.

"The key is flexibility in a choice of technologies and deployment modes to suit market conditions and demands. Innovation doesn't stop."

Turnbull has in the past drawn comparisons between Australia's NBN and the mix of broadband technologies being used to roll out similar networks overseas, with Morrow on Tuesday adding that despite Labor's protestations, no comparable network has used an all-fibre approach.

"Looking at the US, looking at Europe, looking at Spain who's one of the leaders in Europe, there's nobody in those countries that are saying they're going to do fibre everywhere," the NBN CEO pointed out.

"There is no other substantial country that compares to us that is building out fibre to every single home and every single business."

In fact, Minister for Communications Mitch Fifield on Monday said that Labor has as good as conceded that the "technology-agnostic" NBN is the best way to ensure it is delivered on time and on target.

Fifield, speaking on the first day of CommsDay, said Clare's recent statements on broadband would see a continuation of the Coalition's own plan.

"Because it appears that the opposition is laying the groundwork for a broadband backflip in the lead-up to the next election, I would encourage you to watch this space: In recent weeks, when asked about Labor's broadband policy, the shadow communications spokesman simply said that Labor will roll out more fibre. Not all fibre, just more fibre, which is tantamount to an admission that the Coalition's technology-agnostic business model is right," Fifield argued.

"Labor is finally coming around to understand that Australian taxpayers wont be paying for a gold-plated network while languishing for years, waiting for service upgrades."

Editorial standards