Coalition launches alternative NBN policy

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull have promised to deliver at least 25Mbps NBN download speeds to all Australians by the end of the first term of a Coalition government.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

All Australians can expect to be able to get download speeds of up to 25 megabits per second on the National Broadband Network (NBN) at the end of the first term of an Abbott government, the party has promised.

Image: Screenshot by Josh Taylor/ZDNet

"At the end of a first term of a Coalition government, there will be minimum download speeds of 25Mbps. By the end of our second term, the vast majority of households will get access to 50Mbps," Opposition Leader Tony Abbott said of the launch of the Coalition's broadband policy in Sydney on Tuesday.

"We will be able to do this because we will build fibre to the node, and that eliminates two-thirds of the cost," he said.

The Coalition has promised that should it win government in September, the NBN would be scaled back, so that instead of fibre-to-the-premise for 93 percent of Australian premises, it would only be pushed out to 22 percent of premises in areas already being constructed by NBN, new housing premises, or in areas where the copper is too degraded to deliver 25Mbps speeds; 71 percent of the population would get access to the NBN via fibre-to-the-node, which would continue to use the existing Telstra copper line from the node to the premise.

Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull told journalists that he expects his network to require around 60,000 cabinets across Australia where the fibre connection would be passed onto the existing copper network to the premise.

In order to acquire access to the copper network, a Coalition government would be required to renegotiate with Telstra over its AU$11 billion deal with NBN Co. Turnbull said today that he has had a number of discussions with Telstra, and he is confident that, despite Labor's negotiations with Telstra taking a number of years, he can get Telstra to agree to changes to the deal in a short period of time.

The Coalition will rely on a line test of the existing copper connection to determine what premises will be able to get 25Mbps. Those that are unable to get that speed will have their copper connection remediated. If it is too expensive to remediate the copper, Turnbull said the line will be upgraded to fibre to the premise. People wishing to upgrade to a complete fibre connection but are already able to get 25Mbps on the fibre to the node network will pay for the upgrade, Turnbull has said.

The fixed wireless and satellite components of the NBN for the last 7 percent of premises will remain the same under Labor or the Coalition.

Construction will take place between 2014 and 2019 under the Coalition's plan, with capital expenditure at AU$20.4 billion, with the total amount of funding required to be AU$29.5 billion. This compares to AU$37.4 billion in capital expenditure for the current NBN project, with an AU$44.1 billion projected total funding requirement. The Coalition disputes the latter figure, suggesting its own estimates put the total funding requirement at AU$94 billion.

The Coalition estimated that the capital cost per premise for fibre-to-the-node is AU$900, versus AU$3,600 for fibre-to-the-premise.

The current NBN project is set to be completed by June 2021, but the Coalition has claimed that given the delays already occurring with the construction of the network, it could be delayed until 2025.

Turnbull has said that Australians can expect to pay less for broadband under the Coalition's policy, however the lower price will not be immediately apparent. The policy document says that the 2021 wholesale price under the Coalition would be AU$38, compared to AU$62 under Labor's NBN. This translates to roughly AU$66 and $90, respectively, for retail prices.

Turnbull said it would allow infrastructure-based competition against the NBN, meaning companies would again be allowed to rollout their own fibre networks, and Telstra and Optus could continue to use their hybrid-fibre coaxial (HFC) networks. He admitted, however, that given that Optus has signed an AU$800 million deal to decommission its HFC network, it is unlikely that the company would keep its HFC network.

While the initial plan is for initial minimum download speeds to be at 25Mbps, this will be upgraded to between 50 and 100Mbps in 2019 in the fibre footprint, using similar technology as those being tested by BT in the UK and being deployed by Telekom Austria.

Though the policy document does not detail what upload speeds people can expect on the Coalition's NBN, Turnbull told journalists this afternoon that people can expect upload speeds around a quarter of their download speed. On the 25Mbps plan, this would mean just over 6Mbps, while on the 50Mbps plan, this would be slightly over 12Mbps.

"Generally, the upload speeds can be configured at around one quarter of the download speed. I know there's a school of thought that there's this screaming need for symmetrical broadband, but this is really something for the industry to determine," Turnbull said.

Abbott said that immediately after the September election, the Coalition would conduct a 60-day commercial review to see how quickly NBN Co can change to meet the new policy, and after that, there will be an audit of the current NBN to see how it "got into the current mess".

There will also be an independent study to look at Australia's telecommunications needs, he said, with a cost-benefit analysis of the Coalition's policy.

The NBN will be kept off-budget under the Coalition as it has been under the current plan.

As with Labor's current policy, the Coalition would also look to privatise NBN Co after the NBN is completed, and whatever the government of the day is, it can be confident that it could get a return on the investment. Turnbull joked that it could be well into the second term of 22 year-old Liberal MP Wyatt Roy's second term as Prime Minister.

Ahead of the announcement this morning, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy said that the proposal would "disconnect nine million Australians from Labor's NBN".

"Tony Abbott says Australia can't afford to have the best communications system in the world. Well Labor says: Wwe can't afford not to have it. They are so short-sighted, that they only want to build a broadband network for today," he said.

"They don't think about the applications, the extra connectivity, the extra machines, the extra devices that will be connected up by all of you here, all of our children in the future; they don't think about that."

He suggested that despite a slow start to the construction of the NBN this year, the construction crews were beginning to ramp up the number of premises being passed by fibre.

"Malcolm's in a for a bit of a surprise when the next stats come out very shortly, and he'll be in for a bigger surprise each week and each month as we move towards the election, because all of the companies that have been involved in the discussions with NBN Co are now in a process of ramping up and starting to pass multiple, multiple, hundreds and thousands of homes as we speak. You'll be quite surprised to see the ramp-up is starting to come into play."

Greens communications spokesperson Scott Ludlam said that the Coalition's policy was out of date.

"The Coalition's technically inferior proposal is based on an out-dated and degraded copper network, which is enormously expensive to maintain and vulnerable to weather events," he said in a statement.

"This approach was explicitly rejected in 2009 prior to the government's announcement of the fibre-to-the home project, because it would be obsolete on the day it was built."

In 2009, Telstra had submitted a proposal to the then-Rudd government for a fibre-to-the-node network that was ultimately rejected by Labor in favour of the fibre-to-the-premise NBN announced just over four years ago on April 7, 2009.

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