Fifield: Labor has technically admitted multi-technology NBN is best

Despite the latest leaks, the NBN is on time and on target, the company and the communications minister have said.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

Australian Minister for Communications Mitch Fifield has said the "technology-agnostic" National Broadband Network (NBN) being implemented by the Coalition will ensure it is delivered on time and on target despite continued leaks from the company saying otherwise, adding that Labor has as good as conceded this.

Fifield, speaking at the CommsDay Summit in Sydney on Monday morning, said Labor'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."

After claiming that Labor's all-fibre version of the NBN was "mired with delays" when it was inherited by Communications Minister cum Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in 2013, Fifield said the multi-technology mix (MTM) model is better suited to rolling out a high-speed network faster and more cost effectively.

"Our redesign of the project is that ours is based squarely on a business model, not on a technology choice," he said.

"Our policy has always given the NBN flexibility in network technology and design decisions, as long as the economics stack up."

Fifield added that a full fibre-to-the-premises (FttP) network would actually reduce Australia's rankings in worldwide broadband speeds due to delayed connectivity.

"Contrary to the opinion of the FttP advocates, a reversion to an all-fibre rollout is more likely to see Australia remain stagnant in the average speed rankings, as redesigns, construction interruptions, extended connection timeframes, and affordability pressures would inevitably leave more Australians waiting longer for their broadband," the minister said.

"The speed metric that matters the most is the speed of the rollout. We're pursuing ubiquity, we're pursuing affordability. I've often said that those campaigning for an all-fibre rollout are taking a theological approach, rather than a technological approach."

Earlier on Monday, a leaked document from NBN was dropped to the Australian Financial Review, alleging once again that the company is falling behind its targets.

Both NBN and Fifield denied the truth of this allegation, reaffirming that the NBN is still on track.

"There have been a series of allegations circulating that the rollout of the NBN is somehow off track," Fifield said.

"The company has repeatedly put paid to those falsehoods on many occasions over the recent months, and will do so again today: The NBN coverage as of today is just shy of 2 million homes and businesses, and there are over 890,000 active connections."

Shadow Communications Minister Jason Clare had said Monday's leak provided confirmation of the "second-rate" status of the Coalition's NBN.

"These delays mean hundreds of thousands of Australians are still waiting for the NBN that Malcolm Turnbull promised them they would have by now," Clare said in a statement.

"The leaked documents show that the first 40 fibre-to-the-node areas being built by NBN Co are all behind schedule. Every single one.

"Of the 40 areas, 29 areas (more than 72 percent) are delayed by more than 35 days. Some areas are delayed by more than 80 days ... Malcolm Turnbull's second rate copper NBN is a complete failure and everyone seems to know it except Malcolm Turnbull."

In its own statement on the matter, NBN pointed towards the "big difference" between construction site delays, as identified in the most recent leak, and the company missing its overall targets.

"We reiterate that work has progressed concurrently to ensure delays are recovered to meet the full-year company target. These documents help us to monitor and manage risk, as any business would, to enable us to meet our targets," an NBN spokesperson said.

"FttN [fibre to the node] continues to be the fastest technology to deploy at scale, taking neighbourhoods with little or no broadband to speeds of 50 to 100Mbps. Our priority remains to make fast broadband available to all Australians by 2020, in the most cost-effective way for taxpayers. The rollout of FttN is key to achieving this goal."

NBN has been subject to a number of leaks over the last six months: In November, a leaked document revealed that Optus' HFC network is "not fully fit for purpose", with 470,000 premises in the footprint needing to be overbuilt; in December, a leak divulged that the cost to replace or repair the legacy copper network would amount to AU$641 million; in February, a document alleged that the rollout was seriously delayed and costing more to connect each premises; and in March, a document stated that NBN had conducted trials of FttP with skinny fibre that had found FttP was no more expensive than FttN.

Clare admitted late last year that should Labor be voted into power during the 2016 election, an all-fibre approach would be impossible to return to.

"I can't fix the mess this government has made with the flick of a switch or pull out every node or stop all the work NBN is currently doing without potentially causing more problems and wasting a lot of sunk investment," Clare said.

"If anyone thinks I can just click my fingers the day after the election and we can go back to the way it was they will be disappointed."

As referred to by Fifield, Clare has avoided providing an in-depth policy, instead simply promising to deliver "more fibre" than the current NBN.

"If you vote for the Labor party at the next election, you will be voting for more fibre. For more details, you will have to wait until a bit closer to the next election."

Editorial standards