Hard to switch NBN back to fibre after Turnbull: Clare

Shadow Communications Minister Jason Clare has said that a future Labor government would be hard pressed to switch back to a fibre-to-the-premises NBN delivery model, but hopes to develop a policy with stakeholders outlining a path to a fibre 'end game'.
Written by Leon Spencer, Contributor

Labor still wants a fibre-driven National Broadband Network (NBN), despite the Coalition's multi-technology mix model, but is yet to work out how to get there, according to Shadow Communications Minister Jason Clare.

Clare, who spoke on Tuesday at the CommsDay NBN Rebooted event in Sydney, said that although the previous Labor government had championed a fibre-to-the-premises (FttP) NBN, a future Labor government would not be able to simply switch back to such a model.

"None of it is simple," said Clare. "What I'd do is spend the next 12 to 18 months to find out what the underlying policy should be. Everyone has said the end game is fibre, but the question is 'how to get there?'

"We'll release that policy before the next election, but we'll do it with the help of everyone in this room," he said, referring to industry stakeholders attending the event. "None of it is simple, and Malcolm Turnbull showed just how hard it is to change from one model to another."

Clare said that despite the current government's efforts to sell the multi-technology mix, the public still wants fibre.

"Despite all the best efforts of Malcolm Turnbull to demonise the NBN, people still want it. And they still want fibre," he said.

Under the former Labor government, the FttP NBN rollout would have been achieved in one stage, said Clare, but now that the Coalition has switched to the multi-technology mix, it would have to be done in two stages.

He also said that leaked internal documents uncovered in September outlining a cost-effective "pilot" FttP rollout in Victoria had belied the government's claim that NBN fibre connected directly to the premises was too expensive for the National Broadband Network.

"Remember the Strategic Review said the cost of rolling out fibre is going up. But leaked documents from NBN Co show that's not right," he said. "In September, leaked NBN Co documents revealed that in Melton, Victoria, the NBN Co team had rolled out fibre to an FSAM 50 percent cheaper and 61 percent faster than in comparable suburbs in Victoria.

"This contradicted everything the government had said until this point, and everything in the Strategic Review. NBN Co's first reaction was to deny there even was a trial in Melton," he said. "Then, a few hours later, they issued a statement retracting that, admitting it was true, and saying they were rolling out fibre even cheaper and quicker in other FSAMs."

Meanwhile, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Communications Paul Fletcher has backed the government's wireless and satellite approach for the NBN to reach regional and remote Australian communities.

Fletcher, who also spoke at the event on Tuesday, said that the government is continuing to encourage NBN Co to work with the nation's mobile network operators to identify opportunities for its taxpayer-funded assets to facilitate increased mobile coverage in regional and remote Australia.

"NBN Co is sharing details of its current and planned tower rollout with the mobile network operators to identify opportunities for sharing," he said. "I've seen with my own eyes, there is typically expansion capacity on NBN Co's towers which could be used for additional fixed-wireless antennas or mobile antennas. So there is at least the technical possibility of allowing mobile operators to use this space."

Fletcher said that collocating with one of NBN Co's fixed-wireless base stations rather than building a new base station from scratch would result in significant savings — a particularly appealing option, given the government's standing commitment to patch up the country's mobile network black spots.

At the same time, he said that the previous administration's NBN plan did not allow for such cost-saving measures and industry partnerships.

"Under the previous government, it seemed that NBN Co had little appetite to sell backhaul to mobile network operators," he said.

On Monday, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) chairman Rod Sims called for NBN Co to be broken up into separate entities before being privatised in order to ensure future infrastructure-based broadband competition.

However, Fletcher said that it is more important for the moment to allow the company to complete the rollout — which the Coalition expects will happen more swiftly and cheaply under its so-called multi-technology mix model.

"Our first priority now is to get the rollout happening," he said.

Fletcher's comments come as NBN Co released its 2014-17 Corporate Plan, with the company saying that due to uncertainty surrounding the project, it cannot forecast with a "reasonable level of confidence" beyond the next 12 months.

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