Perhaps the most frustrating thing about the national
broadband network (NBN) bid is that it's so utterly
Telstra puts in its bid, Optus (and friends) put in theirs, a
few others try their hands. And the outcomes are limited:
Telstra wins and faces an explosion of pressure for separation
Optus (and/or friends) win and Telstra delays the whole process with an interminable series of
lawsuits over niggling procedural issues
Either way, we will see industry bodies fling
one narky press release after another: wash, rinse, and repeat.
If there's fibre running to the node down my street by the end of
2009, I'll eat my own shoes with mustard sauce.
Nowhere, it appears, are we getting some real, fresh thinking
about the NBN: which makes me think that, despite the pejorative
Telstra has often used to describe foreign involvement in
Australia's network, perhaps NBN contenders really should be
looking overseas for inspiration.
A good first stop would be Canada, where the realisation of a
years-long dream for at least one die-hard telecoms geek promises
to revolutionise thinking about broadband. That dream: get
customers to buy their own fibre-optic connections. The idea is the
brainchild of Bill St
Arnaud, a seasoned telecoms type who currently serves as chief
research officer with CANARIE, Canada's equivalent to our
Like AARNET, CANARIE basically came into being because Canadian
universities realised there was no point paying third-party telcos
to talk to each other. A glut of investment and collaboration
followed, and the result was one of the world's fastest nationwide
specific-use networks. At the core was, and is, fibre-optic cable: loads and loads of it.
St Arnaud's theory is to replicate this project across
Canada's homes by redistributing the massive debt burden of
building NBN-like networks, away from the telcos and towards
home-owners, accelerating Fibre to the Home (FttH) roll-outs by getting them to
contribute to the cost themselves.
It's not as expensive as you might think. St Arnaud has been
thinking about this stuff for years, and his latest presentation, dated June 2007, projects amortised FttH costs of around
CA$400 per year per customer over five years.
Because they would own the fibre, one model would have them able
to sub-lease access over their trunk: becoming, effectively,
mini-ISPs delivering a raw feed to other customers in their
neighbourhoods. Think Fon, but for fibre-optic cable instead of Wi-Fi.
Here's the really interesting part: to cover the cost of this
potentially lightning-speed connection, St Arnaud recommends
utility companies get in on the game, letting customers pay off
their fibre using a per-kWh or per-MJ charge on their existing
utility bills. In other words, customers would get fast broadband
by adding a few cents to their normal gas or electricity rates. If
this encouraged them to reduce their power consumption, they'd be
getting the broadband for virtually free, and reducing their
carbon footprint at the same time.
(For those with some time on their hands, St Arnaud's and other
related presentations can be found here.)
Bill St Arnaud (Credit: St Arnaud's blog)
Now, St Arnaud's idea might have drifted to the bottom of that
infinitely large barrel of save-the-world ideas, except that it has
been picked up and is this year apparently being trialled in
Ottawa, the country's capital. Comparisons with TransACT's
forward-looking roll-out of fibre across the ACT notwithstanding,
this seems like a Very Good Thing.
It also makes me wonder: with all the same-old, same-old
regarding the NBN, why isn't anybody talking more seriously to the
utility companies? After all, they and Telstra are the only ones
that have real, usable right-of-way to every house in the
The right partnerships, fuelled by a shared-risk model and
kick-started by $4.7 billion of government money, could go a long way
towards producing a far-reaching FttH network that would totally
sidestep concerns that the NBN will favour either Telstra or
Terria. That network could be administered by a totally impartial
third-party operator with no legacy investments to protect and no
other lines of business to subsidise with expected NBN returns.
Of course, there is one little problem: Australia's utility
companies don't have a very good track record in this area. Years
ago, when fibre was new and we joined the world in something of a
fibre-optic land grab, discussions about governments snaking
fibre-optic cabling along train lines and gas mains were
Yet none has made a major difference to much of anything: the
most promising technology, broadband over power lines (BPL),
effectively died a quiet death this year after long-running trials
by operators such as Tasmania's Aurora and NSW's Country Energy
were unceremoniously abandoned.
Could a revitalised BPL strategy form part of the core of the
Tasmanian Government's NBN bid? Could Canada's Axia NetMedia be
transferring St Arnaud's strategy to its own bid? Could community
ownership be a hidden, secret differentiator in one of the bids
currently being frantically prepared? Could a secret alliance with
regional electricity companies emerge as the thing to actually make
the NBN viable?
Don't hold your breath, but it would do for NBN contenders to
consider all options rather than taking their normal blinkered
approach. In the meantime, I'll be taste-testing the mustard.