NBN Co guidance: Govt can't handle the unvarnished truth

The release of NBN Co's advice warning of significant challenges to its FttN NBN rollout has elicited a strong reaction from a minister who claims he wants the 'unvarnished truth'. What he forgets is that nature hates a vacuum — and so does the NBN debate.
Written by David Braue, Contributor

It can come as no surprise that Malcolm Turnbull would be on the defensive after the publication of NBN Co's less than favourable assessment of his alternative fibre-to-the-node (FttN) NBN policy. Yet, even I was a little surprised at his office's reaction when I offered his office the right of reply before publication of the first of what will be many revelations about FttN.

He declined to comment for the record, but the first part of his representatives' response included a four-letter word that you wouldn't normally repeat in polite company. The second part, though, was interesting: "The only correct thing it says is that they're using FttN in other countries."

That was it. Out of an entire, complex, 154-page document on the NBN — part of the more-voluminous "Blue Book", which was prepared by many of the country's best technical experts to ease Turnbull's transition to his new position — that is all the new minister took away.

I guess we now know what he thinks of the more than 2,000 people (give or take a few hundred) who will be tasked with turning his FttN election policy into reality.

Out of an entire, complex, 154-page document on the NBN — part of the more-voluminous "Blue Book", which was prepared by many of the country's best technical experts to welcome Turnbull to his new position — that is all the new minister took away.

For your edification, this is exactly what the report had to say on that point:

VDSL2 with in-cabinet vectoring is proven and commercially available today, so there is no need to delay a deployment to wait for the technology to come online. A number of successful trials have been conducted since 2010, and the technology is being deployed on a commercial scale [by Alcatel-Lucent] in Austria and Belgium. NBN Co should deploy the best available xDSL technology in the FttN network from the start of the rollout.

In other words: VDSL2 works. We all know that. The report admits it, too, numerous times.

It's being rolled out in a few countries — by government-monopoly telcos. We also know that, too.

What Turnbull did not acknowledge is that the comments about those overseas rollouts were made in the context of a section advising that he is taking the wrong approach with his rollout. Any FttN rollout should not proceed in two separate tranches, the engineers warned, because it would "increase network rollout costs and end-user disruption".

Completion of even part of the first tranche of the FttN rollout is unlikely to happen by 2016, the report concludes. It also goes to great lengths to outline the 12 quite complex requirements that must be fulfilled in a very short timeframe — 18 months is nominated — if Turnbull's 2019 target is going to be met.

Some of these requirements will come as no surprise — the need to renegotiate the government's deal with Telstra is one big unknown, for example, as is the completion of an Australian VDSL2 trial and the follow-on planning that goes around that.

I've highlighted some of the challenges in the existing reports online, but there are numerous others that each merit close consideration. To ensure that they become part of the public discussion around the NBN, I'll be progressively publishing further extracts of the report so that nobody is left uninformed about the real challenges facing our new government in meeting its election promises.

There have been claims from Turnbull and others that the document I have is outdated, and that it is somehow the product of a biased Labor government determined to sink the Coalition's alternative. And, by extension, Turnbull argues that it's not worth the paper it's printed on.

This is false. The document was prepared during the pre-election caretaker period, and is a direct response to the then Department for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy (DBCDE)'s request for NBN Co to assist in the transition of preparatory documents for the incoming government.


It was prepared for the NBN Co board and goes into an extensive and, I might add, quite objective evaluation of FttN and the challenges the new government would face in implementing it. It is not anti-Turnbull, as he alleges; it is realistic, as I and others have always been, about the inherent difficulties in an FttN model and the danger of assuming that it is an easy transition.

This information is an important part of the public debate over the NBN, and it should be available so we can ensure that the new government is living up to its promise to do the responsible and effective thing by the public.

Turnbull has slammed the report as being a partisan attack, and that is to be expected. However, he refuses to follow his own call for the "unvarnished truth" around his NBN policy during the ongoing review, and has repeatedly blocked efforts for the release of his briefing documents.

So, they will have to be aired in other ways. Stay tuned.

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