NBN: How Aust compares to Singapore and NZ

Singapore and New Zealand are rolling out fibre-to-the-premises networks, but both are quite different to Australia's NBN.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

Executives from Singapore and New Zealand have arrived in Sydney to detail to the Australian industry how their own national broadband networks are comparing to Australia's.

For starters, both projects are substantially cheaper, albeit for land masses much smaller in size, with lower populations. In New Zealand's instance, the rollout is a public-private partnership that is only being rolled out to 75 percent of the New Zealand population at a much lower cost to the government, according to John Greenhough, CTO of New Zealand's version of NBN Co, Crown Fibre NZ.

"New Zealand didn't have $42 billion ... so the government set some constraints around this at NZ$1.3 billion (sic)," he said.

NBN Co's original forecast for the cost of the National Broadband Network (NBN) was AU$42 billion; however, this has since been revised to AU$37.4 billion of capital investment in the network. Of this, AU$30.4 billion will be government equity, which NBN Co will eventually pay back to the government with a 7.1 percent rate of return.

The public-private partnership model with five companies also offers the government some protection from cost blow-outs, because the companies that are contracted to build the network, such as Chorus, take on some of the risk.

"If they stop building, we stop paying, and bad things happen," he said.

Greenhough said that a lack of competition has so far seen little take-up of services on New Zealand's Ultra-Fast Broadband (UFB) network.

"Because we've got such market concentration with the two biggest players in the market not committing to [offer] fibre products or services, take-up is not what we would want," he said.

Uptake for Chorus has reached approximately 1,000 connected premises, with 72,000 premises passed. To reduce the cost, head of Network Engineering at Chorus Martin Sharrock said that in many instances, the company would roll out fibre to the pole in a street, and then pull through empty ducts to each premises. When a person in the premises orders a service, the fibre will be pulled through.

By comparison, in the 93 percent of the country that is getting fibre to the premises, NBN Co will now roll out fibre right to the wall of the premises.

Singapore's Next Gen NBN began in 2009, and now covers 95 percent of the population of the country. The government has only spent S$750 million on the project, according to Anil Nihalani, Nucleus Connect's vice president of commercial. But Singapore only has a population of just over 5 million, according to the 2012 Census, and a land mass that's less than half the size of Sydney, at 704 square kilometres.

The wholesale provider there, NetCo, must provide a network connection to every residential and business premises, as well as what is referred to as "Non-building address points," such as traffic lights, lamp posts, bus stops, and rooftops, where services are requested.

Nihalani said that Singapore's size gives the company a distinct advantage over Australia in rolling out high-speed broadband services.

"It sounds like a lot, but it is a small city, so it is not that difficult to cover," he said. "85 percent of our buildings are high-rise residential.

"That makes it easy, because we can get coverage very quickly, but also makes it very challenging, because the high-rise element of it has restrictions in terms of space and existing networks that are there."

This is something that Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore all have in common. Handling so-called multi-dwelling units (MDUs) has been a major issue for NBN Co and for the UFB rollout.

NBN Co's CFO Ralph Steffens said last month that the company is still working out the best way to roll out fibre to existing MDUs.

"There is no right answer to this; every MDU looks different. There is not one method of connecting MDUs," he said. "Connection methodologies evolve rapidly. What we do today will evolve over time. "

Nihalani said that some of Singapore's troubles have been overcome by the fact that more premises have two connections — both a copper network and a cable network — meaning that there are existing conduits to use. NetCo also subcontracts construction to existing providers who are well versed in how to roll out into MDUs.

"There was a lot of experience in terms of processes ... the only challenge was that this was a new piece of cable," he said.

Sharrock said that Chorus learned how best to deal with MDUs by planning ahead.

"We realised the challenge of MDUs a couple of years ahead, so we did a lot of research around how MDUs are wired and connected, and actually how do you get permission to enter them," he said.

The company has a property team that works with building owners to plan ahead to rollout with an MDU, and has also started putting MDUs into different categories to make design easier.

"We're trying to cookie cutter as much as we can," he said.

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