NBN underlying issues remain for rural rollout: NT government

The NT government has repeated arguments that Sky Muster cannot meet the broadband needs of rural Australians, with Viasat pointing out options to improve the service, while Aussie Broadband again called for a halt to the fixed-wireless network until congestion is fixed and Vodafone asked for spectrum sharing.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

While the National Broadband Network (NBN) has taken steps to improve its rural and regional rollout in the last year, the Northern Territory government has argued that the "underlying issues" of providing reliable and adequate broadband services to remote areas of Australia remain.

"The Sky Muster satellite service cannot be the sole solution to serve remote Territorians' needs," the NT government's submission [PDF] to the Joint Standing Committee on the National Broadband Network's rural and regional rollout inquiry said.

"Both NBN Co and the Australian government need to actively and cooperatively develop responsive solutions that meet the needs of the substantial NT population who reside outside urban centres."

Instead of waiting for better services from NBN -- which earlier on Wednesday announced that its CEO Bill Morrow will be stepping down by the end of this year -- the NT government also said it is now relying on its own AU$30 million co-investment program with Telstra to deliver mobile and fixed coverage to 17 remote communities.

The territory government said it has also been lobbying both NBN and the federal government to make use of the existing fibre-optic infrastructure in 39 NT communities "rather than the technically inferior satellite solution".

Viasat, which helped design and build NBN's satellite service, used its submission [PDF] to suggest "realistic and feasible steps" that NBN could take in order to "make satellite broadband a more attractive and robust service than is currently offered".

Viasat's suggestion for the near term is for NBN to make incremental investments in technological improvements to its Sky Muster satellites.

"We recommend implementing a Layer 3 network management program on the Sky Muster network, which could double the amount of data that could be consumed by customers while preserving the service quality, at the same economics to NBN as today's service," Viasat explained.

For the long term, Viasat said NBN could "consider options" for providing more satellite bandwidth.

"Planning should begin in earnest now. Recent developments in satellite technology allow NBN to tailor its long-term plan to allow for 250+Mbps services with capacity concentrated in areas with the highest demand," it said.

NBN CEO Bill Morrow had previously told ZDNet that NBN is "closely" watching improvements in satellite technology and capacity, including 1Tbps satellites being built by others, as well as deploying a third satellite or moving more satellite users to the fixed-wireless network.

Repeating its calls from December to cease sales on the fixed-wireless network while congestion is addressed, Aussie Broadband then used its submission [PDF] to say there needs to be an "industry standard on what constitutes congestion".

"We believe NBN's definition of congestion on fixed-wireless towers is inadequate, particularly compared with the expectations of customers," Aussie Broadband said.

"It is our firm view that the rollout of fixed-wireless program needs to be paused, similar to the pause recently applied to HFC technology, whilst NBN addresses issues of congestion on fixed-wireless towers."

Such congestion issues have been ongoing for more than a year, Aussie Broadband said, adding that it believes "the situation is becoming worse".

"Anecdotally, our customer support team say they have yet to see any customer whose tower cell has been through an upgrade receive a significantly better service," it said.

Aussie Broadband also called for the fixed-wireless network technology to be included in NBN's new wholesale pricing model.

The submission [PDF] by Australian Private Networks (APN) -- which trades as satellite RSP Activ8me -- focused on the lack of cohesion between NBN, RSPs, and their delivery partners to improve service calls to customers.

"NBN's business model mean that APN has no real control of any service call although it has responsibility for the dealing with the customer. It's very frustrating for our staff to deal with significant and justified complaints from customers but have minimal influence on the repair process," APN said.

"APN can become sceptical of claims of technician sickness, vehicle breakdowns, etc, but have no real evidence. We believe a more inclusive process with the RSP being able to manage priorities and resources would result in a better outcome for the customers."

Like Aussie Broadband, APN also pointed towards the congestion issues present on the fixed-wireless network, but said NBN has recently begun sharing information with RSPs on congested towers "to help us troubleshoot problems and to also as a guide for sales strategies".

"However, we have no clear vision of the scope of the program and also the longer-term picture of the network capacity," APN concluded.

Pointing towards the "inequitable" rollout of the NBN in its region, meanwhile, the Warrumbungle Shire Council's submission [PDF] focused its arguments on what Telstra as an NBN provider can do to resolve local issues, including undertaking a technical survey and a community survey; establishing a network of localised repeaters; removing technical terms and industry jargon from its communications with residents; investigating the installation of a cellular service for the shire; and providing "reliable and equitable service for all internet users".

NBN's business case

The joint standing committee also published a series of submissions on its NBN business case inquiry, with Vodafone Australia pointing out [PDF] the incoming competition with 5G and arguing in favour of spectrum sharing or releasing NBN's spectrum to other carriers, which could then raise enough money to extend the fibre-to-the-premises (FttP) footprint.

"The total price of AU$43 million to be paid by NBN should it wish to use this [3.5GHz 5G] spectrum is significantly below the price paid by NBN and mobile network operators at recent auctions for similar spectrum. As there is no logical reason for the NBN to utilise this spectrum, it should be put to market with the potential to generate up to AU$2.2 billion in revenue for government," Vodafone argued.

"These proceeds could then be used by the NBN to extend its FttP footprint for example. Alternatively, NBN could be required to enter into spectrum sharing arrangements with mobile network operators on an equitable basis.

"We believe the NBN is at a critical juncture with the forecast completion of the NBN and the early phase of deployment of 5G mobile services in Australia in 2019. As the convergence of fixed-line and mobile technologies continues in order to meet the needs of consumers, policy makers must ensure the NBN can evolve and compete in this rapidly changing market to help support the NBN's business case."

Vodafone also used the submission as an opportunity to argue in favour of continuing to lower CVC costs.

"While the NBN's proposed new pricing arrangements are positive, we encourage the NBN to continue refining its pricing model. For example, the price of the 100Mbps product is still too high, which will soon recreate the problems that were blocking the uptake of the 50Mbps product," Vodafone said.

Auckland-based consulting firm Wollemi Consulting [PDF] pointed out the benefits of the New Zealand government's fibre-heavy Ultra-Fast Broadband (UFB) network, and suggested that NBN improve its business case by "putting more fibre in the diet".

"This should endeavour to build FttP where possible, with fibre to the curb as a fallback rather than the preferred option," Wollemi Consulting said.

According to the firm, this could be achieved by rolling out full fibre in brownfields areas "where the cost difference between FttP and alternatives is marginal"; supporting a third-party funding top-up for FttP; making the price to upgrade to FttP under the tech choice program standardised, lower, and more transparent; and prioritising the rollout of FttP rather than the remediation of older technologies in areas that see a high number of complaints.

Lastly, Paul Budde Consulting argued [PDF] that NBN's business model is on "very unclear footing".

"The question can even be asked whether there is a business plan at all. This is the key reason there is now so much confusion and negativity surrounding the project," the submission says.

"A proper business plan can be developed in which it will also become clear how much needs to be invested for the common good and how much can be invested in a long-term infrastructure utilities-based ROI model. There is a growing understanding in the investment world that there are good investment models for such projects if the government works together with private industry and investors."

Alternatively, the government can write-down its investment in the NBN and privatise it, the submission said.

The NBN joint standing committee had announced in February that after completing its initial report last year, it would be holding inquiries into NBN's business case as well as its rollout in regional and rural Australia.

The joint standing committee had in September recommended that NBN connect as many premises with its fibre-to-the-curb (FttC) and FttP networks as possible, with its final report making 23 recommendations in total.

NBN coverage

Editorial standards