NBN should use as much fibre as possible: Joint committee

Reports on digital inequality, an overhauled complaints process, the provision of a wholesale mobile service, and the preference of FttP and FttC have all been recommended by the NBN joint standing committee.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

The federal government committee looking into the National Broadband Network (NBN) has recommended that NBN connect as many premises with its fibre-to-the-curb (FttC) and fibre-to-the-premises (FttP) networks as possible.

The Joint Standing Committee on the National Broadband Network: The rollout of the National Broadband Network 1st Report of the 45th Parliament [PDF], published on Friday afternoon, made 23 recommendations in total.

"The committee recommends that the Australian government direct and enable NBN to complete as much as possible of the remaining fixed-line network using FttC at a minimum (or FttP), and require NBN to produce a costed plan and timetable under which that would be achieved," the committee's first recommendation said.

Under NBN's current Corporate Plan, 1.9 million premises will be served by FttP and 1 million by FttC, while 4.6 million will have fibre to the node (FttN) or fibre to the basement (FttB), 3.1 million will have hybrid fibre-coaxial (HFC), and 1 million will have satellite or fixed-wireless.

Following its series of hearings across Australia, the committee recommended that the government direct NBN to establish a regional support group for its rollout following concerns from Australia's states and territories that the "technically inferior" satellite service and "lower-grade" NBN services should be a "last resort" because they are a form of geographical-based discrimination.

"The reference group would include consumer advocate groups and departmental representation from the Department of Communications and the Arts and the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development," the committee explained.

"Business decisions that fundamentally change the NBN experience for the end user in regional and remote communities should be referred to the reference group for consideration and analysis as to whether the decision will result in NBN not meeting its responsibilities as outlined in the Statement of Expectations."

Similarly, the committee made several recommendations on the Sky Muster satellite service, including disclosing all areas that were initially set to receive FttN or fixed-wireless connections but are now slated to receive satellite, and why; asking NBN to offer separate business and residential Sky Muster plans for the same location; and getting NBN to consult with the aforementioned regional reference group on any changes to Sky Muster services.

"The committee recommends that the Australian government set a benchmark for reasonable data allowance on Sky Muster plans, by reference to average data use across the fixed line network," the committee added.

"The committee recommends that the Australian government ensure that digital inclusion is measured and reported. It has been suggested that the Productivity Commission assess and report on income and wealth inequality in Australia, and it may be worth including the measurement and reporting of digital inequality, as the two areas are likely to be increasingly related."

Following suggestions that NBN could provide a wholesale mobile service using its fixed-wireless towers, the committee added that the government should require NBN to develop a plan for this.

On the subject of pricing, the government should commission an independent audit and assessment of the long-term assumptions of NBN's financial projections laid out in its corporate plan; and in terms of speeds, the committee recommended that the government ensure through regulation that end users are informed of clear maximum attainable layer 2 NBN speeds on a per-premises basis.

To improve complaints about lengthy installation periods, the committee then recommended that NBN have regard to Chorus' active handover model in New Zealand to ensure best-practice installation, and that NBN review and provide information to the committee on how it considers the requirements of service class zero and service class 10 premises and prioritises areas with no broadband.

In further efforts to address complaints, the committee also said the Telecommunications Consumer Protection (TCP) Code should be amended so consumers lodging a complaint with RSPs are informed of dispute-resolution processes such as the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO); that the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) update the TCP Code to specifically address NBN user experience issues such as speeds, in line with the recent speed advertising guidelines by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC); that the TIO be empowered to compel parties to a complaint to cooperate on finding a resolution within a set timeframe; and that the government direct NBN to identify timeframes and escalation processes for consumer complaints.

The committee also wants additional functions given to the TIO and the ACMA to assist the NBN complaints process:

"The committee recommends that the ACMA consider introducing an updated statutory determination, applicable to all NBN technology types, to require retail service providers to inform customers of any critical service issues and line impairments to ensure the customer has understood these issues, prior to a service commencing," it said.

"The committee recommends that the scope, function, and operation of the TIO be expanded so that, among other improvements determined through the current review process, the TIO should keep data according to technology type, and should record and report multiple issues as separate items, especially where NBN and an RSP are both involved."

NBN should also "prominently" publish on its website monthly information on end-user satisfaction metrics such as its net promoter score (NPS) for each technology, and end-user satisfaction metrics for each RSP, geographic area, and rollout footprint; and the department should publish any network fault restoration, service fault restoration, connection performance, and activation data it receives as part of NBN's monthly reports.

"The committee requests that NBN review and provide advice to the committee on its processes and conduct with regard to the engagement, training, coordination and dispute resolution with subcontractors, in accordance with global best-practice," the committee added.

The committee also used its report to recommend that the department's regulation of wholesale broadband be "overhauled" to provide rights and protections for suppliers and end users, with an update on its progress due by December this year.

"This framework should include: Service connection and fault repair timeframes; minimum network performance and reliability; and compensation arrangements when these standards are not met," the committee outlined.

NBN and retail service providers (RSPs) should also develop products aimed specifically at the small business market, the committee said, with an update from NBN and the Communications Alliance on this due in December.

The dissenting report by the members of the committee belonging to the Coalition pointed out that NBN has a good track record of meeting its financial and rollout targets, however, with an emphasis on the speed and cost of the rollout.

"Under the Coalition government, this important infrastructure project is continuing at a more manageable cost and is on track to deliver all households access to better broadband by 2020," the dissenting report said.

"An important point is that someone must in the end pay for the network. This means that if the cost of the network increases, the increase must either be paid for by consumers through higher retail prices, or tax payers through more funding."


The difference between the multi-technology mix rollout and a pure fibre rollout, according to the Coalition government.

(Image: Screenshot by Corinne Reichert/ZDNet)

"The committee majority report implies at several points that there is a risk NBN will fall short of the Statement of Expectations regarding the speed of services provided to the fixed line footprint," the dissenting report added.

"While the network speed baseline is nominally set at the universal minimum 25Mbps, at least nine in 10 premises in the fixed-line footprint will have wholesale speeds of at least 50Mbps at rollout completion ... [and] an upgrade path will provide close to half of all premises on the network access to speeds of up to 500Mbps as demand emerges.

"Far from being an outlier, NBN's 'incremental upgrade' approach has been adopted in other countries such as Austria, Germany, and the UK, to enable further investment to be staged as demand emerges, in parallel with technology advances."

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