NBN tech choice program already provides fibre for Tasmania: Fifield

Tasmanians don't need Labor's promise to deliver a fibre connection if elected, as they can already choose to spend thousands of their own money on NBN's fibre-on-demand product, according to the federal government.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

Australian Communications Minister Mitch Fifield has hit back at Labor's proposal to spend AU$29 million on constructing a fibre National Broadband Network (NBN) connection for the west coast of Tasmania if elected, saying there is already a provision for fibre under NBN's technology choice program.

Earlier on Wednesday, Shadow Communications Minister Jason Clare had announced Labor's plans to connect Queenstown, Rosebery, and Zeehan with fibre, though he did not detail whether this "fibre link" would entail a fibre-to-the-premises (FttP), fibre-to-the-node (FttN), fibre-to-the-basement (FttB), or fibre-to-the-distribution-point (FttDP) network.

"In north-west Tasmania, local calls for fixed-line broadband are already being considered through NBN's existing technology choice policy," Fifield argued on Wednesday afternoon.

"The significant difference between the technology choice option and the promise made by Labor today is that it is unfunded. NBN does not have a spare AU$29 million available to fund Labor's empty election promises."

The technology choice program, launched in March 2015, offers Australians a pure fibre alternative to NBN's FttN, FttB, FttDP, hybrid fibre-coaxial (HFC), fixed-wireless, and satellite connections -- if they pay an application fee, a field quote fee, and then the cost of installing the fibre, which NBN said last year could average around AU$4,300 per premises.

There are two options for the fibre-on-demand product: An Area Switch, covering between 150 and 350 premises; and an Individual Switch, covering one. Application fees for an Individual Switch cost AU$330, as does the quote fee, while Area Switches cost AU$1,100 per fibre distribution area, with the quote fee specified "upon application".

Despite Fifield's argument that NBN provides this option, however, NBN last week revealed that it has made just three individual FttP connections -- and earlier on Wednesday, it said it has not proceeded with a single area switch after receiving 28 applications and providing two quotes.

It has, however, received revenue of AU$31,300 without GST from application fees, and AU$22,640 without GST from design and quote fees to date.

In February this year, one Tasmanian council declined to upgrade two regions from FttN to FttP due to the costs involved, adding it would also be requesting a refund on the AU$10,000 fee it was charged by NBN for the cost analysis, because it was not detailed enough to warrant such a fee.

NBN's estimate for the Tasmanian council had said that between AU$2.75 million and AU$3.3 million would be needed to upgrade the Westbury and Hagley region, and that it would cost AU$2.2 million to AU$2.75 million to upgrade Hadspen and Traveller's Rest.

In response to Labor's Tasmanian fibre offering, Fifield also said that paying for its election promises using NBN funding would constitute a misuse of a Government Business Enterprise (GBE), saying the NBN is not an "ATM".

"Under the GBE Guidelines, the NBN is empowered to act commercially and independently when building the NBN," Fifield argued.

The communications minister added that the multi-technology mix allows NBN the flexibility needed for making decisions on network design and technology design, more so than a pure fibre approach under Labor would have allowed -- especially in regards to costs.

"Labor's announcement demonstrates they have learnt nothing from the last time they messed up the NBN," he said.

"Under Labor, the NBN was one of the most poorly managed infrastructure projects in the history of the Commonwealth. More than AU$6 billion was spent over four years to connect just 51,000 users to Labor's network.

"Under the Coalition ... close to 2 million Australian homes and businesses can now access the NBN."

He said that Labor's pledge to use AU$29 million in NBN funding would come at a cost to other premises' NBN rollouts -- and that Labor had not even clarified whether it would be FttP, FttN, FttB, or FttDP, anyway.

"Labor must to come clean on which other towns will be disadvantaged by this intervention in Tasmania.

"Labor also needs to clarify if this promise involves the use of fibre to the premises, which in Tasmania has been mired in lengthy construction delays and rollout challenges."

West coast Tasmania -- which was due to receive FttP connections under Labor's original NBN plan, along with the rest of Australia -- is currently slated to receive the NBN as part of the Coalition's long-term satellite solution or under the fixed-wireless network.

"Before the election, Mr Turnbull promised Tasmanians he would 'honour all contracts' for the fibre rollout in Tasmania, and roll out the NBN to all Tasmanian homes and businesses by 2015. In government, Mr Turnbull broke these promises," Clare said in a joint announcement on Wednesday with Tasmanian Senator Anne Urquhart and Tasmanian Labor MP Justine Keay.

"Mr Turnbull and Brett Whiteley then said that the West Coast would be connected to the second rate fibre-to-the-node network, with construction to start by June 2016. They broke this promise, too.

"In 2015, Mr Turnbull quietly put the West Coast on the NBN satellites without even informing the community -- it only came out in Senate testimony."

Earlier this month, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten confirmed in a speech that Labor is looking towards a "hybrid" NBN policy with "more fibre", with Fifield labelling this statement a "backflip" from Labor's previous stance on the NBN.

Fifield has also said that the "technology-agnostic" NBN being implemented by the Coalition is the only way to ensure it is delivered on time and on target, and claimed that Labor had as good as conceded this.

Others in the industry, meanwhile, have complained that too much time has been spent politicising, debating, and criticising the broadband technologies being used for the rollout and using them as an election platform, instead of realising its benefits.

Editorial standards