NBN's Morrow emphasises equal access to broadband

The CEO of the company rolling out Australia's NBN has said equal access to high-speed broadband is vital to the economy.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

The chief executive of the company rolling out the National Broadband Network (NBN) across Australia, Bill Morrow, has spoken out about the importance high-speed broadband brings to the economy, with equal access for those living in rural and remote areas an important part of the project.

"Broadband is not a luxury; it is a vital service that if everyone is connected, our nation as a whole will better off, both socially and economically," said Morrow in a speech to the National Press Club in Canberra on Wednesday.

"The NBN network will go a long way to closing the divide between the city and regional Australia ... Despite the unique size of Australia and the sparseness of our population, this country has the resources, and the collective will, to build a network that guarantees an upgrade in connectivity to every single home."

Morrow said the NBN will bring millions of new jobs to the country by 2030, including the current recruitment drive of 4,500 jobs across Australia.

He also lauded the Coalition's move to implement a so-called multi-technology mix (MTM) network incorporating fibre, fixed-wireless, hybrid fibre-coaxial (HFC), and satellite connections.

"The multi-technology mix ... accelerates the completion at a lower cost, while leaving the upgrade to when the demand begins to approach capacity. It leverages the telecommunications networks that have already been built -- such as the copper telephone lines and the pay-TV cables -- and upgrades them to deliver fast speeds, and to carry even greater amounts of data," he said.

Morrow noted that the fibre-to-the-node (FttN) network is being launched next week, which will increase the pace of the rollout. The CEO had last week said that adding FttN to the stable of technologies being used in the network would improve broadband speeds and reliability in Australia.

"Our network has the potential to deliver 50Mbps speeds to more than 90 percent of fixed-line premises. More than half the network will be capable of achieving gigabit per second speeds," he said, speaking at the ASTRA conference in Sydney last Wednesday.

Morrow added that once the rollout is complete, the NBN will put Australia "on an equal if not better footing than most of our global peers in terms of broadband delivery speeds".

"The good news is that most FttN trial subscribers are getting speeds of around 100Mbps for premises up to 400 metres away from the node, and 50Mbps for premises as far as 700 metres from the node," he said.

Internet Australia welcomed Morrow's speech on Wednesday, with president George Fong saying that nationwide high-speed broadband is "fundamental".

"NBN Australia have done a fantastic job on highlighting [regionally based] young startups ... and giving them the tools and facilities to compete nationally and globally, but also to operate viably from a regional centre," said Fong.

"This cannot happen without a world-class high-speed national broadband network."

On Tuesday, Internet Australia CEO Laurie Patton called on Australia's new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to fast track the NBN, as high-speed internet will ensure that Australia keeps up with the global digital economy.

"Of all the politicians in our federal parliament, Mr Turnbull knows better than most the value of an effective broadband service to our economic future. This is his opportunity to put Australia back in the game by fast-tracking broadband construction," Patton said in a statement on Tuesday morning.

Morrow agreed, saying that Turnbull understands the importance of broadband to the economy better than any other politician.

"He's spoken many times of the fact that convergence and globalisation offer much more competition, but they also offer us much more opportunity. At the end of the day, the NBN will be the backbone of the digital economy," Morrow said.

Macquarie Telecom also welcomed NBN's focus on bringing choice and competition to broadband offerings in regional areas, saying it is "crucial" for all Australians to benefit from the NBN, regardless of where they are located.

"There is a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem; smaller retailers cannot bring competition to locations without competitive wholesale backhaul connections, but competitive wholesalers are reluctant to invest ahead of retail service providers," said Matt Healy, Macquarie Telecom's national executive of Industry and Policy.

"Morrow has accepted the NBN could have to play a role in forcing the hand of the market, or stepping up if it turns out no one else is willing to go to some locations.

"Taking such as approach should enhance rather than damage competition in the medium term, which is what will lead to the best outcome for consumers and businesses."

Some regional towns now have up to 40 RSPs providing NBN services, according to Morrow, which is a level of choice rarely seen by those living outside of cities.

Last month, the NBN came under fire for its current inability to provide equal access to services in remote, rural, and Indigenous areas due to a lack of competition, the high cost of services, and the low data allowances provided under those services.

Speaking via a pre-recorded video at the annual Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) national conference, then-Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull acknowledged that while the technology exists to roll out high-speed broadband to the entire country, affordability still prevents access in some areas.

"The biggest barrier to internet access, as I've always said, is not technology; it is affordability. It's income, or lack of income. So making sure that broadband is affordable, and telecoms generally is affordable, as I've said, is critical," Turnbull said.

"That is a very important part of our agenda with the NBN."

In order to remedy the issue of a lack of access in remote areas, NBN brokered a deal with Optus' satellite division in February last year, with the government providing millions of dollars in funding for the new project.

The government last month revealed that the launch date for the first of the two new AU$620 million Ka-band satellites would be October 1, with commercial services availability expected within the first six months of 2016. The second satellite is planned for launch in 2016.

The two new satellites will enable high-speed broadband access for the 3 percent of the Australian population not living within the fixed-wireless, fibre, and HFC NBN network footprint, and will replace the interim satellite service put in place by the former Labor government.

NBN rollout edges closer to completion in Tasmania

In early September, NBN announced that its rollout in Tasmania's capital city of Hobart is now 50 percent complete, with another fixed-wireless tower having been switched on in Neika to provide remote communities with high-speed internet access.

Six service area modules were also completed in the city, providing FttP to 14,500 premises across Hobart City, North Hobart, South Hobart, West Hobart, Battery Point, Sandy Bay, Glebe, and Dynnyrne.

"This is a significant milestone for the NBN rollout in Hobart, with half of the premises in the city now able to connect to the network," said Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Communications Paul Fletcher.

"Just outside the city, NBN's latest fixed-wireless tower has now been activated, and Tasmania will be the first state in Australia to see the NBN rollout completed by June 2018."

Across the entire state, there are 90 fixed-wireless towers servicing around 27,000 premises.

"NBN's fixed-wireless network offers wholesale speeds of 25 megabits per second down and 5Mbps up, and NBN is currently conducting a nationwide pilot of 50/20Mbps maximum wholesale speed," Fletcher said.

"NBN fixed-wireless users are currently consuming nearly 70GB of data per month on average, and customer satisfaction is very high for fixed-wireless services."

In total, 40,000 premises have an active NBN connection in Tasmania, with the state seeing a connection rate of 800 premises per week -- an increase of 240 percent year on year.

Fletcher, who is currently serving as the interim communications minister, yesterday welcomed the appointment of Turnbull as prime minister, lauding Turnbull's statement to turn Australia into "a nation that is agile, that is innovative, that is creative".

"Malcolm Turnbull has done an outstanding job as minister for communications, with nearly 1.3 million premises now able to connect to the National Broadband Network, up from a bit over 300,000 when we came into government," Fletcher said in a statement to ZDNet.

"I have worked with him over the last two years in my role as parliamentary secretary to the minister for communications, and I have seen his passion for technology -- but, more importantly, his passion for ensuring Australia remains competitive."

In response to a question about whether he expects to be the new communications minister once Turnbull reveals his new Cabinet next week, Fletcher said, "It's up to the prime minister to decide who serves and in what role; whatever role I may be asked to serve in, I will be happy to do so."

The NBN is expected to be complete across all of Australia by 2020.

Editorial standards