OurSay debate questions focus on Turnbull's NBN policy

It is no surprise that the current top three questions for Communications Minister Stephen Conroy and Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull's communications debate focus solely on the Coalition's alternative NBN policy.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

In one week's time, at 9.45am AEST, the users with the top three questions as voted by the public in the OurSay Communications Debate will get the chance to put their questions directly to Communications Minister Stephen Conroy and Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull in a Google Hangout hosted by ZDNet.

Image: OurSay

Voting on the questions is open until Thursday, May 2, 7pm AEST.

It is no surprise that the three top questions now focus on the alternative National Broadband Network (NBN) policy released by Turnbull last month. Rather than the current AU$44.1 billion network comprised of 93 percent fibre to the premises (FttP), 4 percent fixed wireless, and 3 percent satellite, the Turnbull AU$29.4 billion plan would see fibre to the node (FttN) used for 71 percent of premises, with 22 percent still getting fibre to the premises. The fixed-wireless and satellite components of the NBN would remain the same.

Turnbull's proposal relies on accessing the existing Telstra-owned copper line from each of the estimated 60,000 nodes across Australia right up to the premises.

The top three questions as voted on the OurSay Communications Debate page show concern for Turnbull's proposal. Turnbull has gone some way to addressing some of the concerns mentioned in the questions before, however.

Question 1. "Why don't you just leave the NBN as is, Mr Turnbull? It's popular, it's long overdue, it's cheaper in the long term, cheaper to maintain, more reliable, uses less energy, it's funded by a loan and will repay itself, it doesn't require households to pay thousands to connect, it doesn't require ugly, big cabinets on every street, and it's as future proof as anyone can possibly make it."

I suspect that Turnbull will focus on his belief that the Coalition's policy would deliver fast broadband sooner than the current NBN policy, with people able to access a minimum of 25Mbps download speeds by 2016. He is also likely to point out that his NBN will pay itself off sooner, and, because less money may be spent overall, would be more affordable to consumers.

He's also stated that he believes the maintenance cost associated with fibre to the node would be not that much higher than the current NBN proposal, because the Telecommunications Universal Service Management Agency (TUSMA), created as a part of the NBN rollout, has a significant cost of maintenance built into it, including maintaining the copper line for the last 7 percent of premises outside of the fibre footprint.

In an FAQ published today, Turnbull has said that the cabinets needed will not be much larger than the fibre distribution hubs required by the current NBN, and many of the cabinets for the FttN deployment will be in the basement of apartment complexes.

He also said that no new power stations will need to be built for a FttN network, but admitted it would use more power than a fibre network but less than is currently being used by DSL networks today.

On the "pay thousands to connect" issue, Turnbull has said he believes that only businesses that require those higher speeds immediately will seek to pay to have fibre installed right to the premises. He has also said that his fibre-to-the-node approach would leave it open for the network to be eventually upgraded to fibre to the premises if and when it is determined that those higher speeds are required. His policy background document has also outlined that his estimations show that delaying the fibre-to-the-premises rollout until it is necessary would not end up costing more in the long run.

It should be noted that NBN Co has its own user-pays system for residents who live outside of the fibre footprint. The cost of installing to some of those residences has been estimated in the tens of thousands of dollars.

Question 2: "We know what download speeds we can get with both FttN and FttP, and download speed is not the only important thing anymore. The question is to Mr Turnbull: What upload speeds will your FttN plan guarantee, keeping in mind that from the node to the premises, there will still be copper cabling?"

In a conference call with Turnbull directly after he announced the policy, I put this question to Turnbull myself. He wouldn't guarantee upload speeds, but said that users could expect their upload speeds to be around one quarter of their download speeds. So, for example, a user on a 25Mbps service could expect upload speeds of slightly over 6Mbps.

In his FAQ published today, Turnbull said that the Coalition will leave it for NBN Co to decide how best to configure the NBN for upload speeds, so it would not mandate an upload speed if the Coalition wins the election in September.

Question 3: "How does the 25Mbps guarantee work? What will be done for a user who has bad copper? Will that guarantee apply to bad in-premises copper? Considering BT can't make copper do above 5Mbps in all cases, how can the LNP?"

Again, this question was put to Turnbull on the day the policy was announced. Turnbull said that each line will get a line test to determine whether that line can achieve 25Mbps download speeds. If it cannot, then NBN Co will assess whether remediation needs to be done to the line in order to get those speeds, and, if the line is too damaged, then that premises will get a fibre-to-the-premises connection instead.

How many premises will end up getting the full fibre connection remains unclear, but Turnbull said that there is significant "fat" built into the policy's budget to ensure this is all covered. Whether the company would return to a premises if a line has degraded over time (or has suffered reduced speeds due to water damage or other issues) is something that Turnbull has yet to answer.

If you want to see these three questions get up, head over to the OurSay Communications Debate page to vote the questions up. Alternatively, if you think you've got a better question to put to Turnbull and Conroy, you can also enter your own question before Thursday night.

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