Rural councils playing chicken with NBN Co?

NBN Co's recent wireless knockback shows that it is far from infallible. Was this a rare anomaly, or does it suggest that rural councils are willing to stand up to the government to get the fibre they really want?
Written by David Braue, Contributor

It wasn't entirely surprising to hear that the rural Golden Plains Shire Council had knocked back a proposed NBN Co wireless tower, but with a host of similar applications waiting in the wings, and councils under pressure from residents to push for a better solution, it also wouldn't be entirely surprising to find out that there was far more to the rejection than concerns that the towers are ugly.

The installation of 2300 transmission towers to support the National Broadband Network's (NBN) fixed-wireless service was always going to be controversial, particularly given the long-term antagonism of residents in both rural and urban areas to the explosion in mobile-phone towers. Cue the usual protests, lobbying, concerned citizens and blustering politicians.

Since we already know how to camouflage towers well enough, do council knockbacks reflect a different agenda? (Wuzhen Xizha image by Gerbil, CC BY-SA 3.0)

For rural communities that have long struggled with substandard telecommunications, the introduction of ubiquitous data services — even if they are running at a relatively slow 12Mbps — is a major step forwards. Yet, reports suggest that many local residents feel that wireless is a second-rate solution; popular reports have questioned the decision, and many councils have been lobbying NBN Co to extend its fibre footprint to include their areas (with some success — the company's Network Extension Trial (PDF) at least confirms that such an extension is possible).

Whether the residents are au fait with the difference between 3G mobiles and fixed LTE wireless is an entirely valid point; in this area, NBN Co still needs to do considerable education work. Yet, I'd suggest that there are many people who simply aren't interested in anything but a fibre-equivalent solution — and assume that wireless simply cannot provide it. If those people happen to work for a regional council, NBN Co could have big problems.

It's worth noting that Golden Plains Shire has approved several other NBN Co towers, contributing to NBN Co's previous 100 per cent success rate. However, this knockback shows that NBN Co is far from impervious — and could potentially force the company along one of three courses of action.

First, it could revise its LTE plans, and try to site its 40m tower somewhere else. This is unlikely to succeed, because residents now have a precedent to fall back on, so residents in the new area are unlikely to be any more welcoming of the tower.

There are many people who simply aren't interested in anything but a fibre-equivalent solution.

Second, it could try to revise its plan by using a smaller tower, or — who knows? — modify the existing proposal so it will be disguised to look like a big, big tree. This is the most likely course of action, although it introduces problems, because it will force a remapping of the local radio-frequency landscape. NBN Co likely had entirely reasonable technical reasons for putting the tower there, so providing equivalent coverage might require two or more shorter towers spread around the area. Cue the usual protests, lobbying, concerned citizens and blustering politicians.

Third, it could simply walk away. NBN Co executives have already publicly said that councils that reject LTE towers will be serviced with slower and less-reliable satellite services instead. That means either accepting the 6Mbps Interim Satellite Service that's already in place using leased Optus capacity, or waiting for the 12Mbps service to be delivered from 2015 at the earliest, using NBN Co-owned satellites.

None of these are particularly palatable for residents, many of whom love living in the country for many reasons, including its wide, open spaces and unadulterated horizons. Yet, councils have been approving similar structures for years (and while I concede that 40m is a tall tower, I don't think it's unprecedented). So, when a critical piece of rural infrastructure is knocked back basically because it's ugly, I can't help but wonder whether there are ulterior motives at play — and whether the council is pushing for the unstated fourth option.

That option would be to attempt to pressure NBN Co into formalising its network extension, extending its fibre network further out from the confines of its existing footprint. If the council can foster a resistance movement of sorts amongst councils, it could theoretically create an urgency for NBN Co to reconsider its position, because failure to accommodate council requirements could leave the wireless NBN incomplete — and critical voters entirely unimpressed.

In a tight political climate, Labor can't afford to get too many more people offside. It's a point that the councillors of Golden Plains Shire surely cannot have missed; the federal seat of Corangamite, which Labor won in the 2010 election by a two-party preferred winning margin of just 0.41 per cent, is on a knife edge. And if its residents can't be assured of better (read: fibre) broadband, and face a similar wireless service regardless of what party is elected next year, many would have little incentive to vote Labor again.

Whether the council is intentionally playing political games is not clear; this will be much more obvious if NBN Co's other applications suffered similar knockbacks in succession throughout the year. However, the pressure for NBN Co to extend its roll-out is real, and councils have little to lose by squeezing NBN Co — which came off as being a bit cocksure when touting its previous 100 per cent success rate — to see what compromises they can wring from it.

If residents face a similar wireless service regardless of what party is elected, many would have little incentive to vote Labor again.

Of course, those compromises would cost money — lots of it. They would blow out the cost of the NBN and throw NBN Co's forthcoming updated corporate plan into turmoil. And that's why NBN Co cannot afford to give in; just one concession to such radiofrequency terrorism would set a dangerous precedent that would undoubtedly snowball as the company pushes through with the other 99 per cent of its planned wireless base stations. A clearly defined, co-funded network-extension process is one logical possible compromise, but, in its absence, NBN Co may find itself caught in a game of chicken that neither it, nor Australia's rural councils, can win.

What do you think? Does NBN Co need to redesign its antennas so as to not spoil the views? Are rural folk being oversensitive? Or is there a stronger undercurrent of defiance behind the council's decision?

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