The difficulty with 'doubt' in the NBN

People who are claiming that "doubt" has been cast over the Coalition's alternative NBN proposal are ignoring the level of doubt in the existing project rollout.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

In my two and a bit years reporting on the National Broadband Network (NBN) rollout, I've realised that it is a bit of a Rorschach test; people only see what they want to see.

At the NBN Realised forum last week, we heard from some of the construction companies on the ground, which are rolling out the fibre across the country. One question put to Stephen Ellich, Service Stream director, and Dan Birmingham, Silcar's project director, asked whether fibre to the node (FttN) would be cheaper. This is what Ellich said in response (emphasis mine):

We don't really get into the parts and politics. I think it is not as simple as changing from fibre to the premises to fibre to the node.

For example, at the node, you have no electronic cabnetisation that exists out there as a start, so if you went to the node ... you still have to change from one media to another, which requires some form of electronics out there; it will require power to that electronics, presumably.

I don't think it is a simple question that can be answered off the cuff by any of us here. I would not presume to be an expert.

But I just don't think it is as simple as people think that you just stop providing fibre in the last 3, 500 metres or even the last kilometre from where it might be a pillar, for example, where the copper intersects with the distribution copper, and then you turn that into, you know, all the way through.

I think it is unknown at the moment as to whether it is actually faster or it actually is cheaper, because there is a whole lot of other work that will happen that is not required under this rollout.

Others also piped in, saying that power to the node would be an issue, and that the use of the copper, which in some places hasn't been maintained in the last three years, is also a problem with a fibre-to-the-node rollout.

These are issues worthy of exploring, no doubt. And I hope we hear more from the construction companies, network vendors, and other experts over the next year to provide insight on a fibre-to-the-node approach, but saying that such comments cast "huge doubt" over the cost of the Coalition's proposal ignores a few factors.

Firstly, as Ellich pointed out, he is not in a position to say that overall, it would be more or less expensive. He just outlined some of the factors that would have to be considered. I read into this that the constructors don't really want to be drawn into the politics of it, and that they aren't keen to give proof one way or the other.

Secondly, it ignores the simple premise that the Coalition is not set on fibre to the node. It will definitely be a component of the Coalition's policy, but Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has said that the Coalition would stick with fibre to the premises in areas where it is more affordable to do so. If, once a proper analysis is done, it is determined that fibre to the premises is cheaper, then he has said that it would be used.

Thirdly, there still remains a substantial amount of doubt over the costs associated with the current NBN model. The company has already revised its corporate plan once, and it still doesn't have a set way to roll out fibre into multi-dwelling units (which could end up being fibre to the node if it is just run into the basement of every apartment building), and we are still nine years off the completion of the project. Throw in some other unexpected factors, and it could end up running over budget and being delayed further.

When asked about whether the project will be completed on time and on budget on Friday, even NBN Co CEO Mike Quigley didn't provide solid guarantees.

"As you know, the history of big infrastructure projects, whether they're by the way, whether they're government run or private run is not always good," he told the ABC. "We're feeling reasonably happy with the progress we're making. We're aiming to finish the build of this network by mid-2021. That looks eminently doable, and we're quite happy with the way we're progressing on costs. These kind of exaggerated claims you hear about huge delays and overruns really are not accurate."

Much of the debate around the NBN focuses on calling out inaccurate statements thrown about by coalition MPs and conservative commentators, and rightly so. But there appears to be an almost double standard when it comes to the Coalition's own policy. Part of the confusion around the policy is the Liberal party's own doing. Saying that broadband will be delivered faster and cheaper, but not saying exactly how much faster or how much cheaper is a major cop-out, and not something that you can take to the election. Turnbull also has the unfortunate problem of being frequently contradicted about what the policy will actually be by the likes of Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey.

The party has a long way to go in fleshing out its policy before the 2013 election, and a fully costed, detailed policy would assist in providing a tangible method for the public to be able to tell the difference between Labor and the Coalition on broadband issues.

The current NBN has the home-ground advantage. The project is passing more and more premises by the day, with more customers signing up for services. The construction crews are confident that they can reach the target of passing 6,000 premises per day at the peak of the rollout, and that is only going to look great on paper for the government come election day.

Until then, speculation about the costs of either the Coalition's NBN, or what lies ahead for Labor's NBN, is just that.

Editorial standards