The NBN you'll get is not the one you voted for

Freed from competition by a single-minded government, NBN Co is free to cherry pick to its heart's content, drip feeding its fibre-to-the-basement services to Australia's wealthiest areas. Yet, with so many concessions made to Telstra and so much about the NBN still up in the air, there is still more lost than gained.
Written by David Braue, Contributor

The last time I went to America, I landed to find that Kevin Rudd was prime minister again. This time, while I was at 30,000 feet, the Abbott government put the final nail in the coffin of Labor's National Broadband Network (NBN), trickle feeding details of its long-awaited Telstra renegotiations into the pre-Christmas news void, and revealing just how willing our government is to use bald-faced bastardry to achieve its chaotic broadband vision.

Had everyone not already seen it coming, it would have been considered a farce for any government to build its telecommunications vision based on the purchase of a private asset it had previously sold to the market. Much less the simultaneous buyout of two hybrid fibre-coaxial (HFC) networks that may or may not be able to deliver what has been promised.

It would be a jest to base the future of a critical industry on a still-evolving vision that despite the hype and constant assertions of superior policy has failed to connect more than a handful of actual people using the new technological model.
Telstra owns the NBN again - but can the project keep its head above water?
(Image: David Braue)

Yet, the biggest show of bastardry came in the edict -- by amendment to existing legislation, rather than fighting for the passage of new legislation, since it would appear the mandate-claiming Abbott government is chronically unable to pass any meaningful legislation of its own -- that potential NBN threat TPG had been given the impossible task of separating its retail and wholesale operations by January 1.

Given that Telstra has been working towards separation for most of a decade and still has three years before it's meant to finish, you'd think anyone could see that offering TPG two weeks, during silly season no less, was less of a milestone in the execution of a progressive telecommunications vision than it was a desperately conceived way to buy the government enough time to deliver its multi-technology mix (MTM) NBN free from real competition.

Start the slow clap: TPG has pulled its fibre-to-the-basement (FttB) offering from the market, the controversial 1km loophole is no more, and no self-respecting telecommunications company will bother investing in new infrastructure for years to come.

Never mind TPG's entreaties that it was better intentioned than NBN Co: Malcolm Turnbull's MTM-at-all-costs, slash-and-burn policy making has finally stopped the menace of actual competition, clearing the telecommunications market of potential rivals to NBN Co and freeing the company to do what it apparently does best: Cherry pick the richest multi-dwelling units (MDUs) around the country to ensure that Australia's most cashed-up citizens get to enjoy the benefits of FttB.

The MTM NBN now has around a year and a half to get its proverbial backside into gear before its progress will be weighed and measured by an Australian populace that is still a long way from actually getting decent broadband.

Worse still, most of that populace would have little idea that NBN Co is still so very far from actually being able to deliver the MTM. After all, trials of the much-discussed (and still-mysterious) HFC networks are not set to take place for nearly a year, and services won't begin rolling out until March 2016. As you may recall, this is just months before the Coalition had originally promised to deliver 25Mbps services to everyone.

Progress on the HFC front is slow, because even by the end of last year, NBN Co had still not actually gained any access to the HFC networks upon which the NBN's future is now based. In other words, it bought Telstra and Optus HFC networks based on nothing more than strong reassurances from both companies that the networks were actually in great shape, thank you.

Most people wouldn't even buy a car based on such flimsy promises, but the Australian public has now spent over $11 billion on three legacy networks based on little more. The lack of evidence-based policy making, and the government's seemingly desperate willingness to accept kind words and assurances rather than hard, cold evidence, remains a worrying taint over the entire MTM vision.

Fibre to the node (FttN) is still in its planning phase, with significant questions remaining about the overall quality of the Telstra network, notwithstanding the documents that Telstra must have produced during negotiations showing that everything on its copper network is shipshape.

Proving that it has absolutely no collective memory, the government has handed its future on a plate to Telstra, the one company that has the most to gain from delays to the NBN. It is an entirely likely scenario that Telstra, despite having been gifted AU$390 million over the next four years to design and plan out the NBN, will suddenly discover that its asbestos problem is bigger than previously realised; that new documentation shows that the quality of its network is less adequate in many places than it had previously believed; or that it lacks the exchange space or trunk capacity to deliver the FttN capacity it needs, and will have to delay the rollout until adequate exchange space can be built.

The mind boggles at just how many ways, whether through direct sabotage, more subtle stealth, or dumb luck, Telstra can slow down the delivery of the NBN whilst extending its revenue base and building out the capabilities of the 4G networks it is sure to position as an NBN rival given the opportunity.

There has still been no disclosure by Turnbull as to what penalties Telstra will incur for failure to meet deadlines, or even what those deadlines are. And so we wait.

In the meantime, NBN Co is a long way from having the integrated operational support systems necessary to turn its hodgepodge of technologies into anything more than a hodgepodge of services.

There are massive design, permit, civil, and other processes to undertake in order to make FttN workable.

And the company will have its hands full with launching and commissioning its new Ka-band satellites this year, setting the stage for the Coalition to bring its MTM architecture into the 2016 election as the Thought Bubble That Could.

Whatever the broadband outcomes produced by the policy, the level of concessions that have been made to Telstra -- which has come out of the renegotiations in a stronger position than ever, and more flush with cash than it would have been in the past -- as well as the massive looming regulatory changes and utter uncertainty about why or whether we even need other telecommunications providers anymore, will drive many heated discussions throughout the course of this year and next.

One recurring theme is sure to be the obvious: What in the world was the government thinking in buying not one, not two, but three clapped-out legacy networks that it hopes to stitch together into something that will deliver world-class broadband?

Sure, the MTM may eventually deliver decent broadband for many, if not most, Australians. But by the time the final costs are tallied, economic penalties incurred due to service delays are factored in, and opportunity costs posed by Australia's persistently ordinary broadband added in, I doubt it will have saved much off the cost of simply pushing ahead with the former fibre-to-the-premises (FttP) plan.

All of this wasn't what we were promised in the lead-up to the 2016 election, but how could it be? Nobody goes into an election promising questionable process reviews, unending technological chaos, and bloody-minded, piecemeal regulatory change. But that's what we've been given for the first half of the Abbott government's first term. Who knows what the second half has in store?

What do you think? Was blocking TPG's FttB ambitions necessary for the greater good of the industry? Has the government given up too much to Telstra? Or was this all just necessary acrobatics to deliver a superior MTM vision?

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