Yes of course the NBN is buying copper, but so what?

If you're whinging about Australia's national broadband network operator buying new copper cables, then you're part of the problem. Copper is not the issue. Transparency is.
Written by Stilgherrian , Contributor

ZDNet has already reported how the company that's building Australia's National Broadband Network (NBN) is buying new copper cables for its fibre-to-the-node (FttN) rollout. ZDNet has also reported that NBN plans to buy another 1,800 kilometres of copper at a cost of AU$14 million.

Both stories have explained why. The fibre runs from the exchange to the nodes, in their roadside cabinets. From the other end, the copper connected to each customer runs to a roadside pillar. This new copper connects the nodes to the pillars.

The distance might be a few metres, or it might be a few hundred metres, but across the vast distances of this wide, brown land, it all adds up.

If you think that 1800km of copper cable or a price tag of AU$14 million is a lot, then you're really not thinking this through. You probably need to come at this with the aid of something called "arithmetic".

If you turn to page 39 of the NBN Corporate Plan 2016 [PDF], you'll see that by the time the rollout allegedly ends in 2020, there will be around 8.5 million premises connected to either FttN or fibre to the basement (FttB), which are essentially the same thing, or HFC.

Using an arcane technique known as "division", this supposedly horrendous purchase of copper represents around 21 centimetres of cable per connection, at a cost of around AU$1.65. So, one patch lead.

Of course, that's not how this copper will be used, as already explained. It's for 100-pair and 200-pair cables to connect the nodes to the existing copper network, with an average of 350 metres of cable used for each of 5100-odd nodes. And it's for five months, not five years.

But that sort of back-of-the-envelope calculation illustrates how seemingly enormous numbers suddenly become a lot less scary when you divide them by 8.5 million premises, or 5100 nodes, or whatever needs to be done.

National. Broadband. Network.

It's big, y'know?

This purchase of copper is a perfectly normal and expected part of the plan. After all, you have to connect and power up the new network before turning off the old one.

Thinking ahead, the NBN will also need new cables to repair any damage to the copper network, once it takes over from Telstra. Again, it's useful to consider just how big Australia is. Does 1800km sound like a lot? Not when you realise that, for example, Penrith City Council in Sydney's west alone is responsible for managing more than 1050km of local and regional roads.

If you think that 1800km of copper cable or a price tag of AU$14 million is something to bash NBN with, then you're an idiot. You haven't bothered paying attention to the details. You are part of the problem.

Worst of all is that claque of cud-munching cretins who mutter "fraudband" every time Turnbull's name or his network are mentioned. These fibre-fundies had their dream network taken away by the bad man, failing to understand that they never really had it to begin with, failing to notice that it simply wasn't happening, and failing to update their knowledge of government plans for half a decade. Bravo.

Fibre versus copper is not the issue, people. Get that out of your heads.

The fact that a fully-fibre network is capable of delivering higher speeds than networks with copper in the mix is not in question. It never has been.

The issue is about choosing the best approach in the real world, where we have to start with the networks we have, and turn them into the networks we want, using the resources we can afford, both human and technological.

It's about delivering higher broadband speeds for as many Australians as possible, because it's a national project; as soon as possible, because the rest of the world has surged ahead of us; and as cost-effectively as possible, because resources aren't infinite. And it's clear that Labor's approach was failing to do that, for a whole bunch of reasons.

This it not to say that Turnbull's multi-technology mix is automatically the answer. Far from it. As I wrote elsewhere in 2013, Turnbull's pre-election policy contained 90 billion maybes. While it may have won the propaganda battle at that time, everything would depend on the real-world numbers once he tried to build a real network in the real world.

Would building FttN first, and turning it into FTTP later, help improve the lot of more Australians more quickly? Or would it amount to building everything twice? The answers to those questions would depend on the exact formulas in the spreadsheets, which weren't revealed, and the real-world numbers, which we didn't have.

Well, we have the second of those things now. Turnbull's NBN costs have blown out, and as former communications minister Senator Stephen Conroy pointed out most sharply while questioning NBN CEO Bill Morrow in Senate Estimates on Tuesday night, there are still plenty of problems to deal with.

"So, summarising, the ink is still drying on the [NBN's FttN/FttB construction] contracts; all the FttN you've switched on to date has been built by Telstra, who are taking no further part in the construction; you still don't know the state of the copper network; your knowledge of the HFC network assets is limited; you've identified skills shortages; you've not signed any HFC construction contracts; you don't have a single paying HFC customer; you only have a handful of paying FttN customers; the HFC product set hasn't been released; and the IT systems are not complete," said Conroy.

"And you believe that you can connect half of the country to the NBN in two years -- but that fortunately is after the next election?"

NBN's response?

"All of that is correct," Morrow said.

Right. Here we are in 2015, and we still don't know for sure what broadband speeds we'll be getting when, nor how much it'll cost.

What we do know is that both approaches we've tried so far have ended up costing far more than first claimed. And we know that every time we decide to change approach, it takes a year or more to change gears, delaying everything even further.

So the real issues here are actually about honesty, transparency, and the ability to achieve the stated goals within the stated timeframes. On these counts, so far, both major political parties have failed dismally.

Malcolm Turnbull has muttered some things about a more open, collaborative government. Maybe he should start with the NBN, and start that by making public all these hidden spreadsheets.

Updated 6:06pm AEDT 21 October 2015: Clarified the "arithmetic" used.

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