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2010: the year of the NBN

2010 was one of the biggest years on record for the telecommunications industry: The National Broadband Network (NBN) roll-out began, the project became much more political and we consequently had Australia's first election fought and won on broadband policy.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

2010 was one of the biggest years on record for the telecommunications industry: The National Broadband Network (NBN) roll-out began, the project became much more political and we consequently had Australia's first election fought and won on broadband policy.


(Credit: NBN Co)

The ZDNet Australia NBN topic area for the last 12 months spans 48 pages, but we've pulled together the best of the best of news on the $43 billion (or is that $37 billion or $55 billion) project.

  • January — A quiet start
  • February — All about the Senate
  • March — The first mainland sites
  • April — 88,000 cell towers
  • May — The McKinsey implementation study
  • June — The Telstra deal
  • July — First customers and a new Prime Minister
  • August — The broadband election
  • September — Conroy's new foe
  • October — The cost-benefit analysis
  • November— A Senate's ransom
  • December — The business plan
  • Tell us what you think


The year got off to a relatively quiet start. NBN Co called for satellite operators for the areas that wouldn't be served by fibre. And feisty Liberal senator Mary Jo Fisher said she wouldn't end the Senate Select committee into the NBN until Communications Minister Stephen Conroy handed over the McKinsey implementation study.


February was Senate Estimates time in Federal Parliament. It came out that Mike Kaiser, former advisor to Queensland Premier Anna Bligh and the man selected as NBN Co's government and external affairs chief in December, got the latter gig after a suggestion from Conroy to NBN Co CEO Mike Quigley.

The CEO also let it slip that mainland construction of the NBN was expected to start in July.

The government also began filling in the backhaul blackspots, starting the $250 million project with NextGen in Queensland.

The Senate also rejected attempts by Conroy to introduce the controversial telecommunications reform legislation that would pave the way to Telstra's structural separation.


The first mainland sites for the NBN were announced in March, including Brunswick, Kiama Downs and Townsville. The government received the McKinsey implementation study, but kept mum about it.

Quigley unveiled plans to achieve 1 gigabit per second (Gbps) speeds on the NBN and Telstra's declining share price concerned many mum-and-dad shareholders, but Conroy insisted that he wasn't to blame.


NBN critics pointed to the rise of wireless internet technologies as a reason why fibre might not necessarily be just right for Australia's broadband diet. Quigley disputed that by saying Australia would need around 80,000 cell towers to cope with the demand — 66,000 more than are currently in place.

Pipe Networks co-founder Bevan Slattery labelled claims by the government that it would get a commercial return on the NBN as "bullshit".


May was all about the release of the long-awaited McKinsey implementation study. The study revealed that the government's peak investment into the project would be $26 billion, the project would be paid back after 15 years and the reach of the fibre network would be extended from 90 per cent to 93 per cent of the population. The $25 million report was so glowing in its praise of the project that the Coalition claimed it was "crafted" by Labor.

The skilled-migration list was changed with a focus on telecommunications experts for the NBN and Quigley revealed that he had to turn down people who wanted to work for NBN Co for free. In his budget reply speech Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey revealed coalition plans to scrap the NBN if it won the election.


After months of speculation and closed-door negotiations, Telstra revealed in June that it had signed on to the NBN in a deal worth approximately $11 billion. The Financial Heads of Agreement between Telstra, the government and NBN Co sets out terms that would see Telstra decommission its existing copper network, lease its ducts to NBN Co and move its customers onto the NBN as it is rolled out.

Network supplier company Alcatel-Lucent also picked up the NBN's first major tender, securing a $1.5 billion contract to supply optical and ethernet aggregation equipment to NBN Co.

It wasn't all good news for the NBN, though, with the revelation that just 45 per cent of the 5000 Tasmanian homes included in the first stage of the project had consented to have the fibre connected to their home. It led to then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd writing an op-ed in the Hobart Mercury telling Tassies why the NBN would be good for them.

Oh, and just a few days later Rudd was ousted as Prime Minister in favour of Julia Gillard.


Internode and iPrimus boasted that they had connected their first customers to the NBN in Tasmania in July, at the same time as the Apple Isle contemplated legislation to make the NBN compulsory unless residents chose to opt-out.

Conroy announced the next 20 mainland roll-out sites and mocked Brisbane Lord Mayor Campbell Newman's plans to install a fibre network through Brisbane's sewer system.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard decided to go to the polls, Conroy pledged to continue on with the NBN if Labor won the election, while Shadow Communications Minister Tony Smith was less forthcoming about coalition ICT policy.


August got off to a shaky start with a sweating and uncomfortable Smith and Coalition finance spokesperson Andrew Robb revealing the Coalition's $6 billion alternative broadband plan just over a week before the election day and just an hour before a debate between Smith, Stephen Conroy and Greens communications spokesperson Scott Ludlam.

Tony Abbott didn't help matters when he declared that he was "no tech-head" when pushed to explain the Coalition's broadband policy.

At the formal launch of NBN services in Tasmania, Conroy revealed that the NBN would in fact be able to achieve 1Gbps speeds.

The election came and went and Australia was undecided. The verdict on who would form government rested on Labor or the Coalition securing the votes of Independent MPs Tony Windsor, Bob Katter, Rob Oakeshott and Andrew Wilkie. All four had indicated that broadband was an important issue to them, and Abbott promised to be pragmatic in negotiations. Gillard gave the independents a private meeting with the NBN Co CEO.


On 7 September, after 17 long days of waiting and a 17 minute speech from Rob Oakeshott, Labor was returned to power. Although Labor failed to win Bob Katter over, Windsor and Oakeshott both said that the NBN was what convinced them to give the minority government to Labor.

"Do it once, do it right and do it with fibre," Windsor said.

Conroy was returned as the Communications Minister with an expanded role to assist the Prime Minister in all areas of the digital economy for the NBN, but Conroy had a new foe in former Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull, who Abbott named as the new shadow communications minister. Abbott gave Turnbull the job of "demolishing" the government on the NBN policy.


Turnbull wasted no time getting into his role, calling for the government to ask the Productivity Commission to conduct a rigorous cost-benefit analysis into the NBN project. In the new paradigm of a hung parliament, Turnbull introduced a private member's Bill to force the analysis.

Conroy also wasted no time bringing in his own Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Competition and Consumer Safeguards) Bill 2010 back into parliament. The legislation, which enables the structural separation of Telstra's wholesale and retail arms, was entered into the last parliament, but failed to get past the Senate before the election was called.

Telecommunications providers voiced their anger when NBN Co and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) released a discussion paper in late October on points of interconnect (POI) for the NBN. NBN Co had proposed a relatively small amount — 14 points. Telcos said this would strand existing infrastructure and stifle competition in the sector.


In November, the government received the much-anticipated NBN business case from NBN Co but it wasn't ready to share it just yet. At the time, Conroy said that the government had to digest the contents of the 400-page document and was waiting on a decision advice from the ACCC regarding points of interconnect.

But Independent Senator Nick Xenophon wasn't having a bar of that and threatened to vote against the telco reform legislation sitting before the Senate at the time unless he got more information about what was in the business case. After negotiations with the South Australian Senator, Gillard secured the passing of the legislation through the senate by agreeing to a compromise and released a 36-page "summary" of the business case.

Labor pointed to figures in the summary ,which estimated that the network would only cost $37.5 billion to construct, not $43 billion as originally estimated, but the Coalition and some telco experts claimed that figure could reach upwards of $55 billion in reality.

Parliament was recalled for one final Monday at the end of November and after an intense debate between the government and the Coalition, the telco reform legislation passed. Although one former Prime Minister didn't think it was all that big a deal.


After sitting on the document for a month, the government finally unveiled the NBN business case. What was said to be 400 pages turned out to be 136 pages in the censored public version. Conroy said that the release of the document was delayed because the government listened to the advice of industry and the ACCC and expanded the number of POIs to 120. This forced NBN Co to revise the business case to account for the change. The document predicts that 1.7 million homes will be connected to the NBN by 2013 and reveals the expected wholesale prices for access to the network.

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