National Broadband Network

Network cables
Extract from NSW Legislative Council Hansard and Papers Thursday 27 March 2014.

The Hon. PAUL GREEN [11.48 a.m.]: I speak on behalf of the Christian Democratic Party to the motion moved by the Hon. Steve Whan on the National Broadband Network. The Christian Democratic Party would not like to act as apologist for either party. Having said that, the last Federal election pretty much decided the fate of the National Broadband Network and how it would be rolled out. The people of Australia decided that the Coalition was to be in power. We understood that the Coalition’s election commitment was to complete the National Broadband Network and, in its own words, to do so quicker and cheaper than Labor could.

Under a Federal Coalition Government, the National Broadband Network will be rolled out “using a mix of technologies that will provide high speeds at a reasonable cost”. The Federal Coalition claimed that the policy put in place by Federal Labor relied primarily on fibre to the premises for the rollout, except for remote and regional areas, where satellite or fixed wireless would be used instead. The previous Federal Government estimated the cost of the rollout to be $43 billion. Of course, the Coalition suggested it could provide it cheaper for about $29.5 billion as a fibre to the node model rather than a fibre to the premises model, and both models included a wireless facility. Obviously, different streaming speeds were a contentious point: Labor promised line speeds of one gigabyte per second by the end of 2013 for connected fibre to the premises sites—an increase from the current 100 megabytes down to 40 megabytes per second; and the Coalition promised a minimum of 25 megabytes per second by 2016, and, by 2019, 50 megabytes per second up to a maximum of 100 megabytes. No upload floor speed was stated. Labor’s estimated completion date was 2021 and the Coalition’s was 2019.

As is always the case in politics, both sides portray the other as being incompetent in some way; that is the nature of politics. However, if we examine the actual technology behind each proposal, much can be said for both because they both have pros and cons. We should not forget also the promise of a potential wireless National Broadband Network. Originally, Labor called for fibre to the premises in 93 per cent of cases for connections to premises. This represents about 12 million or so connections. The remaining 7 per cent would have a planned fixed wireless service. Fibre to the premises would run optical fibre from a point of interconnect directly to one’s place of work or business using gigabit passive optical network fibre sharing. Using fibre for every part of the connection ensures fewer failure points and a more consistent data path than a mixed mode connection. This means that while outages due to large-scale accidents impacting the cables remain feasible, the behaviour of optic fibre is well understood and should mean a more reliable service overall.

Building fibre to the premises except to the most remote areas also allows for much more regional service building. Professions that do not require on-site staff could relocate or telework with greater reliability and speed. That is good for linking remote communities and improving general business productivity, and allowing business to be conducted offsite remotely. Once installed, fibre technology also allows for optimisation, which provides a good future upgrade path without requiring serious work on the fibre. Current research suggests that existing fibre may be able to reach speeds up into the petabyte range with consistency. That is a serious advantage for cables that should be expected to last a century. However, the downside to fibre to the premises is that laying fibre to 93 per cent of the population is a huge job and leads to two sets of problems. First, speed of the rollout is a huge issue to consider. Again, it is difficult to remove politics from the equation when talking about the National Broadband Network rollout, but NBN Co’s own rollout estimates have been revised over the years and the trial period took much longer than expected, as did negotiations with Telstra to use exchanges and pits. NBN Co’s estimates suggested that construction would be completed by the end of 2021.

The second issue is the labour cost of laying out that much cable and infrastructure, not the cost of the technology. That problem was aggravated when it appeared that Telstra subcontractors might not have been handling asbestos material properly, leading not only to delays but also very costly ones. Implementing fibre to the premises cannot be done simply; if cable has to run past every premise in the nation, trained and paid staff will be required every step of the way. On the other hand, the Coalition’s fibre to the node solution uses the existing copper infrastructure. Theoretically, this can save serious money and make the rollout a little faster. Fibre to the node is the Coalition’s proposed alternative technology for National Broadband Network connectivity to roughly 75 per cent of the population.