LAURIE PATTON and ROBIN ECKERMANN. Time for rational, informed debate about the NBN

We believe it’s time for the Government and the Opposition, and their respective sword carriers, to put down their weapons and strive to agree on a bipartisan NBN strategy that will deliver all Australians fast and affordable broadband – using modern technologies and an investment strategy that balances deployment costs with the demonstrable socio-economic benefits achievable through advanced fixed broadband.  

There’s been an increasing level of debate in mainstream and social media lately over the direction that should be taken with the NBN. This has seen a number of people picking up their swords keen to go into battle. We are writing this joint missive in the hope it will foster further informed and civil debate over the most significant infrastructure project of our time.

The deeper into the network optical fibre is taken the greater its inherent performance capability. Because fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) delivers the highest speeds today’s fixed-line broadband technology can offer it represents the ideal from a technological perspective. Fibre-to-the-kerb (FTTK, also referred to as fibre-to-the-distribution point, or FTTdp) is superior to fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) and strikes an attractive balance between technology and upfront cost considerations. We note that FTTK/dp, as it is currently conceived, was not commercially available when the original NBN plan was devised, nor when the current government adopted its model.

We further note that next generation technologies (like G.Fast and XG.Fast) can significantly boost performance over the short copper distances used in FTTK/dp to levels that would currently satisfy the vast majority of NBN customers; while allowing relatively inexpensive upgrades to FTTP if and when required. However, G.Fast and XG.Fast are not expected to deliver the same performance gains over the longer copper runs common with FTTN, or where the copper is heavily degraded.

Laurie Patton considers that when a long-term view is taken of customer needs and the cost premiums that will inevitably accompany the future replacement of FTTN the case for FTTK/dp is solid. Internet Australia has for more than a year proposed the adoption of FTTK/dp. As IA’s CEO until recently, Laurie has consistently argued that case. He believes the sooner we abandon FTTN for all future deployments, and accept the eventual replacement of FTTN, the sooner we will all have access to an NBN capable of meeting the needs of the majority of consumers.

Robin Eckermann considers the key question to be how long it will be until a majority of customers are being held back by FTTN performance limits. He is also concerned that any significant changes in technology now may cause further delays and deny many long- suffering Australians any improvement in their broadband for (potentially) several more years. He believes that technology decisions need to be taken with a rounded consideration of evolving technology, rollout timeframes, costs, customer demand and any consequences for affordability.

We see end-to-end performance as an important issue, with higher last-mile speeds being problematic unless they are balanced by ecosystem improvements outside the scope of the NBN (for example, in backhaul) so that users experience the speeds for which they have signed up. Higher speeds are also moot if they are not affordable, and in this regard, NBN Co’s current pricing model (with high CVC costs and tiered connection speeds) is an impediment to unlocking the full potential of the NBN (irrespective of the technology). Cost will also affect customer take- up of the higher speed tiers that deliver better margins and thus superior revenue potential for NBN Co. If all NBN circuits operated at 100 Mbps, or as close to that as the relevant technology allowed, the whole market would progress more rapidly.

We question the capacity for NBN Co to reach the levels of profitability required to attract future commercial investment, or a trade sale, without either a significant write- down in the value of the network or ongoing increases in consumer charges. The latter would simply push more users to 4G (and soon 5G); posing a further financial risk for the NBN, exacerbating the digital divide and setting back rather than aiding Australia’s journey into the digitally-enabled future.

We believe it’s time for the Government and the Opposition, and their respective sword carriers, to put down their weapons and strive to agree on a bipartisan NBN strategy that will deliver all Australians fast and affordable broadband – using modern technologies and an investment strategy that balances deployment costs with the demonstrable socio-economic benefits achievable through advanced fixed broadband.

Laurie Patton is a board member of Internet Australia and until recently was its CEO. Robin Eckermann led the establishment of TransACT, consults widely in the field of advanced telecommunications infrastructure and serves as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Canberra

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One Response to LAURIE PATTON and ROBIN ECKERMANN. Time for rational, informed debate about the NBN

  1. Colin Cook says:

    There are some indications on how federal funds could be created for a lot of NBN expenditure at
    https://independentaustralia.net/politics/politics-display/paying-for-public-services-dr-steven-hails-solution,9945
    How a sovereign credit issuing state can create interest free credit, does not need to borrow – and the limitations of such – need to be much more widely understood if Australia is ever to reach its full potential.

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