All-fibre, publicly owned, NBN must top the list of Post-Covid infrastructure investment

Apr 29, 2021

On December 24 2020, our Christmas stocking had a surprise gift from Santa in the form of Communications Minister, Paul Fletcher. He announced a fully operational NBN. The long-overdue baby had finally been delivered.

Sadly, as with many Christmas presents, it wasn’t quite what we had originally hoped for – optic fibre to 93 per cent of Australian homes and businesses via Fibre to the Premises, or FTTP. To be fair, that was promised by Santa Frank Conroy, who didn’t quite deliver!

However, Fletcher’s gift came wrapped up in hope. He promised the baby would not be put out for adoption, as previously intended, at least for this term of Parliament. Moreover, adoption would be subject to due process. As he explained, “There are a number of steps that are required to occur before a privatisation could be pursued, including an inquiry by the Productivity Commission. Each of these steps would take significant time”. Who knows, the inquiry might even recommend the baby remains with its natural parents – our nation and our government!

The terms of reference of the inquiry must be comprehensive, including consideration of a return to the original all-fibre NBN design. Of course, such a choice would come at a cost, but, without this capability, the baby can never grow to its full potential. Only fibre limbs can enable the NBN to do the heavy lifting, transmitting massive volumes of data at speeds approaching that of light Arial. And, as we learnt in high school physics, nothing travels faster. Not even God can do better than when he said, ‘Let there be light!’ No new technologies, even the much-touted 5G, can come close to His perfect design!

Anyone who believes the hybrid NBN will do should be asked, “if you lived in a remote region and needed life-saving telesurgery performed by the best team of surgeons wherever they may be located, would you want the fastest and most reliable telecommunications possible or one that is nearly as good?” Case closed!

Fibre doesn’t just provide limbs; it is the backbone, aorta and lungs of the Information Age! It is also future-proof, an essential requirement because new telecommunications applications and needs are continually emerging. Examples already abound – national security, climate change management, space exploration, education, scientific research, defence, robotics, disaster
relief, tele-everything, whether work or leisure, including computer games, meetings, events, parties, social media and social interaction, all 24-7!

The decision to redesign the NBN eerily resembles what the Askin Government did to our Opera House when it abandoned Utzon’s original prize-winning vision of giving us one of the wonders of the modern world! The new design largely achieved this on the outside, but, on the inside, where it was supposed to deliver the best opera, music, drama and a wide range of other performances, it fell seriously short! The actors, singers, orchestra and set designers are all cramped for space. Worse
still, for the audience, the acoustics are poor, ranked by a Limelight survey of musicians, critics and audiences as having the worst acoustics of 20 major venues!.
(Time 19-10-2011)

The NBN is also critical to our international competitiveness in a world where online services are increasingly becoming a huge part of GDP and global trade. For Australia, it provides an opportunity to finally overcome the ‘tyranny of distance’ that has always held our resources dominated economy back. However, without the best technology, we will squander this chance and lose the competitive battle to our competitors who already have or plan all-fibre NBNs.

The hybrid NBN calls to mind another historic folly – our national rail network, when different Australian colonies chose several different gauges, meaning that passengers and goods had to change trains several times to get from one end of our continent to another! Remedying this shortcoming eventually cost a fortune and took from 1929 to 2010! The more we roll out the hybrid NBN, the more it will cost and the longer it will take for the conversion!

The Productivity Commission must also be asked to review the plan to privatise the NBN, a natural monopoly. Previous privatisation of similar essential infrastructure – electricity and gas, airlines, the postal service – has shown the expected benefits, especially lower cost and better service, proved to be a mirage. Creating competition by duplication would be extremely wasteful.

Another elephant in the room’ is the shambolic technology mix of the hybrid NBN, which Santas Abbott and Turnbull gave us – a poisoned chalice instead of the gift they promised! It will be significantly less reliable than the previous model, especially because it uses a hodge-podge of fibre, rotting copper and unfit-for-purpose hybrid cable. Moreover, it replaces much of the original FTTP design with fibre-to-the-node (FTTN). This leaves the cost of extending fibre from the node to the premises to telcos and, through them, to customers – an extremely unfair and unaffordable, social burden, especially for the disadvantaged, who most need the NBN to help lift them out of poverty!

There is no doubt that the original NBN’s cost kept escalating and its schedule slipping inexorably, largely due to poor project management. But these problems have beset virtually every major infrastructure build in Australia, whether done by public or private developers, including railways, roads, airports, or, for that matter, the current jerry-built NBN!

Of course, a return to an all-fibre NBN would come at a cost, but, without this, the baby can never grow to its full potential, which is to do the heavy lifting, transmitting ever-growing volumes of data at the fastest possible speed!

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