Australia’s bizarre fibre diet

However strange the NBN debate's exclusion of recent technological developments, it won't change until after the election. At that point WiFi connections should be explored.

We’re going to have to wait seven months for a sensible discussion about technical options for the NBN – it’s pointless trying before the election – but there are other options, and they need to be discussed.

Last Friday NBN chief Mike Quigley had a go at encouraging an "open and transparent debate on the future options for Australia’s NBN”, which Opposition spokesman Malcolm Turnbull promptly labelled "bizarre” and the Minister Stephen Conroy carefully ignored.

The industry body, the Communications Alliance, which Quigley was trying to get to lead the debate, kind of shrugged its shoulders and mumbled something about it being an election year.

Quite. The NBN is probably the most important and expensive infrastructure project in Australia’s history, but it’s also a political symbol – of far-sighted nation-building for the ALP and of government waste and incompetence for the Coalition. That means positions are locked until September 14.

But over the past four years, since each side of politics locked into its respective position – that is, fibre to the premises for the government and fibre to the node for the Opposition – technology has continued to develop rapidly.

Specifically, WiFi is getting to the point where it could be used for the last bit of the network that connects households and businesses to the fibre. This is what should be the focus of an "open and transparent debate”.

As I understand it, the core difference between the current NBN rollout and the Opposition’s alternative is that whereas the government’s $37 billion (or so) plan is to connect all homes and businesses to fibre, Malcolm Turnbull wants to extend fibre to neighbourhood "nodes” only.

From there the NBN would use either existing copper, or if the customer wants it, fibre – but at the customer’s expense. Neither of those methods would be free: Telstra would have to be paid, although possibly less than it is being paid now by the NBN, and a fibre connection from the node would cost somewhere between $2000 and $3000 a pop.

In other words the essential difference between the two plans is that under the existing ALP plan, a household would have to opt out of the NBN to stay with copper, whereas with the Coalition, last-mile fibre is 'opt in'.

If everyone did that the cost of Turnbull’s NBN would be about as much as Conroy’s, except the government wouldn’t be paying about half the bill – individual households would. What the cost of using Telstra’s copper would be is up for negotiation.

The discussion we WON’T be having until after September 14 is whether the NBN fibre could be brought to smaller neighbourhoods and then connected to each home and business using new powerful WiFi options, specifically little things called "picocells”.

Your correspondent is far from being a technical expert on this, but apparently all sorts of new wireless dooverlackies are now being invented – picocells, femtocells, microcells, macrocells.

Could one of these be put on a lamppost so it delivers high speed broadband from the NBN to half a dozen houses? I think so. A picocell could also be used inside blocks of flats, so the NBN fibre only has to go to the basement. Likewise businesses. If that’s true, the cost savings would be enormous, and probably larger than an old-fashioned FTTN, without losing network speed from the FTTP.

It’s now perfectly obvious that whoever wins the 2013 election, there will be a proper study into whether developments over the past four years have made it possible to do something other than connect every home and business individually to fibre, at great expense.

And the key point about Mike Quigley’s speech last Friday is that it’s not too late to change the NBN rollout, perhaps because it’s running behind (although he didn’t say that).

No doubt Quigley is dusting off the retirement plans he put on hold four years ago when Stephen Conroy approached him to start the NBN because Malcolm Turnbull will obviously sack him if he becomes the communications minister.

To borrow a word from Malcolm, Quigley will look back on these four years as a "bizarre” experience, but that’s Australian politics for you.

But the thing is, despite its craziness Australian politics sometimes produces something good, such as a world-class national broadband network connecting 93 per cent of the population to fibre in one of the planet’s least densely populated countries.

And after this year’s election it might even be improved.

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