NBN Buzz: The towering inferno

Obstinate opposition to wireless towers is unlikely to derail NBN Co’s regional wireless ambition but don't expect a comment from the Coalition.

NBN Buzz is a weekly wrap up of everything that's going on with Australia's largest infrastructure project. For previous editions visit our NBN Buzz page.

Wireless tower inferno

NBN Co has had to put out a few fires this week as an old gripe made its way back in to the headlines. With the rollout of the NBN in full swing, the malaise this time is squarely targeted against the wireless component of the network, particularly the towers that will deliver the long-term evolution (LTE) fixed wireless network to regional areas. NBN Co inked a $1.1 billion deal with Sweden’s Ericsson in June last year to roll out the fixed wireless service to areas that will miss out on the fibre network. Things officially got off the ground in August (with rural communities surrounding Geraldton, Toowoomba, Tamworth, Ballarat in Victoria and Darwin in the Northern Territory selected as the first five sites. The plan is to connect close to 14,000 premises my the middle of this year, but it hasn’t taken long for some locals to raise the banner of rebellion, their target the 40-metre towers that will be pillars of the wireless network.

With contractors working for NBN Co filing their planning applications, some residents in Victoria have kicked up a fuss with regards to the health and aesthetic impact of the towers. Incidentally, NBN Co has reportedly signed up five companies to conduct trials of the fixed wireless network, with iiNet and Internode both involved in the process. NBN Co has told ZDNet the final agreement is still being formalised and it looks like the first trial will be conducted in Armidale, which you may notice is not in one of the five regional areas originally earmarked by the government. 

Resistance to mobile towers is not a new phenomenon so it’s hardly surprising that fears of radiation and just how badly a 40-metre tower in your backyard will spoil the view have again come to the fore. The challenge for NBN Co is to nip this in the bud before it becomes a bigger issue. NBN Co boss Mike Quigley has moved promptly on that front, saying that regional towns that oppose the towers may have to make do with slower satellite connections and that it will initiate further community consultation to dispel some of the community concerns. The one thing that Quigley makes quite clear is that those hoping for a fibre alternative to the wireless service are in for a disappointment.   

It’s easy to label the opposition as typical overreaction from a select few. However, the protests hold some interesting implications for the overall NBN story. The delays in getting council approval for the towers could significantly slow down the wireless rollout and any delay, on the fibre or wireless front, is bad for NBN Co. The other interesting thing is the impact of this controversy on the Coalition’s broadband alternative, which is a big fan of fixed-wireless deployments. So it’s not surprising that Malcolm Turnbull has kept a very low profile even as community anger dominated the headlines.

Obstinate opposition from some in regional communities is unlikely to derail NBN Co’s wireless ambition. The allure of a top notch network will be too great for regional communities, many of whom are burdened by sub-standard broadband, and the voices of the detractors should inevitably give way to those who are happy with the towers. Quigley & co can help speed this process up through but they will have to invest a tad more time and effort in consultation to ensure that residents, councils and NBN Co are on the same page.  

Turnbull’s HFC pointers

The hubbub around wireless towers may not be Malcolm Turnbull’s cup of tea, but as the Australian Financial Review  pointed out this week, the shadow communications minister may have something to crow about now that Telstra has brought its  HFC network fully up to speed. The network will give consumers plenty of bang for their buck with speeds of up to 100 Mbps to around 2.7 million premises. Under the current NBN Co regulation, Telstra will migrate broadband customers from the HFC network to the NBN over the next 10 years, as the fibre rolls out to those areas.

Turnbull argues that rather than decommissioning the HFC altogether the network should be preserved as long as access is made available to all retail service providers. Where things get a little tricky for Turnbull, according to the AFR, is that one of his key points against the NBN is that most residents don’t have any real use for 100 Mbps and will not pay a premium for such speeds. That’s not what Telstra has to say in its HFC upgrade business plan. Plus, the top-tier under the Bigpond Ultimate Cable plan, which is set to be rolled out later this month, offers 500 GB of  data a month at a minimum cost over 24 months of $3165.60 plus $9.95 delivery and the cost of the new modem. So maybe people are happy to spend for the service after all, despite the fact that very few will actually be able to enjoy download speeds of up to 100 Mbps.

Of course there is another reason why Telstra has beefed up its HFC network, even though it’s most likely going to be decommissioned, the more people it has on the HFC the more it can collect in disconnection payments from NBN Co.

Regulatory nitty gritty

Moving to the regulatory nitty gritty without which the NBN really won’t get anywhere, it would seem that Telstra’s revised structural separation undertaking (SSU) is still not up to scratch as far as its rivals are concerned and Optus is yet to be convinced about NBN Co’s wholesale broadband agreement (WBA).

On the Telstra SSU front, the telco’s rivals are unanimous in their concern that the revised undertaking currently on the ACCC’s table still does not guarantee equivalence. According to AAPT, Telstra’s obligation is too limited and will be ineffective while Macquarie Telecom argues that the revised undertaking still gives Telstra too many loopholes to avoid meeting equivalence obligations.

As for Optus, while it sees eye to eye with its peers on the SSU, it is still at odds with them with regards to NBN Co’s WBA. So far 21 providers, including iiNet and Primus Australia, have signed up to the WBA but Optus is still trying to iron out some unresolved issues. NBN Co has already made a number of concessions on the WBA front, not to mention the five rewrites, but it looks like Optus is unlikely to jump on board in a hurry or at least until the $11 billion Telstra NBN deal is finally done and dusted.

Spruiking NBN benefits

Finally, Stephen Conroy was out spruiking the benefits of the NBN to the national economy, namely the benefits of teleworking and its positive impact on businesses and their employees.  Conroy made the comments as he announced THE date of the first National Telework week, which is to be held from November 12 to 16. From the looks of it Conroy’s spruik couldn’t have come at a better time because as it turns out a new report by the Australian Industry Group and Deloitte has found only 30 per cent of Australian business are sufficiently informed about the benefits of the NBN, with most regional and rural businesses in the dark. 

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