NBN BUZZ: Ticking off the to do list

NBN Co gets its hands on the first of ten points of interconnect while TPG Telecom says its looking forward to life under the NBN.

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

NBN Co has managed to tick a few more things off its to-do list this week with signs that the NBN is headed in the right direction. Meanwhile, a buoyant TPG Telecom is evidently sizing up the progress of the network and a vote of confidence for the fibre to the home (FTTH) policy from the good folks at global research firm Analysys Mason has prompted the Coalition to fire of its usual battery of missives.

NBN Co's to-do list. 

The first tick on the to-do list is taking delivery of the first of ten modular data centres, which houses the critical IT infrastructure and hardware, needed for the network. NBN Co awarded a $100 million contract to US-based outfit Emerson to build the centres - which will serve as points of interconnect (PoI) - in October last year and the company's chairman and chief executive David Farr was in Melbourne recently to mark the handover of the first centre. Apart from getting their hands on the hardware what would really please Mike Quigley and Communications minister Stephen Conroy is Farr's glowing tributes to the federal government’s vision of the massive project and just how well it’s being managed by NBN Co.  

Farr said he has been impressed by the speed of the project’s implementation and he reckons that the highly centralised and co-ordinated effort could set the benchmark for the rest of the world to follow. 

“I toured this site and met with NBN Co business leaders and came away with the sense that this approach could serve as a model elsewhere around the world,” Farr says. 

"It is a critical project on a massive scale, one of the biggest of its kind in the world right now.” 

Well, you certainly can’t question the government’s ambition or the manifold benefits that the network will bring to the nation. So, the real question mark has always been on the competency of NBN Co and it’s so far so good for Quigley and his troops. 

The second tick for NBN Co this week has to do with the hubbub around the use of mobile phone towers in areas where the fibre won’t be making an appearance. Now, this has been an issue that has generated considerable discontent in certain regional communities but NBN Co says that so far it has had no problems getting the towers approved by councils. While The Australian did carry a report of the Ballarat Council rejecting a proposal for a 40-metre tower in Buninyong, south of Ballarat, NBN Co has told ZDNet Australia that so far it has received 10 approvals for tower construction so far, with another 41 towers waiting for approval.

As the reports highlight the rejected application was lodged by Crown Castle, which was hoping that NBN Co would use the tower once it had been built. That plan’s been derailed and while NBN Co is still winning 10 to zero on the approval front the display of people power in Ballarat does raise the prospect of possible hiccups ahead. 

Meanwhile, the last major piece of legislation underpinning the NBN and the structural reforms to the telco sector has made its way through the senate.

The passage of the universal service reform legislation will see the formation of a new agency, the Telecommunications Universal Service Management Agency (TUSMA), which will ensure access to standard telephone services, payphones, delivery of Emergency Call Service by Telstra and the ongoing delivery of the National Relay Service.

“This legislation safeguards key telecommunications services for all Australians, particularly those in rural, regional and remote Australia, during and after the transition to the NBN,” Senator Conroy said.

“The legislation responds to the structural reform of the industry by moving from a regulatory model for delivery of universal service, with obligations imposed directly on Telstra and other service providers, to a more accountable and flexible contractual model.”

Most of TUSMA’s initial agreements will be with Telstra, which is understandable now that the structural separation has been approved. 

Conroy also said that the federal government will contribute significant funding towards the costs of delivering the safeguards, with base funding of $50 million per annum allocated to TUSMA during 2012–13 and 2013–14, and $100 million per annum thereafter. 

TPG's NBN ambitions  

TPG Telecom’ NBN pricing guidebook may still be under lock and key but the company’s boss David Teoh is evidently looking forward to life under the NBN. Teoh has told The Australian Financial Review that TPG is in a good position to take market share away from Telstra. One principal reason for his confidence is that TPG’s cost of doing business is quite low compared to its competitors. The other is that thanks to its acquisition of PIPE Networks in 2009, TPG has substantial fibre infrastructure in place. Combine that with its healthy customer base and you can see why Teoh’s confidence is not entirely misplaced. 

Meanwhile, iT News reports that TPG is considering whether to offer its popular unlimited downloads broadband plan to users on the NBN and there’s news that the company is planning to launch an IPTV service using a similar set-top box to rival iiNet's "Bob" device. According to SmartHouse, TOG executives told investors that the company also has plans for cloud-based video surveillance and business VoIP services.

In other telco news, Seven Group subsidiary Engin is partnering with Nextgen Networks (Nextgen) to provide voice services to Nextgen’s wholesale Service Provider customers. The partnership will see Engin become a wholesale customer of Nextgen for its NBN connectivity. Engin is offering three NBN retail broadband plans on 24 month contracts: 12/1Mbps with 25GB for $49.95 per month; 50/20Mbps with 125GB for $79.95 per month and 100/40Mbps with 400GB for $99.95 per month (only download data is counted).

Elsewhere, fellow VOIP outfit MyNetFone is also getting ready to wade into NBN waters with the company set to reveal NBN services and pricing next week at the NBN trial site of Kiama.

Vote of confidence and the Coalition backlash 

NBN Co received another vote of confidence this week with global consultancy firm Analysys Mason telling the ACCC that the design of NBN Co‘s FTTP network reflected an efficient and prudent network design. It also said that the NBN was our best bet to tackle the expected increase in user demand for broadband speeds over the next 20 years. All of this is great news but the Analysys report was funded by the government and the technical review of the fibre and fixed wireless components of the NBN didn’t actually include a comparison with the Coalition’s proposed fibre to the node (FTTN) alternative. 

That admission by Analysys Mason has prompted Malcolm Turnbull to fire off a few shots, with the shadow communications minister saying that the consultancy firm should have been allowed to compare the two competing technologies. However, the entire purpose of the exercise was not to test which option was better but rather test the efficiency of the network design. As far as the government is concerned is the FTTP- FTTH debate was put to rest a long time ago. 

However, Analysys Mason may soon have more to do, potentially at the behest of the Coalition, as the federal elections get closer. Only this time the focus will be on the FTTN network and millions it could save from the broadband bottom line.

Turnbull also took aim at the government this week in his speech at the Australian Computer Society members’ conference in Canberra, highlighting the NBN as an example of Labor’s policy of failing to disclose information to the public in a timely and efficient manner. 

The other missile from the Coalition was launched by former Optus executive and the Member of Bradfield Paul Fletcher who has railed against the government’s five years of broadband policy failure. According to Fletcher, since the announcement of the policy by Conroy, Kevin Rudd and Lindsay Tanner in 2007 Australia’s broadband penetration ranking had dropped and there is absolutely nothing to show for the investment made so far on the NBN.

Fletcher is clearly playing to the gallery with this diatribe and he is preaching to the converted. His missives will actually have very little impact on the overall debate and I suspect the political dimension to the NBN debate is expected to maintain a dispassionate tone for some time to come.

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