NBN's wireless engagement

NBN Co keeps the connection promises coming, the network's detractors appear to be running out of ammunition and Conroy has his eyes on the satellite prize with a visit to the US.

With jittery global markets and a topsy-turvy local economy keeping punters busy the NBN debate is seemingly stuck in a rut. However, there is plenty going on as far as the NBN Co is concerned, both in terms of getting more houses connected to the network and extolling its virtues far and wide. Meanwhile, NBN detractors continue to snipe from the sidelines but the latest report from The Australian would suggest that they might be running out of ammunition.

The wireless promise and challenges

We will start with NBN Co which has promised to connect another 17,000 households to the fixed wireless network by the end of 2015. The rollout of the wireless and satellite services into the regional areas has been designated as the number one priority for NBN Co and with good reason. While rolling out the fibre network will take time connecting regional residents, who have put up with sub-standard services for a long time, should be a priority.

Whatever shape the NBN eventually ends up taking, provided the Coalition decides to alter the existing setup, metro areas will end up with a reasonable outcome. However, regional residents will justifiably be concerned about the fate of their broadband future. More importantly, while most of us in the city have access to reasonable broadband speeds the same can’t be said of our regional brethren.

However, it’s not quite all smooth sailing and despite the best intentions of NBN Co there has been a hiccup or two, especially with regards to the erection of the necessary 2300 transmission towers. One notable recent case was the decision by Golden Plains Shire council knocking back a proposed tower. It probably won’t be the last knockback that NBN Co will have to deal with but is it a fair indication of the message regional Australia is sending to NBN Co?

Not according to NBN Co external affairs manager Trent Williams, who says that the majority of the objections are driven by misconceptions and fuelled by a small albeit very emotional minority.  

He adds that most objections melt away once the facts are put in front of the public and that’s why getting as much information out there as quickly as possible is a major priority

"There's a lot of misunderstanding and in the last year we have heavily ramped up our efforts to better educate the community,” Williams says.

Radio, TV, newspapers ads and letter box runs are great channels to spread the message but as Williams points out nothing beats a first-hand experience as a community sees the promise of the NBN made manifest. A good example of this is the experience in Wilunga, where an educated band of small business users came on board quickly and in turn boosted the take up rates immediately.

However, as NBN Co boss Mike Quigley pointed out this week it won’t be a walk in the park. Quigley told the Australian Communications and Media Authority's (ACMA) RadComms conference yesterday that spectrum constraints, inaccurate address data and opposition to the towers were major impediments in meeting the connection target.

 It’s unlikely that NBN Co will be successful in quelling every shred of discontent but what really matters is making sure that the silent majority in regional and rural that back the NBN are suitably motivated and their voices are heard. A favourable outcome here will depend greatly on NBN Co’s efforts but rural councils will also have to play their part.

Heard it all before

Interestingly, spreading the information, or disinformation, works both ways, a fact so ably demonstrated by the Federal Member for Cowper Luke Hartsuyker. The MP has thrown down the gauntlet and bemoaned the hideous profligacy of Labor's " fibre to the home pipedream."  To prove his point Hartsuyker has also listed the 10 facts that characterise the NBN mess and here they are

  1. Rollout of NBN fibre is way behind schedule 
  2. The NBN also has many fewer customers than predicted
  3. NBN spending on fibre advertising is 33 times larger than fibre revenues
  4. Satellite cost blowouts
  5. Greenfields housing residents are still waiting for a connection
  6. NBN's rollout plan is pork barrelling ( a leaf out of Malcolm Turnbull's book)
  7. Excuses for delays don't stack up
  8. Revenue per user less than expected
  9. A waste of money
  10. No transparency

Sounds familiar, it should. Plenty of bluster but no real substance.

Pork barrelling rehash

Speaking of familiar sounds, The Australian managed to resurrect an old gripe through a report that revealed that 59 per cent of suburbs scheduled for construction of the NBN this year and 2013 are in Labor electorates. This compares to only 35 per cent in Coalition electorates. Opposition communications minister Malcolm Turnbull wasted no time in unfurling the “pork barrelling” banner and decrying the unfairness of it all.

“Labor’s $50 billion National Broadband Network may have been devised on the back of a beer coaster, but its rollout appears to have been planned on a whiteboard in Stephen Conroy’s office,” Turnbull said in a statement.

“The NBN will reach almost twice as many households in Labor-held areas as in Coalition-held areas between now and the next election, even though the Coalition holds 73 seats in the House of Representatives and Labor only 72.”

NBN Co has continued to vehemently deny any suggestion of politics playing a role in the choice of location. The rollout locations were based on points of interconnect (PoI) chosen by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) and there is nothing concrete enough to suggest otherwise.

Turnbull’s jibe would have certainly drawn some fire from his Labor counterpart Stephen Conroy, but the communications minister is in the US and he has satellites on his mind. Conroy has been on tour of the Space Systems/Loral facility that is building the two $620 million satellites. The NBN satellite plan was awarded to Space Systems/Loral in February and needless to say there was plenty of bonhomie on display between Conroy and the company during the visit.

Regulatory matters

Finally on regulatory matters, the competition regulator is still fielding submissions from the telco industry with regards to NBN Co’s special access undertaking (SAU). Optus and the Competitive Carriers Coalition (CCC) have tendered a joint letter to the ACCC raising concerns about the short-term contracts for the supply of services on the National Broadband Network (NBN). As Tony Simmons’ piece highlighted earlier this week, the fear off NBN Co becoming the next Telstra is a potent one within the industry and some in the general public. Ensuring the strictest regulatory oversight on what will be a natural wholesale monopoly is critical, which explains the rather laborious process undertaken by the ACCC.

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