Tasmania's half-baked NBN future

State Liberal leader Will Hodgman reckons the NBN could cost him the election but the prospect of a full FTTP rollout was taken off the table a long time ago.

The NBN kerfuffle in Tasmania has picked up momentum as we get closer to the pointy end of the state election, with both the state Labor and Liberal parties clamouring for a full fibre to the premises NBN.

While state premier Lara Giddings has made no secret of her aspiration to get Tasmania connected to fibre, the sentiment is apparently shared by her opposition counterpart Will Hodgman.

The Tasmanian Liberal leader has reportedly admitted that uncertainty over the delivery of the NBN could potentially cost him the state election.  

Fibre fog

The uncertainty – and frankly, there’s a lot of it – was galvanised last week after NBN Co's executive chairman Ziggy Switkowski told the ABC there was nothing in the agreements struck between NBN Co and contractor Visionstream that guaranteed full-fibre delivery to the state.

According to Switkowski, while the previous government had mandated a full-fibre rollout, changes to the build methodology will see NBN Co and the contractor look to utilise viable portions of the copper network.  

"So this year it remains all fibre; at the end of this year it will be a mixture," Mr Switkowski told the ABC.

The reason it remains all fibre is simply because NBN Co’s construction partner Visionstream needs the certainty.

Unfortunately for Tasmanian consumers, things will remain foggy because there are a whole lot of things that need to fall into place before the Coalition’s multi-technology mix can come into play.

No prizes for guessing what the big hurdle is: without Telstra’s blessing, the copper and the HFC are off limits.

Full fibre went out the window a long time ago

With the state election set for March 15, Hodgman was reportedly caught on camera by the ABC telling Liberal colleague Jacquie Petrusma: "This could cost us the election. Anyway, that's democracy."

That will probably make the bloopers reel once the state election is done and dusted.

Hodgman did play down the comment later, telling a media pack that the NBN is just one of many issues that could derail the Liberal party’s tilt to power in the state.

He may be right. The NBN is unlikely to be the sole arbiter of who wins the election but its potency as a topic capable of whipping up hysteria is still palpable.

As far as NBN Co and the Coalition are concerned, a full-fibre network went out the window the minute Labor lost the federal election.

There was no explicit commitment to make Tasmania an exception and pursue an FTTP rollout in the state. The commitment was to ensure that existing contracts signed by NBN Co (under Labor’s stewardship) would be honoured. Labor’s preferred choice was full fibre – hence the misconception that somehow all of the ‘Apple Isle’ would be connected.  

The fact is the NBN construction contracts always had flexibility written into them. An NBN Co spokesperson told Business Spectator the contracts were designed to ensure there was no lock-in.

“This is one of the largest infrastructure projects in Australia’s history, of a size and complexity that has never been done before, so you want to have flexibility and adaptability in terms of volumes, prices, the technology approach and performance metrics,” the spokesperson said.

One has to feel for Tasmanian consumers and businesses, who were promised so much by former Communications Minister Stephen Conroy.

Tasmania was going to be the first state to get full fibre – a shining beacon of Labor’s broadband ambition. But once the rollout fell behind schedule all bets where off.

While Telstra and NBN Co hash out the details, whether a premise gets FTTP or FTTN is now akin to a game of chance.

Some will get it and some won’t. And it’s unlikely that Giddings or Hodgman can do anything about it. 

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