Turnbull's 'Better' NBN challenge

The shadow communications minister has justifiably come under fire from critics but there is way he can add some real value to the NBN debate and even create a strong policy position for the Coalition.

Being a politician is hard and while Malcolm Turnbull has justifiably copped plenty of criticism for his continued obfuscation with regards to the Coalition’s NBN, the shadow communications minister can still play a crucial role in defining our broadband feature.

Let’s face it, there are a number of things the Federal Member for Wentworth can be doing with his time other than facing the slingshots from his Labor counterpart Stephen Conroy.

While the Coalition has been quite generous in providing Conroy and the proponents of the NBN with plenty of ammunition, there is a way Turnbull can add some real value to the NBN debate, even create a strong policy position for the Coalition.

But that will require him to address one fundamental question: 

Does the Coalition recognise any viable local solutions to deploying fibre or temporary fast broadband access to greenfield and brownfield areas?

As things stand there shouldn’t be too many doubts about how vitally important the NBN is as a piece of infrastructure. However, the efficacy of the current Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) design is still subject to some debate.

The real challenge for Turnbull, if he is willing to pick up the gauntlet, would be to come up with a good pure-FTTP model that really will deliver the Coalition’s "Better Broadband - cheaper and sooner” catchphrase.

Here are a few potential scenarios that might be worth a look.

Thinking beyond Telstra's pits and cables 

WiFi 'mesh networks' can potentially be a viable transitional measure to get a just few premises quickly connected while the major fibre backbone is rolled out. These networks have a low capital cost, are quick to deploy, offer broad coverage but don't scale up well. The deploying telco could potentially ask for a co-payment for subscribers keen on this solution.

The second scenario would look to exploring the use of existing infrastructure right-of-ways. TransACT famously used the above ground electricity pole network in Canberra to deploy their fibre and "cat 5" cable. Given the success of that endeavour perhaps existing infrastructures, not just the Telstra pits and cables, can be leveraged for speed and cost.

Speaking of TransACT here’s more food for thought for Turnbull. Perth-based iiNet acquired $280 million worth of TransACT’s assets through its $60 million buy in November last year. This included the $80 million Fibre-to-the-Node (FTTN) network built around 2002. While TransACT/iiNet have deployed pure fibre, passing 11,000 premises since 2008, they could potentially revamp their FTTN network, making it "layer 2 ethernet" compatible with NBN Co. They are already an "open access" wholesale provider, with full backhaul installed within their operating region. If the network was built with a 35-year design life, it still has 25 years to run economically. 

Does this need any Federal Government support or incentives? Probably not, but it could push iiNet to quickly provide "fast broadband" available via the general NBN Co arrangements.

The added bonus for the Coalition, provided iiNet thinks it’s a good idea, would be that it will be an effective economic counter to NBN Co’s decision to overbuild TransACT's FTTN.

Connecting the country

In the bush, there is already an extensive fibre network and a near-universal utility infrastructure already installed. Telstra run fibre to most of their rural (SCAX) exchanges. There is already an extensive 11KV electricity network around rural areas in most of Australia, at least in the East Coast.

As mentioned earlier, the Telecommunications Act does not mandate that NBN Co connect all premises. Any operator can create a network as long as they offer "open access" wholesale services at reasonable rates. Opticomm already has a successful business like this.

There is also room for a joint venture between Telstra and the various rural electricity distribution suppliers to create fibre connections across the bush. As the NBN Co fibre/wireless extension programmes are rolled out there is no impediment to charging subscribers for services installed. Rural electricity consumers are already familiar with the financial model: consumers pay the full installation cost of their connection and the asset is transferred to the supply company who also assumes maintenance and replacement costs.

So, perhaps there are some viable interim solutions to running fibre after all. And the NBN debate in this country can perhaps be better served by an exploration on how to get more Australians connected quicker rather than cheap shots from both sides of politics.  

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