Broadband minister Senator Stephen Conroy and his Coalition counterpart, Malcolm Turnbull, have continued to play tit for tat over the National Broadband Network (NBN). It is obvious that a Coalition win in the next election could have wide ranging impacts on the network.
Coalition leader Tony Abbot in his budget reply again raised the spectre of a fibre to the node network (FTTN) as an alternative to the fibre to the home (FTTH) network being constructed by NBN Co. "Why dig up every street when fibre to the node could more swiftly and more affordably deliver 21st century broadband?" Abbott argued.
The Coalition’s 'Plan for Real Action on Broadband and Telecommunications' advocates a mix of new fixed wireless networks, improved satellite broadband services for remote areas of Australia, and "a new national fibre optic network to deliver competitive ‘backhaul’".
Under the heading 'Provide a way forward to a higher bandwidth, more fibre-intensive Australia', the policy states: "The Coalition will establish a commercial and technical platform for much greater fibre penetration over coming years, particularly by stimulating demand for broadband services and in turn stimulating investment by the private sector (building on government contributions such as new and more competitively priced backhaul)."
A shift from FTTH to a FTTN approach for a national network could potentially have negative consequences for Australian broadband, argues Mark Gregory, senior lecturer in electrical and computer engineering at Melbourne's RMIT University.
FTTN could reduce the number of premises connected to a national broadband network, Gregory said. He stated the number of premises connected to the NBN could drop to 80 per cent or even less, a drop from the 93 per cent of homes the current federal government is targeting. While this downward shift is a figure Gregory has calculated based on comments he has seen about the NBN over the past year, he said the Coalition should make it clear how many premises will be connected to the NBN under its plan.
“I believe that the splits that we have at the moment between satellite, fixed wireless and the optical networks has been determined after a great deal of analysis and we shouldn’t see any shifting down to figures like 80 per cent or lower and so forth in terms of people that are getting access to the fibre," Gregory said.
“When you look at the spread of people in the discussion, then a figure of 80 or even lower — 70 per cent — isn’t unrealistic. It hasn’t been stated by the Coalition [how many people will be connected to a national broadband network] and it’s one of those figures that I would like them to provide more detail on.”
If fewer premises are connected to a national network, Gregory said the Labor party won't be the only ones unhappy and voicing concern.
“I think that it won’t be just groups that see a direct benefit from the NBN that will be screaming, I think it will be right across the board,” he said.
Gregory believes that if the Coalition comes into power, it needs to moderate its policy — and will receive pressure from several organisations and individuals to do so. However, he said both political parties should “take stock and rethink their platforms”.
“I believe that the Coalition needs to listen to the voices of reason in this regard — that [what] we really need in this country [is] a technology platform that’s going to allow us to move forward,” he said.
An additional problem with using FTTN is it requires cutting into the copper network owned by Telstra, Gregory said.
“The compensation that Telstra would want for that was considered to be sufficiently high as to justify moving to a complete fibre-to-the-home solution. The Coalition seems convinced that they could do it cheaper, but the jury’s still out on that,” he said.
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