The NBN is upon us: counting the cost of duplication

Rodney Gedda

Rodney Gedda is the former deputy editor of CIO and former editor of Techworld.

The events in federal parliament over the past few weeks may have given the green light to the NBN, but the project continues to attract a barrage of criticism from politicians and the media. The best thing the government can do now is tone down the rhetoric and make it work is a sensible way – business case and all.

With the business case – or lack thereof – under the spotlight, it’s time for the government to show some real and tangible benefits of an NBN where it’s needed most.

If the DBCDE and NBN Co wanted to stand their ground a little, they should be more transparent with how it arrived at the costing figures it is touting without a public business case.

Of course, the problem the government faces is the unique nature of the project. The figures being bounced around like $43 billion, $37 billion, and so on are at best guestimates.

Until such a project has been attempted – the outcome being success or failure – it can’t reasonably be costed. If you get half way on $10 billion then you have some idea what the total cost might be.

Add to that what I’ve been arguing all along – there’s also no evidence that it will succeed within the time-budget parameters even if they were in the same ball park.

Call me cynical, but I doubt any organisation – government or private – would be able to complete such a massive project “on time and on budget”.

Now, that’s not to say the NBN shouldn’t be attempted at all.

I think the concept of an NBN is a “good” thing, but given the way successive governments have handled broadband infrastructure competition since deregulation and, more recently, how NBN Co was established to ostensibly “fix” the situation, there are serious questions about the government’s ability to proliferate broadband without drowning itself in policy and bureaucracy along the way.

Broadband, broadband, broadband: at the end of the day that’s what it’s all about.

Consider this scenario, if the NBN reaches 93 per cent of population there will still be the remaining (seemingly forgotten) 7 per cent that will have to settle for mobile, satellite or DSL if there is anything left of the copper access network.

An alternate broadband policy, like the federal government’s guarantee program, and not an “NBN or bust” policy could easily work towards brining a good level of access to the last 7 (or as it was originally, 10) per cent of the population while scaling down the amount pumped into an NBN – especially around already well-serviced areas like city schools and industrial estates.

It will be very, very interesting to see the level of last mile regional broadband access in a post-NBN world.

If, after spending the proposed amount of money, a significant portion of the population is left languishing with basic Internet access then the NBN may as well have not even been attempted.

Given a choice between a “93 percent NBN” and “7 per cent basic” and “80 per cent NBN” and “less than 1 per cent basic” the latter should be the choice.

Remember, this is NBN Co-provided access I’m talking about here, not high-speed access in general, there is a difference as the non-Telstra ISPs in this country will testify.

Last week I caught up with AARNet CEO Chris Hancock and we talked about the level of access available to key industries like education and health – sectors often used as footballs by politicians arguing the case for an NBN.

I know AARNet hates getting dragged into political debates over the role of the NBN, so I won’t ignite that now, but what I will say is Chris and I generally agreed that the level of access and options for industry in metropolitan areas is good.

In addition to its core university clients, AARNet is servicing more schools and hospitals – both in a “research” and “business” sense. In some cases it even provides services alongside commercial carriers at the same institution.

So a key question is how much duplication will result with the NBN and what “cost” will that duplication represent?

Let’s hope the increased level of access with an NBN at least matches the increased level of duplication. Anything else will be an unfortunate step in the wrong direction.

Tags: broadband, NBN

Show Comments