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So what's wrong with the NBN being unique?

  • 27 February 2013
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  • Published in Cornered!

Say what you like about Malcolm Turnbull, his grasp of facts on NBN-like (I use the term loosely) broadband networks and related policies in other countries puts that of most journalists covering the area to shame.

This was amply demonstrated in response to questions following his presentation - which I unfortunately was unable to attend - at last week's Kickstart conference for IT journalists on the Sunshine Coast. However Turnbull has provided a transcript of both his presentation and the Q&A session on his blog, which I have used for the following commentary.

Turnbull contended that "just about every other country in the world is doing it [building an NBN-like network of some sort]. Nobody is doing it the way Australia is doing it and more importantly countries that are very comparable are doing it in a very different way."

He continued: "As you know I've written about them because I've gone and interviewed the people in Britain and Canada and the United States and Europe and Korea and Singapore, there's a long list." He urged the journalists in the room to do the same.

The NBN is a hot political issue so it's quite likely that the Coalition is supporting Turnbull with considerable funds for people to research NBN related issues and Turnbull of course has considerable personal wealth, so could easily fund a full-time researcher or two if he chose. Most journalists have to rely only on their own resources, or those of colleagues, as well as keeping up their editors' demands to produce a steady stream of stories.

Colleagues of Simon Sharwood, Australian editor of The Register, a UK based global IT news organisation, appear to have let him down badly. Sharwood responded to Turnbull by saying, "I took up your challenge and I asked my San Francisco bureau to find me an example of an FTTN going, or going well in the US and they couldn't find me one."

Turnbull was gobsmacked and rightly so. "You are pulling my leg here. I mean, AT&T has got a gigantic FTTN set-up which they call U-Verse; which they're expanding..."

He was absolutely right. U-verse had passed about 30 million homes at the end of 2011 and on 7 November 2012 AT&T announced Project VIP, a $US14b three year wireline and wireless network expansion plan that included $6b to expand U-verse to pass 33 million customer locations.

Turnbull did not mention the equally gigantic FTTH network that has been rolled out by Verizon, nor the plan by Google to rollout FTTH in Kansas City, nor plans by various communities that missed out on Google's largesse to try and achieve a similar outcome. I wonder why!


I don't have the resources of The Register but I did get paid recently to research and write a lengthy article for the Telecommunications Journal of Australia on NBN-like rollouts and policies in a few overseas countries by way of adding some facts to that oft-repeated criticism from Turnbull that "everybody is doing it, but nobody is doing it like Australia."

That's true, but that does not mean they think what we doing is wrong, or don't want what the NBN will achieve. Take the US for example. Verizon has been rolling out FTTH since 2005 and has passed about 18 million homes (Today's AT&T and Verizon are both the result of the 1984 breakup of AT&T into seven 'Baby Bells' and the subsequent consolidation, so they own legacy access networks in different parts of the country).

The most telling example of the appetite for fibre in the US is Google Fibre. In 2010 Google announced plans to rollout a 1Gbps FTTH service in one US city, to be chosen through a competitive bidding process. Google said it had no intention of becoming a telco but simply wanted to encourage existing telcos to offer higher speed services.

Kansas City Kansas was announced as the winner from over 1,100 contenders in March 2011 and 17 days later Google announced that it would expand rollout to cover Kansas City Missouri - just across the Missouri river from Kansas City Kansas. Services were launched in November 2012.

Some of the cities that missed out have been taking matters into their own hands. Wired Magazine reported late last year that Chicago and Seattle ha both announced partnerships with a company called Gigabit Squared to bring fibre connections to residents.

Google's attempts at "encouragement" however seem to have had little impact. Wired magazine reported in January: "Google Fibre was supposed to be a shaming exercise. But any shame felt by the country's big-name ISPs has yet to produce the sort of ultra-high-speed Internet services we've all been hoping for."

Sources quoted for the article attributed this failure to respond to several causes: a focus on short-term returns on capex; an absence of "national drive" and "national policy". However the US does have a national broadband policy - all 376 pages of it.

It sets out the goal that at least 100 million homes should have affordable access to download speeds of at least 50Mbps by 2015, and 100Mbps by 2020 but makes no recommendations on what fixed line technologies are preferred to achieve this goal, nor does it suggest any policy initiatives aimed at favouring rollout of any particular fixed access technologies.


The UK also has a national broadband goal, set out in its December 2010 policy document, Britain's Superfast Broadband Future. The target is to provide 24Mbps to at least 90 percent of premises in the UK by 2015, a target that could be met with fibre to the node.

However this policy was given short shrift by the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications, in its July 2012 report "Broadband for all -- an alternative vision." You might recall this. It was cited by IT news site Delimiter as supporting the Australian Labor Government's NBN plan, and by Turnbull as opposing it.

Its position was rather more nuanced. My view is that it backs the NBN, and here are a couple of quotes to support that view. (Turnbull was able to find quotes to support his view).

The Committee made a case for "a national broadband network that should be regarded as a fundamental strategic asset, to which different people can connect in different ways according to their needs and demands." The Committee saw no future for copper, saying its capacity "is now."

It recommended that Government policy "should be ultimately directed towards universal, point-to-point FTTP as this is a technology not only able to accommodate current demand, but at current rates of growth, will be able to accommodate the UK's bandwidth demands for many decades to come."

That vision also highlights one aspect of the NBN with significant potential that has received relatively little comment. It will be a ubiquitous layer 2 network offering, so far as is possible given the trio of access technologies being deployed, a standardised way for access seekers to reach everyone in the country.

That has to bring some advantages over the hotch potch of high speed networks FTTN, FTTP, HFC, wireless, being deployed in just about every other country.

Turnbull is correct in saying that no other country is doing high speed broadband like Australia. But that does not make what we are doing wrong, just different. The end goals are not dissimilar. Ideologies and financial capabilities are. Crucially, every country is embarking on the journey from a different starting point.


For example, in the UK as Turnbull told Kickstart journalists, BT's functionally separated access network arm, Openreach is rolling out an open access FTTN network.

Openreach is on target to have its FTTN network reach two-thirds of UK homes at a cost of £2.5 billion by the end of 2014 and it has said that this investment is beyond what would be considered normal on a purely commercial basis. It has offered to spend a further £1b to reach the final third, if the Government will match that.

Openreach is also planning to offer FTTP 'on-demand' from early 2013. An end user will be able to get a fibre link from the Openreach street cabinet delivering a bandwidth of 330Mbps downstream and 40Mbps upstream.

Had the recent history of Australian telecommunications been different we might have had a model very similar to that in the UK. What Openreach is doing is not dissimilar to what the Sol Trujillo-led Telstra proposed to the Government shortly after he took the reins.

Criticism of the NBN for being unique is not valid. Some of the best things in the world are unique.


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