Rod Tucker, Laureate Emeritus Professor at the University of Melbourne and a member of Labor's Expert Panel that advised on the NBN, was responding to an invitation from iTWire to offer his views on the future of the NBN and what path an upgrade should take.
Tucker said the nub of the problem was that Australia had spent a huge sum on a network that used obsolescent technology — fibre-to-the-node — that other countries had either bypassed or replaced.
While the government continued to assert that the average Australian did not need or want anything more than 50Mbps download speeds on the fixed-line network, Tucker offered a reminder that not all Australians were average. "And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that many families and small businesses have found their service inadequate in recent months," he added.
With online retail, telecommuting, e-health, video conferencing, online education, and streaming services taking up more and more bandwidth, he argued that there was even greater need for improved broadband in Australia than there was a decade ago. "Many people plan to continue to working from home post COVID-19 and operate businesses from home. This will be the new normal. How can this impasse be resolved?"
He pointed to two ways whereby the NBN could be upgraded, both of which took into account the government's reluctance to spend any more money.
One approach, he said, could be to rely on local initiatives to upgrade FttN to FttP or FttC. "This could be done via the NBN Co Technology Choice Program," Tucker said. "Local government would be in a position to facilitate this process. The main problem would be the additional cost to the consumer, and it is likely that it would happen only in wealthier areas, thereby increasing the so-called digital divide – something that the NBN was originally intended to help overcome."
He said another possibility was to integrate the NBN with the 5G network. "Future 5G services could be a threat to the NBN in areas where the maximum speed available on the FttN network is less than 50Mbps," he noted.
"But if the FttN network in those areas was upgraded to FttP, the two technologies could complement each other and the fibre infrastructure and other useful assets such as powered nodes could be used to support 5G and bring in extra funding to assist with the upgrade. Any scheme along these lines would probably require a change in the terms of the agreement that gives NBN Co access to Telstra’s ducts and pits. This could turn out to be a roadblock."
Tucker was not convinced that the purchase of the NBN by a commercial entity would help with an upgrade.
"There has been much discussion in ITWire and elsewhere about the desirability of NBN Co being sold to a commercial entity," he said. "The conundrum is that lacking any competition, the company that buys NBN Co may have little incentive to undertake a major upgrade of the network.
"This brings back visions of the late 2000s, when the incumbent, Telstra, and the government were in open warfare over the future of broadband in Australia. Telstra had no viable competition, and this eventually led the government to lock out Telstra and set up NBN Co. It would be a travesty if history was to repeat itself in this way.
"There is little doubt that the coronavirus has further stimulated broadband usage in Australia, and it is unlikely that this new appetite for broadband services will wane. Australia has never been more in need of upgrades to its broadband infrastructure, but I fear that we have a long wait ahead of us. As Yogi Berra said, it feels like déjà vu all over again."
Tucker lamented that the state of Australia’s broadband never seemed to change. "Ten years ago, in 2010, Australia ranked around 40th in the world on Ookla’s broadband speed scorecard and was steadily moving downwards the speed rankings as other countries rolled out advanced broadband access networks," he said. "Ten years later, this downward slide in the rankings continues and today Ookla places Australia at 63th in the world rankings.
And this was not all; other things seemed to get worse over time. "In 2010, the government recognised the broadband problem in Australia and developed a bold plan to resolve the situation – to deliver a world-class FttP network that would lift the country out of its broadband backwater" he said. "Now, in 2020, we are deeper into the backwater and the government does not even have a plan to get us out. Broadband limbo."