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The Politics of Broadband in Australia


By Pete BellSep 13, 2016

Broadband Market
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Broadband users had real skin in the game during Australia’s last parliamentary election. This is big, considering Australia is in the middle of the world’s craziest broadband project.

The recent victory for the ruling Liberal-National Coalition means the country’s National Broadband Network (NBN) project will continue under its current guise.

A win for the opposition Labor Party would have signaled significant changes.

A wider fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) rollout would have been introduced instead of the existing multi-technology deployment, which relies on less-expensive, slower fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) equipment.

How Did Australia Get Here?

Since its inception, the NBN project has had its fortunes tied to the changing political landscape in Australia.

First unveiled by the Labor government in 2009, the rollout was handed to a new public-private company, NBN Co., now known as nbn. In February 2011, nbn agreed to key commercial terms with incumbent fixed line provider Telstra relating to copper network decommissioning and the use of dark fibre, ducts, and exchanges.

Many firms subsequently signed up to act as retail service providers, including Telstra, iiNet, Internode, and Primus (now Vocus).

Completion of the entire NBN project was expected to take 10 years, by which time 93% of premises in Australia would be able to connect to superfast broadband services via a fibre-optic connection. Fixed-wireless and satellite alternatives were to be put in place to connect the remaining 4% and 3% of the country, respectively.

Although nbn met its construction target for 2012, delays soon followed.

By June 2013 the scheme claimed 207,500 premises were passed by fibre-optic cable in built-up areas and new housing developments, which was well behind its original goal of 300,000.

New Government, New Plan?

The election of the new Coalition government in September 2013 had a huge impact on the project.

Less than a month after the ballot, the new communications minister directed nbn to start testing copper-based broadband technologies. A government review published in December 2013 revealed that, should nbn stick to the original rollout plan, the NBN would end up costing AUD73 billion and would not be completed until mid-2024, making it much more expensive than initial cost estimates and three years behind schedule.

As such, it was decided that a mixture of technologies would be used, including newly-built FTTN and existing hybrid fibre-coaxial (HFC) cable networks, saving around AUD32 billion.

In April 2014 the NBN project was officially switched to a multi-technology mix (MTM). Under the revised plan, in the fixed line rollout area FTTP is to be used to connect just 26% of premises by 2020, while a further 44% will be served by FTTN. The remaining 30% of households will get a service via HFC infrastructure.

Using this mixed technology approach, the government anticipates that 91% of Australians with fixed line coverage will get downlink speeds of up to 50Mbps by 2019.

Using this mixed technology approach, the government anticipates that 91% of Australians with fixed line coverage will get downlink speeds of up to 50Mbps by 2019. Fixed-wireless and satellite technologies are still being used in regions outside the fixed footprint.

An Alternative Timeline

Had Labor emerged victorious from the July 2016 election, the NBN project would have been given another facelift.

In the run-up to the vote, Labor put forward proposals that would have seen the deployment of FTTP better prioritized. The opposition confirmed they would seek to increase the number of premises served by FTTP to around 39%. This figure is based on honoring existing FTTN contracts signed by the Coalition government, while cancelling new tenders, reversing FTTN rollouts, and upgrading to FTTP in areas where viable.

NBN Rollout Statistics

NBN3.pngLabor suggested that its updated plans would see the completion of the NBN rollout by 30 June 2022, around 18 months later than the December 2020 end-date envisaged by the incumbent government’s MTM approach. In terms of investment, meanwhile, Labor proposed capping the cost of the NBN rollout at AUD57 billion, matching the Coalition’s target.

With the next election scheduled for 2019 and the final contracts for the FTTN deployment likely to have been awarded by then, even a change of government would have had no effect on the final shape of the NBN.

Critics have slammed the Coalition’s current arrangement, saying the over-reliance on copper infrastructure will hold back the development of ultra-high speed networks.

Even a change of government would have had no effect on the final shape of the NBN.

In June 2016 nbn’s founding chief executive Mike Quigley labelled the MTM rollout as “short-sighted, expensive, and backward-looking,” saying that Australians would suffer the consequences of those decisions for years to come in higher costs and poorer performance.

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Pete Bell

Pete Bell

Pete Bell is a Research Analyst for TeleGeography’s GlobalComms Database and also contributes to the daily CommsUpdate newsletter. He has a particular interest in wireless broadband and was responsible for TeleGeography’s 4G Research Service until it was integrated into GlobalComms.

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