The broadband battlelines have been drawn. Coalition communications spokesperson Malcolm Turnbull said there'd be no surprises in today's policy announcement, and he delivered on that promise. The frontline is exactly where we expected it to be: where the optical fibre ends. And yet, there's the politics ... and Turnbull just pwned Communications Minister Stephen Conroy in a glossy double-header presentation with his leader Tony Abbott live from Foxtel. Before comparing the plans, let's step back to remind ourselves what the National Broadband Network is intended to deliver -- a customer access network (CAN) to provide the "last mile" connection from homes and businesses to the nearest exchange, replacing Telstra's ageing copper network with the next generation of technology. Retail service providers (RSPs) would then offer commercial services to using that wholesale infrastructure, much as they use Telstra's copper as a wholesale product today. With Labor's NBN plan, for 93% of Australians the copper is to be completely replaced with optical fibre all the way from the exchange to the premises, a configuration called fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP). The next 4% get fixed wireless connections, and the most remote 3% get satellite links. All this is being run by NBN Co, a wholly government-owned company. Some time after the whole thing is declared completed, Labor's stated intention is to sell NBN Co -- thus paying for the initial investment , and justifying why none of this appears in the federal budget. The NBN's wireless and satellite components have been unfolding more or less to plan. Yesterday the Coalition's regional communications spokesperson Luke Hartsuyker confirmed they'd continue those programs much as they are now. But for the bulk of us, the Coalition's plan is significantly different. According to today's six-page summary (we've heard some of it before, of course, but now we have the Coalition's specific targets):
"We will complete the National Broadband Network as quickly and cost-effectively as possible, using a mix of technologies that will provide high speeds at a reasonable cost. "Our goal is for every household and business to have access to broadband with a download data rate of between 25 and 100 megabits per second by late 2016 and between 50 and 100 megabits per second by 2019. Downloads average less than five megabits per second at present. "Suburbs, regions, towns and business districts with the poorest services and greatest need for upgrades will receive first priority."
For most Australians, around 70% or so, that will mean fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) -- that's fibre from the exchange to kerbside cabinets no more than about 800 metres from customer premises, and using the existing copper for the last segment. This isn't as fast as the 100Mbps delivered by NBN Co's FTTP but, as Turnbull put it on AM  this morning, it's good enough for "everything they want to do or need to do in terms of applications and services". And where does FTTP fit it? It'll be there for roughly 22% of the population:
"Fibre generally should run all the way to premises in new ('greenfield') housing estates and wherever copper has to be replaced, unless this isn't commercially feasible. Fibre would also typically extend to anywhere there is sufficient demand to justify it -- business centres, industrial and commercial parks, schools, hospitals, medical centres and universities are just some examples. "The Coalition acknowledges that some users may want higher speeds than can be provided over FTTN, before any evidence of such needs in the broader market, and are prepared to pay for it. The Coalition also acknowledges that market needs will clearly evolve over time, and eventually may require further upgrade of the network in areas where fibre has not been extended to user premises."
The Coalition's core point is that while FTTP can certainly deliver faster broadband, and is the technology for the long-term, they can deliver a clear improvement for more Australians sooner and cheaper by being more flexible. Labor's NBN has certainly been slow to roll out. Much of the present delay is down to the protracted negotiations with Telstra over the lease of its cable ducts for NBN's fibre, and the compensation for closing down its copper CAN. But since then the contractors working in dozens of locations around the country haven't been able to deliver as quickly as planned. Are these simply teething troubles that will eventually be overcome? Perhaps it's too early to tell, but as Crikey reported yesterday, there comes a point where reasons turn to excuses. As the full Coalition policy puts it:
"This is really the crux of the broadband debate in Australia and elsewhere:
  • Can rising demand for bandwidth, accompanied by limited willingness to pay more, be met by leveraging existing infrastructure and modest investment to push fibre further into the network and closer to end users? or;
  • has legacy infrastructure such as Telstra's copper network reached a point where it is unable to support the bandwidth needed by users and must be built over? if so, who is going to pay the very hefty price for this?"
Yesterday I asked whether Turnbull has done the honest thing, and updated all of NBN Co's estimates with new data based on experience and appropriate risk calculations, or just picked every worst-case figure he can find and screeched "cost blowout"? "The assumptions are very conservative and prudent ones," Turnbull said at today's press conference -- which was still running as Crikey hit deadline. And he's provided a 36-page backgrounder to show this. Crikey received this just 48 minutes before deadline, and we haven't had a chance to examine it in detail, but it seems well-footnoted. Stay tuned. "This great big government-owned monopoly" is "unique in the world", Turnbull said. "Hawke and Keating would never have done this." Perhaps, but as Josh Taylor pointed out in his ZDNet feature on fibre rollouts last month:
"It's easy to see that no two network deployments are alike. There's legacy infrastructure to consider, and who owns it. Australia's situation is made all the more difficult because of Telstra's ownership of the existing infrastructure, whereas for most of the rest of the world, the owner of the infrastructure is the one rolling out the upgrades."
Politically, Turnbull can press the well-worn but nevertheless effective "Labor-is-wasteful" button. His presentation is well-rehearsed and convincing. Conroy's stubborn crash-or-crash-through approach won't play well against this, and yet any change he makes will immediately be labelled a backflip. The devil is in the detail, and we'll get to that. But today, as I say, Turnbull pwned Conroy.