Australians finally have a better idea of how many premises will be covered by the NBN by the next election, but both Labor and the Coalition are in a “wait-and-see” mode , and it’s not clear either can make the network an election issue.

Communications Minister Mitch Fifield announced the NBN’s three-year rollout plan today. This covers about nine of the 12 million premises that will need to be connected to the NBN by 2020.

What is markedly different from past plans is that the vast majority of the network is now Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s model of the NBN — that is, a shift away from Labor’s fibre-to-the-premises plan to one that uses legacy copper and cable-TV networks for fibre-to-the-node and hybrid fibre-coaxial networks.

After endless reviews, renegotiations, a cost blowout from $29.5 billion to up to $56 billion and a complete overhaul of NBN, for the first time since the Coalition came to government in 2013 most Australians will now be able to visit the NBN website and answer the question “what technology will I get?”.

Approximately 3 million of the 9 million premises will be connected to the NBN over the next three years using the cable networks that were once owned by Telstra and Optus but will progressively be integrated into the NBN over the next few years.

The plan, rolling out to September 2018, covers 2.8 million premises in New South Wales, 2.5 million in Victoria, 1.9 million in Queensland, 970,000 in Western Australia, 750,000 in South Australia, 72,000 in the Northern Territory, and 134,000 in the ACT. Tasmania is expected to be entirely connected to the NBN before September 2018.

The vast majority of the homes will be connected over the next three years using the controversial fibre-to-the-node method. Instead of building out fibre all the way to the side of a house, the NBN will roll out fibre to a box on the street and connect from there using the existing Telstra copper lines already in place. This, the government has argued, will allow for the network to be rolled out faster, and at much less cost and disturbance to premises during the rollout.

Fibre-to-the-node technology remains the most controversial part of the network, because it is still unclear whether the legacy copper lines are up to the job of delivering faster broadband. The government is promising “up to” 50 megabits per second speeds — much slower than the peak speeds on fibre — but it argues that 50Mbps is all most people will need for today.

Part of the problem is that Telstra, during its renegotiations with NBN to give NBN access to the copper lines, did not let NBN know the quality of the copper network. Since the deal was signed off, NBN has gained more information on the quality of the copper, but NBN will largely be learning the quality of the network street-by-street, as it upgrades.

At the National Press Club last month, NBN boss Bill Morrow said he had confidence fibre-to-the-node would be workable because it was what had been rolled out elsewhere, but the company did have the option of using other technologies if the copper was not up to scratch.

“There’s a lot of talk of the condition of the copper … [W]hat we have found is the copper is in far better shape than what a lot of people believe. Now I’m certain there are other parts of the country where we intend to deploy fibre to the node that we will find the copper is insufficient … [I]f it is too far gone, then we are not going to let the consumer suffer, and we are going to replace it with an alternate technology.”

Opposition communications spokesman Jason Clare this week accused NBN of replacing bad copper with new copper, rather than going to full fibre:

“In some places the copper is so bad it has to be replaced. Replacing old copper … with new copper. One contractor told me in Newcastle and the Central Coast 10 to 15% of the copper lines are having lengths replaced. And this is not just happening in Newcastle or the Central Coast.”

This was quickly denied by NBN’s public affairs manager, Tony Brown:

“So far, in our FttN deployment we have not had to replace any copper — or perform any substantial remediation work — to the copper running from our street cabinets to end-user premises with new fibre. All we have had to do so far is very basic work in removing bridge-taps — basically redundant copper lines — in order to optimise network performance.”

In criticising the government’s move away from Labor’s fibre dream network, Clare declares that Labor is “the party of fibre” but does not say what Labor would do if it wins the election next year (not for the first time). He has said a vote for Labor is a vote for more fibre, but admits that it won’t be a “flick of a switch” to go from fibre-to-the-node to fibre to-the-premises.

Part of the problem is that contracts have been signed, and it will take some untangling before any substantial changes could be made to the rollout. Additionally, as Turnbull found coming from opposition to government, the amount of data available for the opposition to formulate a workable NBN policy is severely lacking. Clare has said he has asked for more information, on a confidential basis, to enable Labor to work out what promises the party can make in the lead up to the next election.

Turnbull often complained about the information gap between opposition and government on the NBN, so if the information is withheld, it will not be a good look for him.

Until the election, both parties will be watching the rollout closely. If the “ramp up” in the rollout is as fast as the government is hoping, it will have success to sell; if it’s not, then Labor can argue it has failed and can push for a return to the full fibre NBN.

Peter Fray

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