Malcolm Turnbull

Remember when Malcolm Turnbull argued, when in opposition, that the Optus network could be quickly upgraded by 2016 to provide NBN “equivalent” broadband services to Australian households? NBN Co has scrapped it.

It was “a dark day” in 2012, the then-shadow communications minister said, when a deal was signed off for Optus and Telstra to shut down their networks for the NBN.

“Optus could upgrade it for a modest cost which would enable it to undercut the NBN on price and provide equivalent services for most customers,” Turnbull said in 2012, when the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission approved an $800 million deal for Optus to shut down the network it described as “end of life” and to move its 500,000 customers onto the NBN.

Turnbull had originally planned on “reversing” the deals made with Telstra and Optus, but then quickly realised it would be much more expensive, so he took a policy to the 2013 election that these networks would not be shut down but would be upgraded and included as part of the “mix” of technologies to replace Labor’s policy of fibre-to-the-premises.

When the Coalition came to government, it encountered two issues: the negotiations took longer than expected, and that Optus’ cable technology would prove to be a headache. Internally it became known as “operation clusterfuck”. When Crikey visited a Queensland test site for the network, we noted that, in particular, the generators for Optus’ cable nodes were loud and unwieldy.

One of the first NBN Co leaks that led to the AFP raids on the ALP head office during the election campaign points out that NBN Co was actively considering overbuilding the Optus cable network, with close to $400 million in extra costs and a delay in meeting rollout targets as a result. NBN and the ministers dismissed the leaks as not providing the full context, and not being anything to worry about.

On Wednesday, the leaks were proven as true, with NBN confirming it would ditch the Optus cable network for what is essentially fibre right up to the driveway. NBN’s chief network engineering officer, Peter Ryan, said in a press release issued by the company that the “up-to-date learnings” about the Optus cable showed the change in technology was warranted, given the “requirements to convert Optus’ current network architecture”.

NBN spun the leaked documents at the time as “war-gaming” potential outcomes, but Wednesday’s announcement shows the company was not quite being transparent about its true plans for the Optus cable.

Peter Fray

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