Lessons to be learned

15 October 2010 | John Hibbard

In a mix of tension, excitement and vision, Australia’s national broadband network has been saved, reports John Hibbard.

Finally the Australian election has been decided and the government has been returned, which means that the plan for Australia’s national broadband network (NBN) has survived this round. The vision of the NBN was one of the critical factors in determining the election outcome and it was fantastic to have so much media coverage of telecoms. There were some amusing moments when politicians fumbled around trying to explain the technicalities of the NBN and the virtues of fibre versus wireless. It would be nice to think that the public comes to believe that telecommunications is as important as roads – but I don’t think one close election will achieve that.

Somewhat ahead of the Australian NBN is the Singapore NBN. Structurally it is configured differently, with three tiers (Netco, Opco and Retail) to Australia’s two (Wholesale and Retail). With the smaller geography and higher population density, cost efficiencies are naturally available. But at a suggested cost of US$500 per subscriber versus a suggested US$5,000 in Australia for the FTTH solution, there is criticism of the down-under solution. Opponents champion either wireless or FTTN. However as much of the reason for the higher cost of the NBN is due to regional and rural roll-outs, it is not clear if wireless would prove any better in the short term in the city, and it is doubtful if it would be better for the long term. And who knows for the rural country? The steady progress in Singapore is naturally watched with interest to see the take-up and what lessons can be learned.

FTTN proponents say the cost of laying fibre for the last 100 metres makes the use of the existing copper (or even wireless local loop) attractive. Clearly one of the major costs with FTTH is the cable from the front fence to the house. So I was fascinated to read that in Norway, you get a $450 rebate on your installation if you dig your own trench. This affords the owner a chance to route the ditch round the garden and the concrete driveway, and hopefully avoid the existing telecoms cables and underground watering systems. For about the first time, getting your hands dirty in the garden can be profitable. It is certainly one way to improve the cost and speed of installation and in Norway reportedly 80% of installations have been done with a DIY trench! A claim made for an NBN is that it will improve your health – I thought this meant e-health, but maybe it is the benefits of exercise from wielding a shovel.