Full fibre NBN back on the agenda

Britain’s Labour Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn has promised a national fibre-to-home network for nine million homes in the UK to be completed by 2030 at a cost of £20 billion (AU$38 billion).

In the same week, Australia’s Labor Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese made a similar promise regarding updating the current multi-mix technology national broadband network to a full-fibre one.

Critics in the UK immediately referred to the NBN disaster in Australia and ridiculed the plan. However, the plan in the UK is rather different.

It will include a re-nationalising of the infrastructure part of British Telecom — a company known as Openreach. Basic access will be provided for free to all households in order to give everybody the opportunity to reap the social and economic benefits from this high-speed infrastructure.

Corbyn mentioned that the construction will be paid from his party’s £250 billion (AU$480 billion) Green Transformation Fund, while ongoing costs will be met by taxes on internet giants.

Albanese has not provided any details on what his proposed plan will look like. He indicated that this will depend on the state of the NBN by the time of the next Federal election in 2022.

In the meantime, the Coalition Government is creating greater confusion about its telecoms strategy going forward. On several occasions, the new Communications Minister Paul Fletcher has indicated that he would like to stimulate more competition in the Australian telecommunications market. Fletcher has been quite cagey about how he intends to do that while at the same time, continuing to support the NBN Co monopoly.

On the one side, the Communications Minister launched a review of the ‘Telecommunications in new developments’ policy, which dates back to 2015. Again, he indicated that he doesn’t expect major changes, but wants to see if improvements are possible.

In the past, competing operators such as OptiComm have protested about what they saw as unfair competition from NBN Co. However, in recent times, there don’t appear have been any further major complaints. NBN Co is the largest player in the market for new housing developments, followed by Opticomm and Uniti. The latter is a rapidly rising star in this market since it acquired two smaller players, LBNCo and OPENetworks.

But a week later, Fletcher announced the revival of the proposed broadband tax for users on competitive broadband networks — a whopping charge of $7 per month. This is clearly aimed at entrenching the NBN monopoly rather than creating competition. The tax is specifically aimed at companies such as OptiComm and Uniti. So much for a clear strategy on competition and on safeguarding competition.

While this is all very confusing, I still do expect another significant announcement from the Minister in the coming year. He is a political animal — continuing to blame the original NBN plan for all the current problems. At the same time, he is also very well informed about the telecoms market. He learned on the job when he was the director of Corporate and Regulatory Affairs at Optus from 2000 till 2008.

In other NBN news, I recently reported on the downgrading of NBN customers in regional areas using the fixed wireless service from NBN Co. The reason for this was that the company couldn’t deliver on the promised speed available over its infrastructure.

We now have also seen that many customers on the fixed NBN service (Fibre to the Node and Fibre to the Basement) are not able to get the higher speed services of 50 Megabytes per second. Telstra and other retail service providers have learned this the hard way.

As a goodwill gesture, Telstra last year upgraded 770,000 NBN customers to higher speed plans for free. However, in the end, they had to downgrade 180,000 of these customers back to lower speed plans, as the network couldn’t support higher-speed services for these customers.

It is unlikely that the recent changes in the wholesale service to occur sometime in 2020, as foreshadowed by NBN Co, is going to make any changes to that situation.

Paul Budde

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