It began as a $4.5 billion dollar election promise in 2007. The then shadow broadband minister, Stephen Conroy, broadcast plans for an open-access fibre broadband network to liberate parts of Australia which were deemed ‘non-commercial’ by telco providers. While it lacked the scope of the Liberal’s now defunct OPEL WiMAX project, which touched on regional blackspots, it was lauded by the telecommunications industry.
Since then, Labor has taken office and the National Broadband Network (NBN) became a possibility not just an election promise. Planning commenced. Debates raged over the technology to be used, wholesale access and the viability of the network as a whole. Private companies, including Telstra and Optus, tendered their bids to build the network; a lucrative deal for any telco operator.
This year, the NBN shifted into fifth gear as the Government dropped the one of the biggest bombshells of the year: It would build the high-speed broadband network itself. The government tossed out all tenders submitted and opted, instead, to establish a public company, NBNco, which would work in partnership with the private sector to build the predominantly fibre-to-the-premise (FTTP) network.
The budget for the project swelled to $43 billion of taxpayers’ money for a network which would cover 90 per cent of the Australian population, including those much neglected regional areas.
The NBN would be strictly wholesale only and take around 7-8 years to build. According to the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, it would be the largest infrastructure project ever laid out.
The flak from the Opposition has continued as relentessly as the project has proceeded at a steady pace. Regional areas have seen funds trickle through for backbone fibre optic transmission links. The first lot of NBN fibre has started to be laid in Tasmania where services are expected to be available by early 2010.
This year also saw Telstra shanghaied by the Government in a bid to expedite the NBN’s rollout. The Federal Government made an attempt to kill two birds with one stone, proposing legislation to separate Telstra’s retail and wholesale arms. This move would not only alleviate the dominance of Telstra in the telecommunications industry, but allow NBNco to make a move on the telco’s backhaul infrastructure.
Negotiations are ongoing but the parties have recently formalised a Terms of Engagement, which include a preferred model for any agreement concerning transition of Telstra’s copper assets to a FTTP system used for the NBN.
The bill is set for debate in parliament in February 2010.
NBNco has also released a consultation paper detailing a conceptual wholesale framework for the predominantly fibre NBN. Pricing has yet to be finalised.
The network took some large steps towards reality in 2009. It seems likely, 2010 will be just as productive.