The National Broadband Network (NBN) has been the darling of the broadband industry since it was given a $43 billion dollar budget and the goal of being a wholesale-only network.
Many major ISPs have supported the fibre-based network for its scope and capacity to end Telstra’s stranglehold over wholesale broadband services. The Labor Party also pushed it as one of its key policies in the lead-up to the election.
On the other hand, the Coalition’s $6 billion wireless-centric plan met strong criticism from much of the industry.
When the Alliance for Affordable Broadband came onto the scene, it shattered the happy family image of a unified ISP industry which favoured Labor’s $43 billion baby.
The group includes AAPT CEO, Paul Broad, Pipe Network founder, Bevan Slattery, and BigAir CEO, Jason Ashton. The rebel ISPs wrote an open letter deriding the current NBN plans and proposed an NBN 3.0 which heavily features wireless technology.
In this ONLINE ONLY interview, ARN spoke to Ashton about the Alliance, why the group has defied its ISP brethrens and the finer details of its NBN 3.0 proposal.
How did the Alliance for Affordable Broadband come about?
Jason Ashton (JA): I know a lot of the other participants in the Alliance through the industry. We all maintained some dialogue at industry events. It’s interesting because the NBN had very little commentary during the lead-up to the election. Then it became a hot topic after the election cycle. The Coalition released their policy.
There is a lot of criticism of the Coalition’s policy and I guess some members of the Alliance, including myself, believed some of the criticism wasn’t justified; wasn’t fact based. Not that we believed the Coalition’s plan is perfect either.
It got us thinking - given it was such a hot topic - there hadn’t been much debate and industry discussion around the NBN concept. It made sense for us to get together, discuss and propose an alternative that might have more traction with the community than the current two proposals, neither of which appeared to be getting complete acceptance from the community based on the election results.
We tried to come up with something that would be a solution that might be more attractive to the industry and also more targeted.
Did you have reservations over the NBN project since the beginning?
JA: Look, I think it has gone through some major revisions since the last election. The original proposal was $4.7 billion. It was an upgrade to Telstra’s copper network and it was a fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) network. That was the election commitment in 2007.
Then that got cancelled. It was announced that a deal couldn’t be done, that the NBN 1.0 proposals were unacceptable. NBN 2.0 was put forward as fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) network. There was no industry consultation, to my knowledge, with the large parts of the industry.
There may have been some consultation but only with some and there was certainly no consultation with us and a number of other carriers.
NBN 2.0 was presented as a perfect solution to telecommunications future here in Australia.
Initially, there was a lot of people supportive of it because it seemed to address the structural issues with Telstra in that you are taking Telstra out of the network ownership position that it’s in today. But the downside was the incredible cost at $43 billion and the fact there was no cost-benefit analysis that was presented that would give us all an understanding as to how the money was justified in terms of the economic investment and socio-economic benefits expected from that.
I don’t think NBN 2.0 had complete industry support and I just think it took a while for people to digest it and everybody had hope to see further discussion, further analysis, business case, everybody had been hoping to see that come forth, but it hasn’t.
I think now we’re at a point when it’s become such a critical issue at least in the political debate, especially given we have a hung parliament (at the time of interview). It’s interesting now there is a little bit more of a microscope being applied to the policy and people are starting to look at it and go “Well, it’s a lot of money. Is it in our best interest long term to invest all this money into one technology?”
The Alliance’s proposal seems to be more aligned with the Coalition’s plans.
JA: It certainly wasn’t our intention to align with the Coalition’s plan. Our intention was to present an alternative view. We believe that the current project which is fibre-centric, perhaps, be tuned to focus more on delivering fibre where fibre is needed. It should be using policy settings and using the national asset, which is the spectrum, that can be used for mobile broadband to derive long term efficiency and communications in this country and to deliver what we believe to be a world leading national 4G wireless network that would be more affordable and more accessible on a national basis. One of the problems with FTTH network is you can only use it in your home. You can only use it in your desktop or laptop in your home.
Whereas the future, and everybody knows this, is shifting to a mobile broadband. Everybody take things with them. People work from home, work on the road and work anywhere really.
And having that high-speed mobile broadband will deliver so much more than just having a fixed broadband.
Have you received any feedback from ISPs that are not in the Alliance?
JA: We’ve heard bits and pieces, whispers here and there that people were supportive if they weren't worried about government backlash. So we’ve heard whispers of support from lots of different quarters.
Of course, there is a lot of criticism. You get criticism from some quarters that have a vested interest but the truth is we are not positioning ourselves to build this network.
We’re saying, “This needs to be Government lead but there should be input from private industry”. There should be proper analysis, proper business cases and a proper cost-benefit analysis.
There should be proper study done as to what is the best choice is for the country to make so we are open to criticism. We are open to dialogue and we expect to get criticism. We are not trying to be too prescriptive either. I think it’s important that everybody is open-minded as to what the network architecture should look like.
There are a lot of people that think we are wireless fanatics and that’s not true. Four of members of the alliance – 50 per cent of the Alliance – have never deployed wireless services.
We are not wireless evangelists. If anything, we are technology agnostic. We just believe you’ve got to make the right investments.