NBN Co has defended its government mandated multi-technology mix rollout as it looks down the barrel of a fibre-focused future that seems to see it set to become more closely aligned to the original vision for the country’s National Broadband Network (NBN).
The network builder’s latest corporate plan, which outlines its organisational and technological pathway over the coming three years, to 2024, further details the previously announced $3.5 billion in fresh investment, some of which will be pumped into 'on demand' fibre upgrades to existing fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) connections.
The FTTN approach to the network’s rollout was part of the MTM mandate laid out by the Coalition government after it won power in 2013, overturning the previous government’s original plan to deploy a largely fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) rollout.
It seems like old history now, but as the largest and most expensive publicly-funded infrastructure project in Australia’s history, the NBN has had the unenviable honour of being a political football, used for point scoring by both sides of Australian politics.
While the NBN was introduced by Kevin Rudd in 2009, during his first stint as the country’s Prime Minister, its rollout plan was substantially altered when then opposition leader Tony Abbott became Prime Minister in 2013.
The initial price tag of the network build had been a major point of contention between the ruling Labor government and the opposition, with Abbott making it a priority in the lead up to the 2013 Federal Election.
When planning and work for the network’s rollout was first being undertaken by Rudd’s administration, the idea was that the network’s wholesale broadband service would be delivered predominantly via FTTP infrastructure, with some fixed wireless and satellite coverage thrown in for hard to reach places.
Yet this plan changed when the Abbott and team won office, with then Minister for Communications, Malcolm Turnbull, subsequently introducing a multi-technology mix (MTM) approach to the network’s rollout, which included FTTN, fibre-to-the-curb (FTTC), and Hybrid Fibre Coaxial (HFC) and other delivery technology.
Now, with COVID-19 forcing many workers to do business from home, adding greater demands to the nation’s broadband network, NBN Co has decided to accelerate its future upgrade plans and ramp up fibre lead-ins across much of its FTTN footprint — ‘on demand’.
While the company has chosen to bring up plans to prioritise more fibre across sections of its existing infrastructure in its efforts to ensure a network that can continue supporting Australia’s broadband requirements now and into the future, it continues to stand by the MTM approach to which it has, until now, been bound.
“While no one could have predicted the COVID-19 pandemic, it has underscored the importance of both universal broadband access and of the decision taken to prioritise the speed of network deployment through the multi-technology mix (MTM),” the network builder said in its latest corporate plan.
“The MTM approach always countenanced future investments in the network; the question has only ever been one of timing.
“With increased forecast demand as a result of economic and social trends that were always going to emerge in the way Australians conducted themselves but have now accelerated, the time is right to commence these investments in preparation for that demand emerging over the next few years,” the plan stated.
NBN Co’s goal now is to make its highest wholesale speed plans available to up to 75 per cent of households and businesses in the fixed-line network by 2023 and up to 68 per cent in the total network.
Specifically, it is estimated that roughly 75 per cent of homes and businesses in the fixed-line footprint will have access to peak wholesale speed tiers of 500 Mbps to close to 1 Gbps by 2023.
It hopes to achieve this goal through four primary network initiatives, including a multibillion dollar investment to take fibre deeper into the FTTN footprint, enabling premises to move to an FTTP service when they order a higher speed plan.
“Importantly, this is not a forced migration and construction of fibre into the home will be linked to demonstrated demand from households,” the plan stated.
However, Paul Gardner-Stephen, senior lecturer, College of Science and Engineering at Flinders University, suggested that the upgrade plan represents only a partial solution to the FTTN rollout.
“FTTN nodes require power and equipment spread around the country that I have heard cost estimates of $2 billion per year to operate and maintain,” Gardner-Stephen said. “Adding local fibre loops will not reduce this cost, based on the information I have seen so far.
“Rather, adding the fibre loops will (marginally) add to the cost of the NBN. Thus it doesn't solve the long-term costs of operating the FTTN network compared with FTTP,” he added.
Regardless, the investment and upgrade plan comes as the network operator looks ahead to a future that is likely to bear witness to a much larger contingent of Australians working from home in an ongoing capacity than was forecast prior to the coronavirus pandemic crisis.
At the start of COVID-19 it was estimated that about 30 per cent of the Australian workforce could feasibly work from home, (up from 10–20 per cent prior to the pandemic), NBN Co suggested.
However, with the surge in investment for work from home capabilities, it is now expected that this figure has continued to grow. Post-COVID-19, it is now expected that remote work will become 80 per cent more common in a wide range of occupations.
“Businesses have realised that widespread working from home arrangements are achievable from a technology perspective and have a positive impact on productivity through occupancy and travel cost savings, and greater hiring flexibility,” the plan stated.
As such, data consumption on the NBN significantly increased in FY20 as the wide-ranging impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in millions of Australians relying on their broadband connections for work, study and entertainment.
Financial, professional services and ICT sector professionals, particularly, are expected to increasingly need high-speed, low latency internet for digital payments, storage and analysis of large data sets in the cloud, and significant amounts of IT infrastructure.
This trend, and NBN Co’s efforts to position itself to adapt to the changes it sees coming, appear to be a big part of the decision by the company to move up its investment and upgrade plan.
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