The NBN: Our Greatest Wasted Opportunity

optical fiber

The future was looking so bright, until politics got in the way of progress...


Unless you have been living under a rock for the past several years you would have heard about the National Broadband Network, or the NBN. After spending a number of years in bureaucratic limbo, the Labor Rudd government finally got the project underway in 2010 by beginning to rollout what is known as Fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) to a series of homes in Tasmania as a trial.

This was followed up in 2011 by a number of "first release sites" on mainland Australia, which each site representing the challenges faced by the NBN during the Australia-wide rollout. After this phase was completed, the NBN commenced national rollout of their FTTP network. This massive infrastructure project was destined to become the backbone of Australia's next generation internet.  But alas, it was not to be.  At least, not in the form originally intended.

Enter the Coalition

You might recall we had a federal election last year.  After enduring Labor's leadership struggles and endless internal bickering, it's perhaps no surprise that Australians were ready for a change.  The Coalition made a compelling case, running on a ticket of "no surprises, no excuses" and assuring that promises will be kept.  As is typical in politics, these promises were mostly fictional as demonstrated with the federal budget.

During the recent public backlash and uproar regarding the budget, the NBN has somewhat fallen by the wayside. This is a shame, as the NBN is probably the most significant Australian infrastructure project in the 21st century. Let's not mince words: the Coalition is ruining the NBN, and this may be our greatest wasted opportunity to capitalise on an era of prosperity and invest in our future.

What's in an Acronym?

The NBN started life as the superior Fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) model in which optical fiber is run directly to the household. This form of network is incredibly fast, achieving peak speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second. Better still, FTTP is the best option for the future, as all that is needed to increase throughput is to change the technologies at either end of the fibre. Originally, it was intended to connect up to 93% of Australian households in this manner.

When the Coalition were elected, it was determined that FTTP was too costly, and that Fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) would be adopted instead. FTTP is indeed more costly to implement now, however it is more affordable over the long term and has far greater longevity and reliability than FTTN.  The Labor NBN was to be an investment in our digital future.  The Coalition NBN is shooting ourselves in the foot for short-term gain.

What's Wrong with FTTN?

Fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) delivers optical fibre to a cabinet which services a neighbourhood using the existing copper wires running to the premises. FTTN is cheaper to implement but relies on an ageing copper infrastructure, more maintenance, and higher running costs.

Put simply, FTTN is a "stop-gap" solution which provides short term gain, but it is not a solution for the future.  FTTN looks more attractive on paper and to decision makers as it's immediate cost is more appealing, but the Coalition knows very well that it costs more to maintain and operate in the future.

Indeed, many countries who have already implemented FTTN are now replacing it with FTTP, which Labor was using for the NBN from the get-go.  Thus, the investment in FTTN would largely be wasted as it has a limited lifespan and will eventually require replacement with FTTP.

Playing Politics

Unfortunately, it seems, the Coalition is building a backwards NBN with a short-term benefit for less initial cost. This network will most likely need to be replaced within 10-15 years, which is when the superior FTTP network was due to be completed. Since the NBN is the largest infrastructure project in Australia's history, it was always going to take more than one term of government to implement. It's a great shame that a change in the elected party can have such a dramatic effect on infrastructure that is already under construction.

The National Broadband Network represents our greatest wasted opportunity. The next generation network infrastructure for Australia is absolutely critical for our continued success. Remember that Australia doesn't really manufacture anything of note, and our mining boom is on the way out. We needed to invest in a backbone that would see us become a leader in the digital economy. Instead, we are building a stop-gap solution that will need to be replaced much sooner than later.

Our politicians are not looking at the big picture, and are instead focused on the here and now. If politics had been kept out of this project, we could have had something special, something magical for long into the future. Now, only time will reveal how successful this crippled NBN will be, and how much it will cost us all in the long term.

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