A week of leaks: Internal truths about the NBN deployment destroy the spin cycle

A week of leaks: Internal truths about the NBN deployment destroy the spin cycle

Two documents leaked over the last week have laid bare the spectacular battle between political policy and technical reality inside NBN.

Last week I wrote an article that was focused on debunking some of the technical snafus around where blame lies when supplying services on a data network. I made it clear that while, in that specific situation, the NBN was likely not to be at fault, it was still at fault for quite a number of things. Not long after that article went to print, a fairly damning report was released that showed how deep the rabbit hole is when it comes to FTTN. This was then followed by another internal leak yesterday showing dramatic cost reductions in FTTH deployment being trialled by NBN™.

At the beginning of my NBN commentary for PC & Tech Authority, I noted that there was a very strong possibility that beneath this carefully managed crust there was a deep black hole that was the fault of no one but the Coalition. This was due to incorrect assumptions that would later be proved wrong by research and investigation, ironically by the organisation itself. I was right.

The national broadband network, as it stands today is a disaster. It is hands down the most poorly managed infrastructure project in Australia’s history. Everything – from the pathetic political debate that ensued at its inception, to the horse trading over its design and funding, has been an absolute and complete mess. From its initial idea, which was fairly simple and visionary, to replace the copper network with fibre and a couple of Satellites, it has blown out to a mess of expensive, obsolete band aids.

As expected, these band aids aren’t cheaper – the budget for the re-worked NBN is now proposed to be higher than Labor’s original FTTH plan. The cost of the nodes, the power they need, the extra copper that is required and a ton of other factors are making a joke of claims that FTTN would cost much less than FTTH. We haven’t even really begun to roll out HFC yet, which is a potluck of its own financial quagmires. Then there are those in outer metro/regional areas that are being told FTTN isn’t even viable enough for them, and find themselves being punted onto Satellite connections.

It’s certainly not deploying any faster. A damning document was leaked this week that showed the FTTN deployment not even coming close to meeting its targets – construction completions are less than a third against the corporate budget and the gaps in completion have risen from 49,183 to 65,268. Why is this? Because the policy makers believed that ideology trumped reality. FTTN was never going to be faster to deploy, because our landscape is not in a lab. Then there are silly little oversights, obviously to save money – installing 1Gbps SFPs in nodes, high CVC costs, and so on.

The other problem is that, unlike the pre-coalition remake of NBN™, NBN Co was significantly more transparent on how things were going. All information was easily and simply published, explained and justified. It was run by a man who knew a hell of a lot about what he was doing, both on a technical and political basis, and was well respected by industry. This transparency meant that problems were not hidden to be eventually leaked, then spun to look like successes. But the Abbott attack dog destroyed any credibility NBN Co had – doing as much damage as it could from opposition.

So when the coalition took control of it, they cleaned house. Stripping out a strong, technically-minded board and leader, they instead stacked it with friendly bankers and ex-Vodafone executives. They spent millions re-branding it into a confusing trademark. They ran review after review, producing reports in a manner that justified their weak political, not technical, “fixes”. All the while, other governments and corporations who had already tried and failed with FTTN focused networks begun pooling their funds into FTTH networks.

So now it’s 2016, and after seven years we have about 1.5 million homes, or less than 1/6th of the country passed. We have cost blowouts on every single aspect of the network. NBN™ doesn’t even know how to quote regions or individuals correctly on custom FTTH rollouts. FTTN was originally touted as being a quick and cheap alternative, but the staggering number of nodes plus the added side costs that weren’t necessary with FTTH (Power, street infrastructure, common land negotiations, copper remediation) are now, “surprisingly”, holding everything up.

From the beginning, every single expert in the industry told Turnbull to avoid changing the network design. FTTH was expensive, but the mash of other technologies was not really going to be any cheaper, especially over the long term. FTTN would eventually need to be gradually updated, at a high per household cost. FTTH would not. FTTN and HFC would require dramatic power needs and high ongoing maintenance. FTTH would not. FTTH’s highest costs involved labour and initial material costs – NBN™ themselves have managed to reduce these by more than 60% in one single report.

I wrote this in December last year:

... as more issues rise up, particularly around copper and HFC, fibre again becomes a value proposition. If a particular area is going to cost hundreds of thousands just to replace copper, what’s the point?

My only hope is that, again, ideology does not trump common sense and that fibre does become the rule in these situations rather than the exception. This was the original plan as part of the mix, although internal documents show FTTN/FTTC narrowly trumps fibre on a dollar for dollar basis.

This week has changed the dynamic. FTTN is no longer narrowly trumping fibre. It is no longer the leprechaun at the end of the rainbow, offering its pot of gold. NBN™’s senior engineers and modellers have done the hard work and found ways to reduce the burden of cost even further. FTTH was always a much better value proposition even before when it cost more. It’s an absolute steal when put on a side-by-side basis.

There’s a simple fix here. Stop the mix. Where HFC and FTTN deployments are underway, finish them. Any others should be immediately replaced with FTTH. At this point, the only way to salvage anything out of this is to make the best network possible and use that momentum to win back the population who have absolutely zero faith in the coalition to do this properly, if they ever did in the first place.

As Renai LeMay says at Delimiter – “They are lying to us”. No amount of spin can undo the pure, technical, realities in these leaked documents. No magic bullet is going to suddenly make the mix any cheaper, faster or reliable. It’s time for this project to stop pushing in the wrong direction.

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