For sheer cant, almost nothing beats the pro-FTTH and highly political NBN keynote presentation given by Rod Tucker yesterday to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ annual international communications conference currently being held in Sydney.
On credentials alone, Tucker deserves attention. He is a Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne. He is a director of two telecommunications academic bodies, has held positions at four international universities and four commercial research organisations and has been awarded nationally for his academic achievements.
But if you wanted to write the history of the sorry tale of the NBN—the progression from the cancelled FTTN tender in 2009 to a near-universal FTTH rollout that by this year has demonstrably failed in execution and any form of national benefit commensurate with its cost, then Professor Tucker would certainly feature as one of the lead characters, if not villains.
Tucker was the lead qualified expert panellist who recommended to Stephen Conroy in early 2009 that the Rudd Government should sink $43 billion—some three times the investment previously envisaged—into a national access network extending fibre to 90%, later revised to 93%, of premises. Contrary to the view that this was all dreamed up on a beer coaster on a government jet, quite a lot of thinking and work went into this advice through late 2008 and early 2009.
Of course, the rest is history—the network’s schedule and costs blew out, the government changed and now the NBN has been partially re-booted and is pursuing a more modest technology mix that attempts to make greater use of existing copper and HFC assets.
But Tucker seems determined to ensure he is viewed as righteous, fundamentally correct and misunderstood. Yesterday he railed against media commentators who had spread “misinformation” about telecommunications technologies, guilty of lauding the potential of wireless while failing to appreciate the self-evident benefits of fibre.
He lamented the lack of engineering expertise in the debate and cast himself as an almost singular figure of factuality resisting the rhetorical failings of the politically motivated.
And in doing so he referred back to a series of his own utterances and public statements back in 2009 and 2010, which, unfortunately for him, demonstrated just why it is perilous for the vertical expert to become involved in horizontal policy debates. For if one is to criticise the factual accuracy of one’s opponents one must take special care to ensure one’s own facts are accurate.
Tucker’s greatest criticism yesterday was for those who suggested that developments in wireless technology would overtake those of fibre optic technology, falling back on the correct rule of physics that light spectrum can carry more information than radio spectrum.
Unfortunately no one in this debate has done more to misrepresent the capabilities of wireless than Tucker.
Throughout 2010 his various presentations and powerpoint shows depicted a slide, featured here and adopted by others such as then NBN CEO Mike Quigley, that attempted to “visualise” what a wireless NBN offering 100Mbps to the household would look like. This would be a world of 10 metre tall steel towers pinned in front of every second premise in Australia, rendering the streetscape as the world’s ugliest and obviously requiring ridiculous amounts of civil works. What did Tucker base this assumption on? That a wireless NBN (and by his inference, the nation’s aggregate broadband demand) would only have access to one 20MHz slice of spectrum.
What is the reality? If one adds up all the allocated spectrum available for microwave, cellular, Wi-Fi and other radio spectrum links, there is close to 85 GHz in service of the nation’s communications needs. That includes several hundred MHz for conventional mobile broadband usage, tens of GHz for microwave and, latently, similar resources for unlicensed uses such as Wi-Fi. Increasingly, carrier aggregation techniques allow much more of that spectrum to be collectively harnessed in pursuit of greater end user performance. That spectrum is reusable, down to radii of fractions of kilometres and even scores of metres in a country measuring 7 million square km in size.
Any shortage of spectrum is an artificial constraint caused by the rationing policies of national treasuries. Indeed one of the greatest preoccupations of broadband-friendly governments, such as the administration of President Obama, is to free up hundreds of megahertz of spectrum for ever-improving mobile broadband technologies. Wireless is where the market action is both in terms of the mainstream of industry revenue generation and its role in real universal access and usage. Dismissing its reality out of hand as unfit and by inference, irrelevant to NBN policy and economics on a deception about spectrum constraint is a dangerously misleading tack.
Tucker also defended the FTTH advice given to the government in early 2009 on the grounds that he was not able to predict the emergence of vectoring, and the impact it would have on DSL bandwidth. But in articles published a year later, such as in the Telecommunications Journal of Australia, he was still comparing baseline VDSL to FTTH in advocacy of the latter.
Indeed VDSL2, a distinct advance on VDSL, was first standardised in 2005 and the principles behind vectoring were first given airing in academic journals one year earlier, in 2004. Vectoring was standardised by the ITU in early 2010.
By late 2010, Tucker was still presenting graphics suggesting that FTTN nodes would have to be deployed at a rate of seemingly one per every home or two with loop lengths of mere tens of metres to achieve 100Mbps bandwidth. The “vectoring” sweet spot for 100Mbps bandwidth is now closer to half a kilometre. Indeed the type of network visually depicted by Tucker in his damnation of copper would more likely offer bandwidth of up to 500Mbps or more. But yesterday Tucker suggested that vectored DSL only improved bandwidth performance by a “factor of two.”
If Tucker’s focus on FTTH obscured him to the reality of developments in DSL and wireless, then perhaps he had a better handle on HFC? Sadly not. Yesterday he also invalidated HFC on the grounds that it had difficulties with achieving symmetrical and high upload bandwidth. Bunkum.
The download and upload profiles of HFC DOCSIS technology are a matter of the commercial channel allocation policies of the network operator. One common specification for the latest DOCSIS standards is about 1.25Gbps down and 245Mbps up—a factor of about 5 to 1. FTTH plans for the NBN range from about 5 to 2 at best to 12 to 1 downstream/upstream ratios at worst—hardly a radical point of difference. Indeed, there is a quite a debate currently taking place in international telcos as to whether high speed broadband will see even higher asymmetrical demands as IP video dominates. Incorrectly dismissing a technology because of one’s prejudices about the undesirability of asymmetrical speed is not a good basis for public policy.
Tucker was also at pains to downplay the teething problems experienced by the NBN Co with its cost and speed of FTTH deployment.
In one slide yesterday, he attempted to explain that the delays would only set back an FTTH-centric NBN by a year or less, from 2021 to 2022. But in an accompanying slide, he seriously misrepresented the NBN plan announced in April 2009, the version of the NBN that bore the imprint of his advice and expertise before others took over that task.
On that slide, he said that the “original” NBN plan announced in April 2009 would roll FTTH out to 93% of premises, cost $45.6 billion and be finished by 2021. Not true. The original NBN plan called for 90% FTTH reach, provision of bandwidth “up to” 100Mbps, would cost up to $43 billion and take eight years to build—to 2017 in other words. Indeed the network was to have been sufficiently mature and developed by 2015 to have begun privatisation under this Tucker-advised original announcement. The reality? By mid 2014, after five years and eight billion dollars of spend and with four years of all the political support possible, the network is less than three percent deployed!
Tucker yesterday also opined against the concept of fibre on demand: the idea that those people who want fibre to their home can order it, paying a percentage or all of its real cost, as an extension from the node. Those unlucky people who are “hundreds of metres” away from nodes could be up for “thousands of dollars” to get a connection and this struck against the idea of “equality of access,” Tucker argued.
And this is where Tucker gives the game away in terms of his understanding of markets and politics. Clearly service providers would likely amortise the cost of a fibre on demand connection over a contract, just as they do now with all manner of other telecom service offerings characterised by costly one-off imposts such as smart phones. That is if they thought there was a viable market.
But worse, Tucker is venturing away from dispassionate physics here and into the field of political philosophy.
In much of life, premium products that provide increased private benefits for their purchasers tend not to need public subsidy or cross subsidy from other users of their basic equivalents. Suggesting otherwise for a broadband service is a statement of political values, not technical argument.
Indeed, by privatising that additional connection cost to the minority who want direct fibre and avoiding the civil works of last mile excavations to several million premises who will never want it, significant levels of publicly-raised debt can be avoided, helping to make the overall network more affordable for the average user.
For example, this cost reduction should take some of the heat off that $20 per megabit connectivity virtual circuit charge and some of the other artificial imposts which have nothing to do with true costs and more or less guarantee that a real world NBN FTTH delivered service will be as contended and unsatisfactory for the masses as anything seen today.
Or in another scenario, unaffordable and barely used.
In my opinion, Tucker has done as much to contribute misinformation to the NBN debate as anyone. But unlike a media commentator who can be safely debated and debunked in public space, Tucker’s heavily redacted and unchallenged 2009 advice led to a real world policy costed at $43 billion and eight years deployment, which if it had proceeded unchecked might have cost $78 billion and four or more years longer than envisaged, almost all the cost of which transferred risk to the public at large for mostly private benefits.
Contemporary observation tells us that politics is often prone to capture by the specialist or sectional lobby which conflates its own world view with that of the national interest.
One of the jobs of effective politicians, ideally, is to seek out alternative forms of advice and protect the community from well-disguised pecuniary claims. Thankfully, for the sake of good policy, quite a lot of that advice is due in the next few weeks.
Telstra CEO David Thodey believes that the provision of basic connectivity will continue to play a major role in the company’s future – despite threats of disruption to the company’s “cash cow” from Google and other global players.
But he has also expanded on Telstra’s future technology roadmap: detailing its focus on robotics, e-health and analytics, and on the important role that partnerships will play in bringing R&D to market.
Delivering a keynote address on innovation to a Committee for Economic Development of Australia in Melbourne, Thodey said he was less bothered by local competitors than about potential global entrants. And he said the company had no choice but to grow and deliver the next generation of innovative technology to countries in the region.
“I don’t think of my local competitors, I think about global competitors and how they are going to disrupt our business model,” he told the CEDA audience. “While we’re having this great debate which is very important about the budget and what is going to be cut and not cut, the world is accelerating past us. The debate we urgently need to have is how are we going to invest in our competitive advantage in a global world.”
Thodey said he’d been in Silicon Valley during the last two weeks hearing from technologists who warned that disruption to the telco business model was inevitable. But while he said all businesses were susceptible to disruption, he also foresaw a continuing role and business model around connectivity.
“People would come in to the room and look at me and say you’re a telco. And I’d say yeah, I’m a telco. And they’d say you generate a lot of cash. Yes, we generate a lot of cash. And they’d say well look, we think your business model is dead. You’re going to be disrupted,” he related. However, the Telstra CEO added that while there were many new entrants thinking about how to create lower cost infrastructure that allowed people to connect – including plans by Google to put up a network of 150 satellites – there was a larger problem around connecting that network to local infrastructure.
“So while there are disruptive technologies, you still need people who operate locally. So I think it will be a mixture of both, it will be innovative technology and good local infrastructure,” Thodey said.
FUTURE BETS: Thodey also provided further thinking around the company’s future technology roadmap and how it plans to innovate to stay ahead of its competitors, particularly around e-health, robotics and data analytics. He noted that Telstra’s own model of bringing R&D to market had changed and would rely on partnerships with other industry players in future.
He told the CEDA audience that the company’s old research facility in Clayton on the outskirts of Melbourne had not been good at getting new technology to commercialisation. However, he said Telstra still needed to “be a part of the eco-system and put ourselves at risk.”
“We’ve really concluded that that model doesn’t work for us, but partnerships are really important. And that’s why we’ve worked really hard in the last nine months to really start to form partnerships with different enterprises, different educational institutions,” he said, pointing to last week’s announcement around partnering with National ICT Australia, Deakin University and others.
“We think that in a truly competitive market you’ve got to start building partnerships, it’s got to be a collaborative environment, and you’ve got to take some bets about where you want to go. So for us, we’ve made some bets – it’s e-health, robotics and data analytics. Those are the three areas that we’re really going to focus in on,” he said.
Thodey also reiterated his desire for Telstra to be a major player in Asia, though he pointed out that the company was committed to making its Asian play from Australia.
“Great companies are able to grow, deliver value to shareholders and innovate at the same time. I don’t subscribe to this thing about saving your way to prosperity, you’ve got to grow, you’ve got to be pushing the limits but in a sensible way.
“So that’s why at Telstra we think we’ve got to expand geographically, we’ve got to be part of Asia. I’ve never committed to getting to a certain number by a certain date, but we are committed to doing it. We want to be a great company in Asia,” he suggested.
AUSTRALASIAN WHOLESALE + DATA CENTRE SUMMIT 19 May 2014
AUSTRALASIAN SATELLITE FORUM 20/21 May 2014
AUSTRALASIAN SUBMARINE CABLE + BANDWIDTH FORUM 21 May 2014
Westin Hotel, Sydney
Monday May 19: AUSTRALASIA WHOLESALE & DATA CENTRE SUMMIT
KEYNOTES 9am Vocus Communications CEO James Spenceley ● 9.30 Macquarie Telecom CEO David Tudehope ●10.00 Pacnet ANZ CEO Nigel Stitt ● 10.30am Break
WHOLESALE FOCUS 11am FirstPath MD Stephen Carter ● 11.30 China Telecom global vice president, carrier business Tan Xu ● 12 eIntellego Networks CEO Skeeve Stevens ● 12.30 Inabox Group MD Damian Kay ● 1 LUNCH
DATA CENTRE FOCUS 2 Tier 5 MD Marty Gauvin ● 2.25 Metronode general manager Malcolm Roe
CLOUD FOCUS 2.50 Cloudplus CEO Jules Rumsey ● 3.15 Break ● 3.25 Outworks CEO Phillip Kidd ● 3.50 CloudCentral CEO Kristoffer Sheather ● 4.15 Green Global Solutions CEO Bob Sharon ● CHAIRED BY SHARA EVANS, MARKET CLARITY
Tuesday May 20: AUSTRALASIA SATELLITE FORUM Day 1
9.05 KEYNOTE PAUL FLETCHER, PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY TO THE COMMUNICATIONS MINISTER
9.30 SATELLITE OPERATOR ROUNDTABLE: Paul Sheridan – Vice President Optus Satellite; Glen Tindall – VP Asia Pacific, SES; Terry Beakley – Vice President Asia, Intelsat; Adrian Ballintine – CEO, Newsat; Andy Start – President, Global Government, Inmarsat; Phil Cross, Sales Director, IPSTAR Australia & New Zealand; Christian Patouraux, CEO, Kacific Broadband Satellites; MODERATOR – Christopher Baugh, President, NSR.
10.40 Australasia Analyst Overview Presentation: Simon Bull, Senior Analyst, Comsys
11.00: Networking Break: sponsored by Gateway Teleport
11.30: OCEANIA ROUNTABLE: Loyley Ngira, CEO, Our Telekom in the Solomon Islands, Michael Haliday, General Manager, Wireless Nation; MODERATOR – Keith Ramsay, V.P. Sales & Marketing, Gateway Teleport Ltd.
12.20: BROADBAND ROUNDTABLE: Tony Colucci, Vice President, SSL; Nick Leake, Director Satellite Marketing; Matt Dawson, Program Director, satellite NBN Co; Michael Abela, CEO, Skybridge; Oded Sheshinski, Regional Vice President, APAC, Gilat Satellite Networks; Erwin Hudson, Program Manager, NBN Co Long Term Satellite Service (LTSS) Ground System, Viasat Inc; MODERATOR – Christopher Baugh, President, NSR
1.15: Stéphane Israël: Chairman & CEO, Arianespace 1.30: Networking Lunch sponsored by Newsat
2.45: MOBILITY ROUNDTABLE: Don Buchman, General Manager, Commercial Aviation Services, ViaSat Inc, Pierre-Jean Beylier, CEO, SpeedCast, John Humphrey, Strategic Advisor, Kymeta Corporation, Terry Beakley – Vice President Asia, Intelsat, Tui Rutherford, Business Development Manager, Oceania, EM Solutions Pty Ltd, MODERATOR – Simon Bull, Senior Analyst, Comsys
3.35: ENTERPRISE CASE STUDY: Oil & Gas, Offshore Study Chris Hill, CTO & Managing Director Asia Pacific
4.00: Networking Break sponsored by Gilat Satellite Networks
4.30: TELEPORT PANEL: Mario Querner, Vice President, Newtec Asia; Keith Ramsay, V.P. Sales & Marketing, Gateway Teleport Ltd; Sandeep Kumar, Head of Satellite Sales, Telstra Global; Scott Sprague, Chief Commercial Officer, Newsat; MODERATOR – Gregg Daffner, CEO, GAPSAT 5.45: Optus: Platinum Sponsor Speaker
Wednesday May 21: AUSTRALASIA SATELLITE FORUM Day 2
9.05: KEYNOTE: AIRCDRE Nick Barneveld, ADF Director General ICT Policy and Plans
9.30: DEFENSE PANEL: AIRCDRE Nick Barneveld, ADF; Todd McDonell, Vice President Global Government Solutions, Inmarsat; Ted McFarland, Vice President, Orbital Science; Thomas de Menthière Director Government Satcom, Airbus Space and Defence; MODERATOR – Don Brown, Senior Vice President Strategic Planning, Newsat
10.30: EXPANDING THE HOSTED PAYLOAD MODEL: Jack Scott, Key Account Manager Space Systems, Thales Australia
10.50: Networking Break: Sponsored by Kacific Broadband Satellites
11.20: Military SATCOM: increasing capabilities in a fiscally challenged environment: Tim Verschage, Deputy Business Director – Tactical Communications Viasat Inc
11.40: Christopher Hose, Executive Manager Spectrum Planning and Engineering, ACMA 11.55 REGULATORY PANEL: : John Stanton CEO, Communications Alliance; Bob Horton, Representative, GVF; Gregg Daffner, CEO, GAPSAT; 12.30: Close of Forum
Wednesday May 21 PM: AUSTRALASIA SUBMARINE CABLE & BANDWIDTH FORUM
SESSION ONE: 2pm: Trident Subsea Cable CEO Mark de Kock ●2.25pm: Australia Singapore Cable board advisor Steve Liddell ●2.50 China Telecom global vice president, carrier business Tan Xu ●3.10 SubPartners CEO Bevan Slattery (TBC) ●3.35 Short break
SESSION TWO: 3.50 Andrew Bond-Webster Sales VP, Asia Pacific Region Infinera ●4.10 Southern Cross Cable sales and marketing director Ross Pfeffer ●4.35 Alcatel-Lucent Submarine Networks APAC market development director Emmanuel Delanoue●4.55 Panel: Australia Japan Cable head of engineering Philip Murphy, Hibbard Consulting principal John Hibbard, CommsDay’s Grahame Lynch, more to be announced. 5.20 CLOSE
NBN Co plans to duplicate its FTTH product set for its FTTN/B network but will not guarantee minimum download speeds above 25 Mbps or upload speeds above 1 Mbps, CommsDay can reveal.
According to a discussion paper intended for circulation to its product development forum, NBN Co will offer similar speed tiers across both FTTH and FTTN/B networks, with the caveat that the latter will offer “up to” speed tiers at the 50 and 100Mbps download mark and 5/10/20 and 40 Mbps upload mark. The FTTH platform offers these as minimum speed tiers, subject to the limitations of contended backhaul.
Although the discussion paper emphasises harmony between FTTH and FTTN/B product sets, it also canvasses some significant differences for its copper offering which may raise substantial industry discussion.
For example, while NBN Co provides and installs a network termination device in the home as part of its FTTH offer, it will not provide a VDSL modem and voice splitter for FTTN. The onus will instead be on the retailer to provide and install the modem. A user self-installation option will also be offered, on condition that NBN Co waives its liability for any resulting under-performance.
However, NBN Co does envisage it will offer a “professional” installation service on behalf of RSPs and users for a commercial fee.
More controversially, NBN Co also seeks to waive responsibility for individual line speed evaluation on its FTTN network. It says “selecting the correct speed tier will be the responsibility of the end user and the provider.”
“NBN Co does not intend to prevent end users and/or providers from ordering the ‘Up To 100Mbps’ speed tier for a service that would typically experience speeds of less than 50 Mbps,” NBN Co says in the paper.
NBN Co says it considered waiving speed tiers for its FTTN product set but, on balance, wants to retain them so retailers can charge a premium for higher speed services.
According to the paper, NBN Co also wants to extend its existing four traffic classes of service to FTTN, which includes a guaranteed throughput for voice services, as well as the charging mechanisms for access circuits, connectivity virtual circuits and network-to-network interfaces that characterise its existing FTTH pricing. However, in view of the special nature of VDSL it also proposes to add “stability” profiles, for example which reward high speed and low jitter in favour of stability and data quality or the opposite for lines of low quality.
It also proposes that the existing PSTN environment be retained side by side with FTTN for at least 18 months.
Multicast functionality would also be offered over FTTN, while higher speed business services over the platform could also be facilitated by copper bonding of two lines. NBN Co says it is actively considering this option.
The paper implies that NBN Co favours serving 200 premises per node. With NBN Co planning to roll out FTTN to nearly half the national fixed line footprint, this suggests a network requirement of up to 30,000 nodes. The paper is seeking industry feedback through May with a view to a issuing response by that month’s end.
NBN Co could be liable to pay over $98 billion in total nominal pre-tax payments to Telstra over 55 years, according to advice provided for NBN Co’s board by Goldman Sachs in May last year.
CommsDay can reveal that the advice was sought by NBN Co following the release of the then-Opposition Coalition’s alternative broadband policy in April 2013.
The confidential “working draft” advice, sighted by CommsDay, puts a number on NBN Co’s nominal long term commitments to Telstra for the first time: previously NBN Co’s liability had been generally expressed in terms of its post-tax net present value to Telstra.
Goldman Sachs said that based on the then-latest corporate plan of NBN Co, the firm would be obliged to pay out $98.159 billion in nominal pre-tax payments to Telstra between FY2011 and FY2067. The bulk of this—some $88 billion—would be for infrastructure leases covering ducts, dark fibre, rack space and conduits.
As the NBN Co footprint expands to cover all of the Telstra copper footprint, these payments would rise: from A$400m annually this financial year, to $1 billion in FY2019 and to $1.6b a year by FY2042. By 2067, NBN Co would be paying Telstra some $2.9 billion a year in lease commitments.
According to Goldman Sachs, the net present post-tax value to Telstra from the definitive agreement with NBN Co was worth $11.72b in May last year. Analysis of what was known then of the Coalition’s policy estimated that it would add $2.4b or 20% to the value of the agreement to Telstra if the then-Opposition could implement its plans in government. This uplift was based largely on Telstra’s increased value from its ability to retain and operate its HFC network for broadband services, although this would be highly sensitive to ARPUs and market share. NBN Co is currently negotiating new terms with Telstra.
LAZARD ANALYSIS: In a separate analysis for Federal Cabinet two years earlier in mid-2011, global advisory firm Lazard provided its own confidential take on NBN Co’s definitive agreement with Telstra, calculating that NBN Co had a $52 billion nominal liability before time discounting to Telstra over 35 years. At the time, Lazard estimated that if the NBN rollout was to be terminated in FY2014, NBN Co still faced a $22.2 billion “nominal” ongoing commitment to Telstra. This rises as high as $36.5 billion in 2020.
Lazard warned Cabinet that “if the Commonwealth was seeking to exit this project, we believe Telstra is likely to be the only private sector buyer of NBN Co’s assets due to the long term take-or-pay liabilities and would likely argue that the Commonwealth’s liability should be valued at a Commonwealth discount rate… in other words, a larger liability.”
Cabinet was also warned by Lazard that NBN Co’s business plan was highly dependent on two assumptions: that it could double its ARPU in ten years and that wireless-only premises would remain at a static 13.5% of the total beyond 2021 out to 2041. On these assumptions, NBN Co’s projections resulted in an expectation that it would generate EBITDA of 77% by 2031 and 79% by 2041. Lazard said “this would place margins above infrastructure businesses which are proven natural monopolies, which own their own assets and operate in more stable markets than NBN Co.”
Federal Cabinet was warned as long ago as June 2011 that NBN Co’s business case was vulnerable to cherry-picking in the short term and to competition from Telstra in the longer term when their non-compete agreement lapsed, CommsDay can reveal.
The warning was contained in confidential advice prepared by global financial advisory firm Lazard for Federal Cabinet on 20 June 2011, several months after watered-down ‘cherry picking’ amendments to the Telecommunications Act were released and just days ahead of the signing of the definitive agreement between NBN Co and Telstra.
The advice warned that the policy preference for uniform pricing created strong incentives for cherry picking in “high value areas”. It warned that the only “realistic opportunity” to enact anti-cherry picking legislation “is at the commencement of the NBN project.”
“The risk of significant cherry picking behaviour has not, in our view, been adequately addressed,” warned Lazard in its advice.
Three months earlier, the Federal Government had released its amendments to anti-cherry picking rules in the Telecommunications Act, which allowed exemptions for networks targeting enterprise, backhaul and government customers as well as an exemption for “extensions” to networks built before 1 January 2011 not more than 1km in length. Subsequently, in late 2013, TPG has announced its intention to exploit this so-called “loophole” to build FTTB networks to 500,000 apartments across Australia. Telstra and Optus are rumoured to be considering competitive responses.
TELSTRA COMPETITION THREAT: Lazard also warned that a 20 year non-compete clause in the Telstra-NBN Co definitive agreement would come to an end some two years earlier than NBN Co was scheduled to recover its investment or seven years if financing costs were included.
In its advice to Cabinet on 20 June 2011, Lazard said NBN Co had not reflected any “value impact” for this in its financial projections and apparently viewed it as an “acceptable risk.”
But Lazard took a contrary view saying “take or pay liabilities to Telstra are 50% of NBN Co’s ongoing costs post rollout and Telstra is likely to be NBN Co’s largest retail customer.”
“A further demerger of Telstra into Network Co and Retail Co would mean Network Co can re-enter fixed line competition against NBN Co in 20 years’ time and in Lazard’s view would have a strong incentive to do so,” it continued. “This mismatch is not a risk profile we believe a commercial entity would assume, especially since all of the investor’s returns are projected to accrue after the network preference/non compete expires.”
PRIVATE DEBT WARNING: Lazard also warned on NBN Co’s expectation that it could raise private borrowings ahead of generating positive net cashflows from the project. “NBN Co’s assumptions mean the Commonwealth recoups all its equity before the lenders are repaid and before the end of the Telstra network preference/non-compete commitment… in our experience lenders often discount projections that assume future price increases not guaranteed by contract, and want to be able to be repaid before equity, especially if there is a significant prospective market change pending before debit is repaid such as the end of a non-compete.”
Lazard said that if this “conservative” scenario came to pass, the government’s maximum equity commitment would swell from $29 billion to $41 billion.
WARNINGS CAME 9 MONTHS EARLIER: Although Lazard’s advice to Cabinet was only proffered a mere three days before the definitive agreement between Telstra and NBN Co was announced on 23 June 2011, the firm had made similar warnings the previous October.
In advice offered to the communications department after reviewing the draft agreement between Telstra and NBN Co announced in mid-2010, Lazard has also warned on the potential for Telstra to compete against NBN Co after 20 years and calculated that the draft terms announced at the time had a “net negative” value to the Commonwealth of between $25 billion and $31 billion.
Bevan Slattery’s Megaport claims his company is being blocked from using Pipe Networks facilities he sold to TPG and is moving to test his claims with industry arbitrators. TPG’s stance could potentially heavily backfire on the firm and retard its own planned FTTB network.
According to Slattery, Megaport has had to suspend accepting new orders in TPG/PIPE’s datacentres – despite “orders for numerous services” – after TPG blocked Megaport from actually establishing connections to clients within those facilities. “TPG Telecom… claims that PIPE’s customers are not ‘occupiers’ of the datacentre and accordingly Megaport cannot use its statutory powers under Schedule 3 to the Telecommunications Act 1997 to provide services to them,” said the Megaport CEO. That part of the Act allows carriers to access buildings to provide services to occupants, without requiring permission from land or building owners.
“If accepted, this argument would mean that PIPE’s datacentres could become ‘competition-free zones’, and TPG can (and evidently will) prevent PIPE’s telehousing customers from ordering services from competitive carriers such as Megaport.”
“We view TPG/PIPE’s objection as without merit and preventing PIPE’s customers from acquiring telecommunications services from a competitor of PIPE. At TPG’s request the matter has now been referred to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman for determination,” added Slattery. “In order to avoid causing further inconvenience to our customers, we have suspended accepting new orders for services in PIPE Networks’ datacentres until such time as the current impasse with PIPE/TPG is resolved. The TIO is currently considering PIPE’s objection and this process may take several months to complete.”
MUTUALLY ASSURED DISRUPTION: But if TPG’s objections are upheld, it could be making a rod for its own back. PIPE, as a carrier itself, also connects into a large number of facilities around the country – and is thought to have done so by issuing hundreds of its own land access and activity notices under the Act, up to this point a fairly normal procedure.
In another ironic twist, PIPE itself – more than ten years ago, before Slattery sold it to TPG – fought and won a similar access case against Soul, another TPG subsidiary, when it used such a notice to connect services into Soul’s Sydney datacentre.
And TPG, for its part, is also embarking on an FTTB build which would also require extensive building access.
If the Ombudsman were to find that a carrier such as Megaport could not use its Schedule 3 powers to provide services to data centre customers, that could in turn have retrospective and future ramifications for the building access rights of both PIPE and TPG – risking a catastrophic own goal. Further, if the precedent is set that datacentre clients are not ‘occupiers’ under the Act, it could give the upper hand to landowners in their not infrequent struggles with telcos over Schedule 3 access rights.
In another facet of the rapidly escalating access battle, Megaport has also gone to the Australian Communications and Media Authority to protest PIPE and Soul, another TPG subsidiary, refusing to provide information about underground duct facilities, required under a different part of the Telecommunications Act.
“These developments are disappointing and should be a cause for concern not only for TPG/PIPE Networks colocation customers, but also AAPT customers considering TPG’s pending acquisition of AAPT. It also raises alarm for the industry,” concluded Slattery. “AAPT and PIPE are the leading providers of infrastructure-based competitive wholesale services in the Australian market.”
TPG has been invited to comment.
Merry Christmas & Happy New Year from the CommsDay team. We take a break from daily publishing over the
holiday and resume regular publication on Tuesday 14 January with interim breaking news updates & summaries as required. The Decisive Publishing office is closed from today until Monday 13 January. Thanks to all readers for your support in 2013 and we look forward to reporting the news in 2014, our 20th anniversary. Grahame Lynch, Founder
Vodafone Australia CEO Bill Morrow is to be the next CEO of NBN Co, sources close to the company revealed just as CommsDay went to press overnight.
CommsDay has learned that Morrow has been picked for the role at least partly because of his strength as a turnaround specialist. The strategic review of the NBN, due to be released later this morning, is set to reveal some sobering facts around the likelihood of tens of billions of dollars of cost blowouts under the FTTP model championed by the previous government.
Morrow has been heading up Vodafone’s local operations since March last year, when he was brought on board by joint venture partners Hutchison Whampoa and the Vodafone Group to lead the number three telco in its efforts to regain market share.
Though the firm has continued to bleed subscribers since, it has attributed that to the continuing effects of the worst of its network outage issues two years previously, as affected users come off contract, and is forecasting a return to growth next year.
Moreover, under Morrow, it has also slowed its rate of revenue decline, and gone on the front foot with a number of key initiatives – including a precedent-setting fixed-rate international roaming plan, a 4G launch, aggressive activity on the regulatory front, and ongoing network investment.
Morrow himself has ample experience leading network-owning telecoms companies and major infrastructure providers. He has previously served as chief executive of Clearwire and of the Pacific Gas and Electric Company. He has also headed up the European, Japanese and UK operations of the Vodafone Group.
NBN Co executive chairman Ziggy Switkowski has been acting as interim CEO for NBN Co while a permanent replacement is found.
A previous draft of the strategic review was provided to communications minister Malcolm Turnbull at the start of last week, but NBN Co has been doing some fine-tuning before the publication of the document later this morning. NBN Co corporate and commercial head Kevin Brown told the Senate committee that, following an NBN Co board meeting, there had been some adjustments to calculations required before the public release. The review has been prepared by a team within NBN Co headed by outgoing chief commercial officer Tim Ebbeck.
Shadow communications minister Jason Clare has said that the review will have “failed” unless it provides full data on the cost to both remediate and maintain Telstra’s copper network for its proposed use in FTTN.
CommsDay will be reporting from the launch of the review later today.
Grahame Lynch and Petroc Wilton
SubPartners has unveiled radical plans to build a submarine sensor network atop its planned APX-East cable, intended to link Sydney to the US.
The concept of such a network has been hotly debated amongst the submarine industry for years, and at one stage was even considered in conjunction with the defunct Pacific Fibre project. Now, thanks to a newly forged memorandum of understanding with TE SubCom as exclusive supplier for APX-East, SubPartners looks set to revive the concept – via an array of externally tethered marine sensors mounted on APX-East repeaters to form what’s been dubbed the ‘Oceania Sensor Network’.
Most of SubPartners’ public focus to date has been on its Perth-Singapore APX-West cable, but at present the much longer eastern system – envisaged as a 12,500km route with 4 pairs, 140 repeaters and 48 wavelengths per pair – is nevertheless still expected to be ready for service by Q4 2015.
It will link Sydney with California’s Hermosa Beach, with additional branches to Hawaii and potentially some of the Pacific Islands.
“APX-West has had a lot more movement, obviously, with the iiNet MoU being signed and a few other customers – and the actual formal contract that we signed with SubCom for West, as well,” SubPartners CFO Raj Sharan told CommsDay. “That’s probably what brought SubCom into the picture… [and] one thing that we’ve locked away with this MoU to some extent on the east route is exclusive access to TE SubCom’s sensor [port] technology.”
“With this sensor network, we’ve got an opportunity to change what submarine cable systems are actually viewed as being used for. Traditionally, it’s just massive data capacity, and obviously a current-generation system will give you current-generation tech… which means you get the chance to realise the maximum amount of capacity,” he continued. “But what SubCom provides on its repeaters is a standard port that can be connected to a vast array of marine sensors… you can have seabed monitoring sensors, [seismic sensors], temperature sensors and so on… and all of this stuff connects into the repeater and also actually uses the capacity on the system. But it uses a capacity that’s outside the standard range.”
That’s important because in SubPartners’ model for both APX-West and East, clients buy portions of the fibre pairs themselves rather than fixed amount of capacity at fixed rates.
“[Because] this sensor tech actually uses bandwidth outside the normal range, you don’t have the downside of losing capacity on a pair of fibres, and you have the upside of this sensor technology being able to report this data to whatever landing station – and then from there, carried on to wherever it needs to be,” said Sharan. “If you look at the route… it pretty much cuts the Pacific in half, and that means we’re potentially going to have the largest subsea sensor array for early detection of natural disasters, tsunamis and so on… as well as just general monitoring of the underwater environment in the region. From a research perspective, it’s going to be quite useful; I think some of the educational institutions are going to really want to get on top of this, if we can actually make the business case work.”
“But for us, this isn’t so much a leasing play or [something] to make money out of for general consumption; it’s not something that our business case hinges on, it’s just part of the overall value that we’ll provide. It was a way for us to take our system and make it different for the market; certainly, I think it will make our system more attractive to educational and research institutions, and particularly government entities as well – who see not only the ability to get the lowest-latency capacity, but also this added side benefit of monitoring of the Pacific and the region in general.”
REGULATORY CHALLENGES: TE SubCom has been talking about its sensor port tech for the last couple of years – and had even been working with now-defunct Pacific Fibre on the opportunity to add sensors to the latter’s planned Australia-New Zealand-US route. However, others – including Wiltshire and Grannis LLP partner and veteran submarine cable lawyer Kent Bressie – have long warned of potential legal and regulatory cross-border complexities around cable-mounted sensor nets. It’s an issue that SubPartners is very much aware of.
“I think anything with any kind of tech that Team Telecom [the group of lawyers from the FBI and US Departments of Defense, Justice and Homeland Security which, among other functions, carries out security reviews on new telecom infrastructure which traverses US territory] don’t like, we’ll know about pretty quickly,” said Sharan. “While I won’t say that we have any kind of approval, the idea has been floated… and no-one completely baulked. It was the usual response you get from those kinds of people: ‘we’ll wait to see the specifications and what it can do’.”
“I’m sure you can imagine that if you’ve got deep-sea sensors in the middle of the Pacific there are some concerns as to what else they could be used for!”
Meanwhile, key SubPartners execs are busy courting potential customers for the eastern route. “We’re talking to multiple parties on an ongoing basis; [founder] Bevan [Slattery] and [commercial director] Carlos [Trujillo], along with our new sales director Hamish Lee, are all in America at the moment, going through a roadshow,” said Sharan. “And we expect to be announcing some more MoUs on APX-East; I’d say at least a couple before Christmas.”