GRAHAME LYNCH ANALYSIS: Smoke and mirrors as ALP goes MTM

Posted on: Monday, 13th June 2016

Labor has pulled off a spectacular double political coup with its NBN election policy announced in Penrith yesterday morning. For eight years its commitment to a 93% FTTH policy has been used by fibre zealots to smack away any sensible discussion of broadband technologies. To their credit, Bill Shorten and Jason Clare have combined to finally jettison Stephen Conroy’s 2009 fibre dream, having effectively adopted the Multi Technology Mix ethos which underlies the Coalition policy.

Fibre to the node? Tick. Existing connections to about 20 percent of the footprint will all be retained with their “upgrade path” to be pushed off to an Infrastructure Australia review. HFC? Tick. That stays. Fibre to the “premises” will be expanded to those premises currently slated for FTTN but not yet designed or under constructed, up to 2 million premises or another 20% or so. Essentially as much as you can buy for another $3.4 billion.

No definition was proffered as to what constitutes FTTP and I suspect it will likely involve a degree of FTTdp, the platform that takes fibre kerbside and then uses a copper lead-in. After all, this was already viewed as a solution for the 20% of premises still slated for FTTP connections which apparently have blocked ducts and cannot be fed with fibre easily. The skinny fibre solution which excited ALP senators earlier this year can be deployed across all platforms to feed nodes and, as a result, doesn’t preference any specific access medium.

In other words, Labor will build a network that won’t look radically different to the one the Coalition will build.

However, perception is everything. TV media emphasised a grab last night from Jason Clare saying “Malcolm Turnbull’s fraudband is over. We are replacing the copper with fibre.” Of course, FTTN also replaces most of the existing copper with fibre, especially the problematic bundles which feed exchanges and cause much of its exaggerated maintenance issues. But that doesn’t matter. Optics are everything if you pardon the pun. Clare had the best lines even if the details weren’t so convincing.

Clare spoke yesterday of the $60 million required to power an expected 30,000 nodes per year and how this cost would be saved under FTTH, referencing a citation which fed into his theme that overall opex savings offset about one third of the new capex funding requirement. I hope he can find a better source of savings than power. For a start, the ALP plan implies that 15,000 nodes or so will be retained so that claimed saving will only be $30 million a year.

But $60 million spread across 4m lines isn’t really a significant avoided cost anyway if you are adding over $3 billion of additional capex. This works out to $15 power cost per line a year. With an extra $2,000 capex required for FTTH, it would be 133 years before that extra cost is offset by the saved power requirement.

And besides, building a gold plated telecom network to avoid the costs imposed by over-priced gold plated power networks doesn’t necessarily have an overall economic benefit!

But the ALP has got away with it. The fibre zealots who dominate Whirlpool and Delimiter seem happy with a network that is resolutely 60% not FTTP.

Long time fibre advocate Mark Gregory who, bizarrely, is now the lead telecom commentator at Rupert Murdoch’s usually conservative flagship The Australian approves, as does Rod Tucker, an original NBN Expert Panellist.

The reality is that this policy is only a couple of faint shades of gray different to the Coalition’s. And with the way NBN was developing its skinny fibre and FTTdp platforms up until now, it is more than likely that the network will end up in a similar place should Malcolm Turnbull retain office anyway.

Of course, the whole access medium debate is misguided.

It’s easy to throw another few billion into the capex mix but that just incentivises the NBN to maintain its CVC congestion tax. This currently serves to restrict the actual amount of bandwidth requisitioned for all those lovely new FTTx connections to a fraction over one megabit per home. The whole 50Mbps vs 100Mbps debate is an enormous fraud perpetrated on the public in that regard.

A universal FTTN/HFC network with the requisite savings of several billion dollars could reduce contention—and congestion– to more overall economic benefit than that enjoyed by the 10% of people or less who want a largely illusory 100Mbps access plan.

For reasons such as this neither Labor or the Coalition want to talk too much about the NBN in this campaign. The contradictions of the NBN just pile up on themselves. Labor will be happy if its “replacing copper with fibre” meme takes hold, something made more likely by releasing the less-than-affirming fine print on a public holiday where everybody was thinking about Islamic terrorism and gun control.

One thing is for sure. This is likely to be the last election where a politician takes ownership of NBN futures. By the next election, there will be 20 billion reasons why commercial lenders to the NBN will be the ones determining what technology is used where and at what price.

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