The Australian government’s NBN backflip


This news was necessary, but so predictable it was as though we all predicted it was necessary.

Australia’s crumbling telecommunications infrastructure—privatised for pennies and run into the ground—was in dire need of replacement by the 2000s, let alone the 2010s. Okay the copper was already in the ground, but that’s not my point. The Labor government a decade ago proposed a Fibre to the Premises (FTTP) National Broadband Network to replace the aging copper. Fibre is durable against water, future proof, and faster than copper, dontchaknow?

Something for the public good shouldn’t need a terse economic justification, like not wanting strychnine in your drinking water, or relying on a cost-benefit analysis for not stabbing yourself in the eye with an Ethernet crimper. But even the single system would become cost-effective with economies of scale, and profitable, high-density urban areas would offset the construction and maintenance of rural installations.

I drew the comparisons with Gough Whitlam’s original 1970s vision of decentralising Australia. Rural Australians have held the short end of the stick for a long time, and the NBN could have given a significant economic opportunity, to say nothing of remote education and healthcare. I also compared it to the power grid in 2011, after a tutor I had at university at the time dismissed it because wireless would work just as well. He was saved by the bell when I asked what the antennas would be plugged into.

(Fun fact, antenna spelled backwards is annetna, which almost looks the same but isn’t. Just like the new FTTP upgrades the coalition are proposing. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves… which the NBN under their stewardship had no risk of).

Then, as any wary Australian IT worker will tell you, things went belly-up. The Labor government was voted out for Tony Abbott and his populist coalition, cheered on with some of the most one-sided, embarrasing Murdoch press I’ve ever seen. The instructions from the top were literally to “destroy” the NBN, which Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull successfully achieved with his flawed multi-technology mix; bizarrely to the delight of a small but vocal slice of the Australian technical press.

Once again, city dwellers like me would get superior service than rural Australians; though even we would be short changed. Construction of the future-proof fibre optics—already in thousands of homes—was halted, and new installations were replaced with a basketcase of fixed-point wireless, expensive greenfields copper, unfit-for-purpose HFC, tin cans with string, and outdated Fibre to the Node boxes that would cost more to install and upgrade than simply building FTTP from the start. Meanwhile, the shambles and uncertainty left a gap in the market for private companies to snap up the profitable areas and lock people to a single provider while leaving rural Australians—you guessed it—with rubbish. Just like we all warned. I hate it when I’m right.

The only good thing that came from FTTN boxes was being able to warm myself from the waste heat generated from one of them while waiting for a cab in North Sydney. Turns out copper needs tons of power in addition to being slower, but fibre optics use these things called internal refraction and photons which…

(Yes Mr Abbott, you had a question? Pardon, what was that? …no Tony, a photon is not a phone).

Well wouldn’t you know, it took a pandemic and half the country working from home for people who short-sightedly dismissed the NBN as a pointless white elephant useful only for gaming and streaming video to realise… hey, maybe we should be deploying fibre everywhere and upgrading these ridiculous FTTN boxes so the network actually works. Kishor Napier-Raman’s writeup in Crikey had the best summary; it’s jaw-dropping what those politicians said and did.

So now, finally, Australia is a step closer to getting the network it was supposed to have in 2010. It won’t be for everyone, of course. It will also take a long time, and surprise surprise, cost more than if we’d just done it properly the first time. Malcolm Turnbull’s promise of “faster, cheaper, sooner” broadband failed on all three counts and, best of all, we taxpayers will once again be footing the bill.

I hold out hope we’ll get a Royal Commission out of this. I’ll bet there’s even more context and back story we don’t know about.

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Ruben Schade is a technical writer and infrastructure architect in Sydney, Australia who refers to himself in the third person. Hi!

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