What The Hell Is Going On With The NBN?

Fibre to the when?

22/06/2016 5:27 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:54 PM AEST
David Gray / Reuters
The Innovation Prime Minister will deliver in 2020.

Australia is home to the guy who invented WiFi. We have an Innovation Prime Minister. And in the year the NBN rollout was meant to be completed, most Aussies are still waiting.

Dr Ben Eggleton is one of them. He is also a Professor of Physics at The University of Sydney. But, importantly, Dr Ben Eggleton is the Director of CUDOS. Stick with us here.

See, CUDOS is short for the Centre for Ultrahigh bandwidth Devices for Optical Systems. Eggleton's job is basically researching fibreoptics, which is the backbone of any National Broadband Network, politics aside. So it doesn't get much more frustrating than that.

"The reality is these days just having a Skype call with someone from Melbourne in my office is hit and miss," Eggleton told The Huffington Post Australia.

"It's ironic because my group does research in photonics, but we can't really rely on broadband infrastructure to provide us with communication services."

Nothing brought the NBN into the election debate like the online leaders' debate. When Labor leader Bill Shorten told viewers to 'Like' the Facebook debate if they wanted 'fibre to the node' it wasn't the influx of Likes coming in that was most telling, but the Facebook users complaining they couldn't 'Like' it because their video was still buffering.

Since news arose this week that Australia's internet speed has dropped from 30th in the world to 60th, the NBN has been the third most discussed topic on Reddit. But while the public are speaking up Eggleton said politicians have remained too quiet.

"They don't want to talk about it because the reality is both parties have made a mess of it," Eggleton told HuffPost Australia.

"Everyone is just totally disappointed with what's happened and what's going to happen and the rest of the world is moving ahead at light speed. Most Australians have not benefited from the NBN and are unlikely to benefit from the NBN for another five years."

So how did we get here?

The NBN entering the watercooler debate this election may bring on frustration for many, but also nostalgia (kidding) as it was one of the big issues taken to the 2010 election.

The Gillard government promised to deliver an NBN based on 'fibre to the premises' (FTTP) connections, costing $57 billion to deliver the scheme by 2022. This initiative helped Gillard form the hung parliament, with Independent Tony Windsor agreeing to join political forces with the ALP. He recognised how pivotal it would become for his regional electorate of New England in New South Wales -- one of the first areas where the NBN was rolled out.

By the time Tony Abbott took office in 2013, the rollout had been delayed due to contractual agreements with Telstra and then an issue with asbestos in Telstra infrastructure.

So the scheme was then changed by Abbott's Coalition Government in 2013 to deliver a National Broadband Network by 2016, which would cost just shy of $30 billion. Cheaper. Sooner. Slower. Fibre. To. The. Node.

'Fibre To Node' vs. 'Fibre To Premises' (Or: The Coalition vs. The ALP)

The fundamental difference between the major parties' NBN schemes is the 'fibre to the node' approach. To install an NBN quicker and cheaper than Labor, the Coalition's rollout delivers a fibre connection to a node on each street. A copper-based connection is installed from the node to each home on the street. This is also referred to as multi-technology mixed NBN.

This delivers a slower broadband service of 25 megabits per second. Labor's 'fibre to the premises' scheme, as the name suggests, delivers a fibre connection all the way to Australian homes and a faster broadband service of one gigabit per second.

Most homes currently have broadband delivering less than 10 megabits per second.

Eggleton said it's not the fibre that is expensive. In fact it's "dirt cheap" according to the Professor, but the labour associated with the rollout of the fibre is more costly.

"Both parties are committed to fibre to the node and an NBN which is going to cost tens of billions of dollars," Eggleton told HuffPost Australia.

"The fundamental difference for the Labor party is it would like to go back to its original policy of 'fibre to the premises' which is the more expensive option but it is the option ultimately providing bandwidth that we need to be competitive internationally."

However, where the Labor Party is letting many Australians down is it will only deliver 'fibre to the premises' to about 40 percent of homes around the country. The rest will rely on satellite connection.

How important is a 'Fibre To The Premises' scheme?

Along with being internationally competitive with countries such as South Korea, the U.S. and Japan (a country which addressed FTTP two decades ago), Eggleton said this scheme would deliver huge economic growth.

"If you put fibre into the home, that fibre will scale generations. Fibre doesn't have any 'upperbound' to the bandwidth you can take, so you're investing in hundreds of years of communications infrastructure there and then," Eggleton said.

"All the evidence shows very clearly that if you invest in telecommunications infrastructure it pays for itself. It will grow the economy, simulate innovation, simulate new industry, enhance education services, health services, safeguarding security -- all of the key pillars of modern society."

So where are we now?

It's 2016, but we're all well aware the NBN rollout is not over. In fact it's far from over. Turnbull claims that more than one million Australians are now enjoying the NBN. An NBN spokesperson confirmed the scheme will not be completed until 2020, with the rollout currently employing more than 8,000 people (including labour workers).

"By the end of this financial year we're on track for nearly one in four homes to be able to order an NBN service from their service provider and by June of 2018 this is set to grow to three in four," an NBN spokesperson told HuffPost Australia.

The cost has also expanded to between $46 and $56 billion -- just short of Labor's predicted spending of between $49 and $57 billion.

But even if Bill Shorten was to be elected on July 2 it is going to be costly to rollback to current copper-based connections, Eggleton said, and there's still the issue of the 'fibre to the premises' network only working effectively for less than half of the population.

To see progress of the NBN rollout in your suburb, check out the map here.

*Ed's Note: The Huffington Post Australia can confirm Netflix and Chilling in Turnbull's suburb, where this author pays an exorbitant amount of rent, is not exempt from buffering.

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