The opposition says the government’s decision to spend billions more to upgrade NBN connections to access fibre “vindicates” Labor’s 2009 plan for a fibre network and shows the Coalition has been misleading Australians for seven years.

NBN experts have welcomed the improved technology, but say the model could increase the existing “digital divide” for low-income families.

Minister for Communications Paul Fletcher today announced a 3.5 billion dollar package to put fibre connections “deeper” into neighbourhoods, extending fibre connections down residential streets with people then able to then pay to upgrade to a fibre connection to their homes.

The upgrades mean “up to 75 per cent” of fixed line premises across Australia will have access to 1 Gigabit per second speeds by 2023. According to Fletcher, the fibre options are only feasible now because of the NBN’s near-full rollout of a “multi-technology mix” (MTM) and the financial performance of the NBN.

RMIT Associate Professor in Network Engineering Mark Gregory says the speed upgrades are welcome, but requiring households to commit to an expensive high-speed plan before fibre is connected will potentially entrench a “digital divide” — the current tiered system resulting from the Coalition government’s controversial MTM model.

RMIT Associate Professor Mark Gregory. Image: RMIT.edu.au

“For many Australians the NBN is already too expensive. It is about 20 per cent more expensive than it should be due to the cost blowouts related to the Coalition government’s decision to rollout obsolete copper-based technologies,” Gregory told Which-50.

Gregory, a long-time critic of the current NBN model, says the government should commit to providing fibre to the premises to all of the Australian homes that could receive it and “not have hurdles that disadvantage low-income families”.

“The low interest rates mean that it is sensible to upgrade infrastructure now. The COVID pandemic has highlighted that telecommunications is an essential service for all Australians, irrespective of where they live and work, and it is vital that government understand this and take appropriate action to provide FTTP to the 93 per cent of premises in the fixed NBN footprint.”

Government “misleading” Australians

Shadow Minister for Communications Michelle Rowland said today’s announcement shows the Coalition government has been “misleading Australians about the NBN for the past seven years”.

“After spending $51 billion on second-rate technology, endless attacks on Labor, and seven years wasted, today vindicates that not only was Labor’s original fibre plan better — but it was cheaper too.”

Labor’s NBN plan was to run super-fast fibre connections from exchanges directly to 93 per cent of homes, building the “single largest nation-building infrastructure project in Australia’s history” over eight years at an expected cost of $43 billion.

The Liberal-National Coalition seized on early delays, fears the project would end up costing taxpayers too much and said consumers may never be willing to pay a premium for the super-fast speeds of a fibre network.

After coming to power in 2013, the Coalition government implemented its own controversial “multi-technology mix” using fibre to the node (FTTN) connections for 71 per cent of homes. The slower, less reliable connections use a preexisting network of copper wiring and paled in comparison to the fibre to the premises connections some 21 per cent of homes had received under the Labor plan, creating what critics call a “digital divide” in Australia.

But the government insisted the MTM approach would be cheaper and faster to roll out.

By the time the NBN rollout neared completion this year, global rankings put Australia dead last in the OECD for affordable broadband and hovering around 60th in popular global speed test rankings.

Fletcher’s announcement today seeks to address some of the problems with FTTN connections by running fibre down neighbourhood streets, allowing homes to connect to fibre when “their requirements exceed existing line-speed capability”.

Labor fires back

Labor’s Rowland responded today by accusing Fletcher and former Communications Minister and Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull of “blatant mistruths” over the last decade, but welcomed the eventual upgrades to fibre.

“After spending $51 billion on a one-lane copper highway that is barely complete, the Liberals are now overbuilding it with the fibre network that should have been built to begin with.

“This is the holy grail of technological and financial incompetence.”

Rowland says the government’s argument that upgrades are only possible now because of the financial performance of the NBN Co. is “an insult to the intelligence of the Australian public”.

“The Government’s 2017 NBN Corporate Plan said NBN would earn $5 billion in revenue in FY2020. Today NBN Co. will report $3.8 billion for FY2020.

“NBN has not yet earned a single cent in free cash flows.”

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