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ABC News

Why the NBN still matters — and how it can be improved after the election

The NBN was once announced as a dream infrastructure project for the 21st century. Now it's barely mentioned. (Supplied: NBN Co)

There was a time, not long ago, when internet infrastructure policy was a big part of any federal election campaign.

Politicians in hard hats would spar over acronyms like FTTN and FTTP, and talk glowingly about the knowledge economy.

That time appears to have passed, and yet Australia's broadband is still bad — at least compared to other countries.

For more than a decade, our global rank has been slipping.

On the authoritative Ookla Speedtest Global Index, we're now 65th, or about 30 spots lower than in 2013.

And yet we've spent so much money on the network: more than $50 billion on fibre optic cables and those little green network boxes that have popped up on suburban verges everywhere.

How did we end up here?

When can we expect speeds like in Singapore, New Zealand, or the United States?

And why aren't we hearing more about internet infrastructure this election?

The long and winding information superhighway

Remember something called the NBN?

Experts have called the prolonged and costly rollout of the National Broadband Network "Australia's greatest infrastructure disaster".

It's both the reason the national median speed for fixed-line broadband is low — and the only way to make it any better.

Kevin Rudd inspects cabling to be used for the NBN, during the 2013 election campaign. (Getty: Stefan Postles)

In 2009, the Rudd government announced it would build a modern fibre optic telecommunications network.

Those outside the network footprint would be provided broadband access through fixed wireless and satellite technologies.

All up, it was estimated the NBN would cost $41 billion.

But even as the first cables were being laid, there were calls to change the model.

In the lead-up to the 2013 election, the Coalition proposed what it said would be a cheaper version: Instead of running fibre to every premise (fibre to the premise, or FTTP), it would run fibre part of the way, and use the existing copper-and-cable network for the rest.

In practice, this mostly consisted of running the fibre to small neighbourhood network boxes, or nodes, which connected to the copper network servicing each house (fibre to the node, or FTTN).

The Coalition won the election and estimated the cut-down version would cost $29.5 billion and be completed by 2019.

A few months later, that estimate was revised to $41 billion.

By 2019, the cost had blown out to $51 billion, and the network was not complete.

Malcolm Turnbull oversaw the switch from FTTP to FTTN. (ABC News: Nick Haggarty)

Along the way, new technologies were introduced like fibre to the curb (FTTC) and fibre to the distribution point (FTTdp).

But none of these clocked speeds as fast as FTTP.

In late 2020, the Coalition and NBN Co (the government-owned corporation that operates the network) declared the network was complete, with a small fraction of homes waiting to be connected.

By then, NBN Co had told Senate Estimates that the network, including planned upgrades, would cost $57 billion.

But that wasn't the end of the story: the NBN wasn't fast enough.

The mostly FTTN network is now in the process of being upgraded to FTTP (yes, that was the original idea), which could push the total cost past $70 billion once it's completed later this decade.

Sorry … did you say $70 billion?

Yep, $70 billion.

Mark Gregory, an RMIT telecommunications and network engineering expert and long-time critic of the NBN rollout, estimates the NBN will have cost at least that much once all the FTTN connections have been upgraded to FTTP.

"If we had stuck with the original plan of FTTP, it would have been built for $50 billion," he said.

What the original FTTP NBN would have cost is hotly debated.

In 2013, NBN Co was estimating that the peak funding cost for Labor's FTTP network would be $44 billion.

A subsequent review found it could have been about $60 billion.

But that estimate was based on an assumption of higher interest rates, and therefore debt repayments, than eventuated.

With low interest rates, the FTTP NBN may have cost less than $55 billion.

Whatever the exact final figure, it would have been less than the cost of installing FTTN and then ripping it out a few years later to build FTTP, said Paul Budde, an independent telecommunications analyst.

"Because now you have to retrofit FTTP to FTTN," he said.

"You have an enormous amount of node boxes on the scrap heap, as we now have the fibre going to the home directly."

Neighbourhood NBN nodes have become a familiar sight — but not for much longer. (Supplied: NBN Co)

How long will it take to retrofit the NBN?

The current NBN is a mix of technologies and acronyms.

Of the 11.8 million premises able to be connected to the network, about half have either FTTN or FTTC (which is slightly faster than FTTN).

About 20 per cent have something called Hybrid Fibre Coaxial, which is where older cables installed for broadband and television services have been adapted for use in the NBN.

Another 20 per cent or so have FTTP.

And the remainder (about 1.1 million homes) are in regional areas that cannot access the fixed-line network, and rely on fixed wireless or satellite internet.

FTTN and the continued use of the old and decaying copper network was the reason Australia had slower median fixed-line internet speeds than almost every country in the 38-member Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Mr Budde said.

"Other countries that are way ahead of us have fibre [ie. FTTP] already."

"We will be slowly catching up over the rest of this decade as these other countries have basically rolled out what they need to roll out.

"It will take the rest of this decade to complete the NBN to a full high-speed high-quality broadband network."

What's the Coalition offering?

In contrast with previous election campaigns, internet infrastructure and the NBN has barely rated a mention over the past few weeks.

Both the Coalition and Labor have plans to upgrade the NBN to FTTP.

In late 2020, the Coalition announced $4.5 billion in upgrades to 8 million premises to get speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second (Gbps) by 2023.

That's about 20 times faster than the 50 megabits per second (Mbps) home plan.

Once completed, 75 per cent of fixed-line premises will have access to these ultra-fast speeds.

For premises outside of the fixed-line network, the Coalition promises to provide $480 million to partly fund NBN Co's upcoming $750 million upgrade of the fixed wireless network.

It says this will ease demand on the Skymuster satellite internet network, which will mean faster connection speeds for the remaining users.

What about Labor?

Labor says it will upgrade even more connections to FTTP.

In November last year, it pledged a further $2.4 billion of NBN upgrades by 2025, if it wins government in Saturday's election.

This, combined with the FTTP upgrades already announced by NBN Co, would extend access to gigabit connection speeds to 10 million premises, or 90 per cent of the fixed-line footprint.

Labor has also committed to supporting the planned NBN fixed wireless upgrade.

And while the Coalition wants to privatise the NBN, Labor has promised that if it wins government, the network would be kept as a public asset, arguing this would keep prices low.

NBN Co says it has already identified 1.7 million premises across Australia that are eligible for full fibre upgrades. (Supplied: NBN Co)

Mr Budde described the two parties' NBN policies as fairly similar.

"There's no major difference between the two at this stage.

RMIT's Dr Gregory observed neither party appeared to want to draw attention to the amount of money spent on the NBN.

"The government itself doesn't have anything to crow about," he said.

"And Labor this election is going for a small target approach."

Will my house get FTTP?

NBN Co maintains a list of towns and suburbs earmarked for FTTP upgrades, with new locations being announced every few months.

But homes in these areas will not automatically be upgraded to FTTP.

Users must first order a higher-speed plan than they already have — of at least 100Mbps — and keep it for at least a year.

NBN Co will then install the FTTP connection at no extra cost.

Prices vary between providers, but if you're already on a 50Mbps plan, you can expect to pay about $20 more per month for a 100Mbps plan, and $70 more for the fastest 1000Mbps plan.

This on-demand approach has drawn criticism, with some saying it risks entrenching a digital divide between affluent suburbs with access to FTTP internet and poorer ones stuck with FTTN.

Avoiding this situation was the whole point of spending public money on a national network, Dr Gregory said.

How fast does the NBN need to be?

Others might argue that 50Mbps is fast enough and FTTP for everyone is a needless extravagance.

In 2013, then-communications minister Malcolm Turnbull argued that 25Mbps would be "more than enough" for most households.

Almost 10 years later, in February this year, the ACCC found almost three quarters of homes are paying for speeds of 50Mbps or higher.

The irony of the lack of attention given to NBN policy this election is that the past few years have highlighted the importance of a fast and robust national broadband network.

The pandemic and the switch to working from home saw the fixed-line network struggle in some areas.

Gaming, virtual reality, and the ongoing trend of working from home will see greater demand for faster internet speeds, says University of Melbourne laureate professor Rod Tucker.

Portioning out bandwidth to households according to an idea of what should be "enough" is also a mistake, says Professor Tucker, who's also the director of the Institute for a Broadband-Enabled Society.

"Some households will want less and some will want more," he said.

"We don't provide electricity to houses based on what the average house wants — we provide as much as we need or want."

Will the NBN become obsolete?

No. At least not for a few decades.

"There's no replacement technology on the horizon," Mr Budde said.

Mobile technology like 5G offers very fast speeds, but doesn't have the capacity to handle the required large amounts of traffic.

Similarly, satellite internet like Starlink can be very fast, but is more suited to regional areas with a low density of users.

"For the foreseeable future, the NBN will be the network that will do the job for Australia," Mr Budde said.