Shadow communications minister Michelle Rowland has committed a Labor government to waging war on Australia’s digital divide, addressing factors that can degrade fibre to the node (FTTN) performance, and examining the feasibility of co-investment to boost the proportion of fibre in the NBN network.
In remarks prepared for the CommsDay Summit in Sydney, the Labor MP said that there were up to 1.3 million Australian households not accessing broadband at home.
“There has been a significant public outlay in the NBN and we must undertake every effort to leverage that for the public good,” Rowland said.
A Labor government would launch a “Digital Inclusion Drive”. The effort would be led by NBN Co and aim to increase broadband take-up among the households currently without Internet access.
The program would analyse the affordability and take-up challenges facing low income and digitally excluded households, including by boosting collaboration between NBN Co and the Department of Social Services.
A second stage would use that analysis to inform “affordability responses and digital literacy initiatives”. Finally, the program would establish targets, measure progress, and adjust when necessary.
In addition to the social benefits, Rowland said such a program could deliver a significant economic boost, citing estimates, based on World Bank modelling, that the economy could enjoy an $800 million per annum benefit by 2028 for every additional 100,000 non-broadband households that connect to fixed-line services.
Rowland has previously noted the reality that the rollout of the NBN using the ‘multi-technology mix’ (MTM) blueprint pushed by the Coalition is well advanced, with construction of the network expected to be completed in 2020.
A number of the technologies used in the MTM rollout — FTTN, fibre to the curb (FTTC), and fibre to the basement (FTTB) — employ existing copper phonelines to deliver the final connection to an end user. Aging or otherwise degraded copper can have a negative impact on performance, particularly for FTTN, which involves the longest stretches of copper.
NBN Co’s responsibility for the condition of that wiring ends at the boundary of a premises. However, in-home wiring can have a significant impact on performance encountered by end users.
Rowland today revealed detailed of a new Labor policy, which would see NBN Co provided with up to $125 million to help address problems with in-home wiring.
The program would have a particular emphasis on homes that use FTTN to connect to the NBN. NBN Co would be directed to work with RSPs to help address the problem.
Up to 750,000 households could benefit from the program, with consumers in the FTTN footprint offered a free fix, which Rowland said would normally cost $150.
The funding assumes that up to a fifth of FTTN premises could be experiencing performance limitations due to the issue, Rowland said.
NBN Co has already conducted a pilot that involved installing a central splitter in homes where wiring was degrading performance.
NBN Co chief executive Stephen Rue earlier this year told a Senate Estimates hearing that installing a splitter had delivered an average increase in attainable line rate of 11 megabits per second downstream and 3Mbps upstream. In addition, for premises that had reported connection instability about 70 per cent became stable after the work was completed, Rue said.
“This is important because there are currently 183,000 premises on the fibre to the node network who are currently not able to achieve minimum speeds of 25 megabits per second,” Rowland said.
“On the current trajectory, this number could grow to 230,000 as the rollout nears completion.”
Rowland said that Labor would also direct NBN Co to undertake targeted upgrade trials to assess the assess the feasibility of “co-investment mechanisms to deliver more fibre over the medium term.”
The policy would be funded through an additional $60 million provided to the government-owned company.
The trials will focus on the FTTN footprint and be used to test ways of reducing the cost of upgrading the technology.
The shadow minister said a Labor government would seek to facilitate more cooperation between the Commonwealth, NBN Co and state and territory governments.
“Initial engagement through COAG will then transition to ongoing bi-lateral engagement as every state will have different interests and priorities,” Rowland said.
The MP said that the future economics of the MTM network and NBN Co’s wholesale pricing require scrutiny, which would be delivered through a government-commissioned review.
“The review will examine the implications of the multi-technology mix on NBN Co’s long-term cash flow position, capital structure, pricing evolution, options to grow revenue, options to reduce cost, and the capacity of NBN Co to co-invest in future infrastructure upgrades under a range of market scenarios,” Rowland said.
Other priorities include the previously announced NBN Service Guarantee and a review of the future capacity and funding requirements for the fixed-wireless network.