Here’s the dummies’ guide to the NBN

A FEW lucky Aussies already have National Broadband at their fingertips. The rest of us are waiting. Waiting for downloads, waiting to stream ABC iView, waiting for our Skype connections to stop being so jerky.

This election the question to ask when you’re voting is this: Will we get “fibre” all the way to our home?

Fibre is optical fibre — a little strand of glass that shoots bursts of light. Experts believe it is the best because lots of data can go along it at the speed of light. You can’t get much faster than that.

The big question is where that fibre stops. Does it come all the way to your house, which means a lot of expensive installations? Or stop at a node in a green box on your street and then use copper cables for the last bit?

First, the bad news: It turns out whether Labor or Coalition win government this election most of us will never get fibre all the way to our home. Under both Labor and Coalition plans, most people will be stuck on fibre to the node, or satellite, or pay TV cables instead of fibre to the premises.

But some lucky people will get fibre. The big political difference here is Labor promising fibre to the premises for 39 per cent of Australian homes, nearly double the 20 per cent the Coalition is offering. It amounts to 2 million people.

Are you going to be in that 19 per cent extra? Are you in the lucky segment? We don’t know.


Labor is coy about who exactly will get the superior service. Logically though, it would be areas where rolling out fibre is cheap, that is, high density parts of Australia.

If you live on an acre block surrounded by forest, I wouldn’t hold your breath … unless of course you’re on the west coast of Tasmania. Labor has promised western Tasmania will get fibre to the premises. It is the location of the marginal seat of Braddon — held narrowly by the Liberals.

The rest of us are on a wait-and-see policy. Given the Labor NBN is not due to be fully rolled out until 2022, the exact location of the full 19 per cent could still be unknown at the 2019 election. And maybe the election after as well.

And of course, there’s an asterisk on the extra 19 per cent. Labor is promising it so long as the price doesn’t go over $57 billion.

(As an aside, when the NBN was first mentioned by Kevin Rudd, it had a $15 billion price tag. That went up to $43 billion, it’s now at $57 billion and if the price stops rising now I’d be flabbergasted. Labor loves to talk about the NBN as “Malcolm Turnbull’s Mess” and it’s true he stuffed around with the original plan. But many complex infrastructure projects have cost blowouts and it might have been their own mess if they hadn’t lost the last election.)

Not all the $57 billion cost goes to taxpayers. Public spending is capped at about $30 billion. So the taxpayer is not on the hook for the whole amount and the private sector will pay the rest.


Labor’s plan is a bit pricier and a bit slower to roll out, but probably better for some people. The Liberal plan is a bit cheaper and a bit faster, but it relies more on fibre to the node, where the fast optical fibre goes to a green box on your street. Is that good?

Here’s a quote from the director of the NBN Co about fibre to the node (FTTN): “FTTN sucks … if I could wave a wand, it’s the bit I’d erase.”

But it’s too late for magic. Contracts for fibre to the node have been signed and both parties will actually deliver a lot of NBN that way.

Labor may not like fibre to the node but it will still honour the contracts. It says it will then plan to move people off fibre to the node and onto fibre to the premises, but that’s a very long way off. Both parties will also be using the old pay TV cables to bring some people NBN.

That is the approach a senior Labor figure once called “Operation Clusterf**k.” Will it be a clusterf**k? Most people are confident the old Telstra pay TV cables will be fine. But some pay TV cables are Optus, and they may not be. That was the topic of the leaks that led the NBN to raid houses in Melbourne a little while back.

It’s become very messy and very political. But the key point is that both parties are offering fibre to the premises to a minority of Australians and a mixed solution to the rest of us. In the short term, Labor is different for 19 per cent of people, who will get fibre to the premises instead of some other solution.

By Jason Murphy
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