In the absence of federal government action, a local council has taken matters into its own hands and negotiated directly with NBN Co to successfully secure superior fibre connections.
In what has been a major win for the Bellingen Shire community in New South Wales, homes and businesses initially designated to receive fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) will now receive fibre-to-the-curb (FTTC) technology.
This could set a precedent for other councils across Australia to also advocate for faster, more reliable internet connections as the remainder of the National Broadband Network (NBN) is rolled out.
With a population of 12,600, residents and local businesses in the Bellingen region south-west of Coffs Harbour argued that the inferior FTTN could adversely affect property prices and was “not a long-term, technologically sustainable option”.
Senior NBN Co representatives attended meetings in late June with Bellingen Shire council staff, local chamber of commerce members, Telstra and a policy adviser to Shadow Communications Minister Michelle Rowland.
NBN Co subsequently announced that the FTTN-designated segment of the shire’s network would be switched over to FTTC. However, some areas of the shire remain pegged for fixed wireless rather than the preferred fibre connection.
Jason Errey, 44, who lives and works in Bellingen for an ocean and environmental management business, played a major role in advocating to council to instigate the change.
“NBN basically got laughed out the building,” Mr Errey said, describing one of the meetings.
“My business is sitting on the cutting edge of technology. It is all about communicating our ideas and the more I can interact with engineers and the banks and everyone else, the higher the chance of being able to sell our technology.
“The only way I can do that is with the NBN. But 10 Mbps speeds … I can’t work with that.”
Bellingen Shire councillors voted unanimously for a “fair and equitable” deployment of NBN services across the shire, demanding FTTC “as a minimum”.
The council is continuing to lobby state and federal politicians for the best possible outcome, and has called on other NSW councils to do the same.
Is this precedent for local councils to upgrade their NBN?
Bellingen mayor Dominic King said councils can play an important role in pushing for better NBN outcomes in their communities.
“This is what happens when a community stands up and makes its voice heard,” Mr King said.
“It is really important that councils actively advocate on behalf of their communities and the outcomes that a small council has been able to achieve for its community is an absolute testament to that.
“Council’s preference was full-fibre [FTTP] because it is faster and more reliable … but FTTC [a low-cost fibre alternative] is a good outcome.”
RMIT University’s Mark Gregory, an associate professor in network engineering, told The New Daily that Bellingen’s success could open the floodgates for further wins at the local level.
“This is a win for common sense and demonstrates that councils and state governments need to get more involved to prevent their constituents being left behind with obsolete technologies being used,” Assoc Prof Gregory said.
Shadow Communications Minister Ms Rowland told The New Daily the door had been opened for other councils to pressure NBN to upgrade the rollout intended for their area.
Labor announced a major campaign on Wednesday, pressuring the government to scrap fibre-to-the-node and instead expand its fibre-to-the-curb rollout.
NBN Co downplayed Bellingen Shire Council’s win, denying it had been successful in changing the rollout across its shire.
“These changes were due to standard planning and design process,” a NBN Co spokesman said.
“In the case of Bellingen Shire, the planning and design work was not finalised when the decision was made to build FTTC. There was no cost to NBN in moving technology.
“FTTC was decided as the most appropriate access technology for the community following analysis of [various] factors.”