The NBN Co’s decision to continue to purchase and roll out ‘obsolete’ copper cabling over ‘future proof’ fibre-optic cables is costing Australia, telco experts say.
New figures show NBN Co has purchased 55,911 kilometres worth of copper cabling for use in the national broadband network’s footprint – enough to wrap around Australia twice.
The government-owned business has replaced 6,300 degraded copper lead-ins on fibre-to-the-kerb (FTTC) with brand new copper, it was revealed this week.
RMIT associate professor of network engineering Mark Gregory slammed NBN Co’s continued use of copper as “wasteful”.
The admission by NBN Co that it had purchased 55,911 km to boost “obsolete” copper-based connections including fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) and FTTC “is shocking and should be met with outrage by taxpayers who will have to pay again, in the form of higher broadband plan costs, to have the obsolete copper based technologies replaced over the next decade,” Dr Gregory said.
“The Coalition’s NBN plan has become a national disgrace. The NBN rollout, which in reality has yet to be completed, is beset by cost and technology problems and the list of the government’s failed promises growing by the month.”
The copper figures were revealed in the Senate in response to Questions on Notice, and were 57 days overdue.
The Morrison government and NBN Co have faced criticism for being slow to answer Questions on Notice.
Last month, overdue responses to QoNs revealed that NBN Co had paid out more than $77 million in bonuses during the midst of the pandemic – nearly twice as much as the previous year.
The government was accused of trying to stall on releasing the payment details, following the Australia Post Cartier watch scandal last year.
Major upgrades needed
The NBN rollout was officially completed last year, but the Morrison government has already conceded that the many of the network’s copper-based connections already need to be upgraded.
In September, Communications Minister Paul Fletcher promised to pour more than $3 billion into upgrading millions of copper-based connections to fibre-to-the-premises by 2023.
This is on top of the cost of the rollout, which is estimated to have exceeded $57 billion.
The New Daily put questions to Mr Fletcher’s office about NBN CO’s ongoing copper purchases, but the questions went unanswered.
Labor’s shadow minister for communications, Michelle Rowland, accused Liberals of deceiving the public over the cost of fibre.
“We now know the Liberals knew back in 2013 that deploying fibre was dramatically cheaper than what they claimed in public,” Ms Rowland said.
“Malcolm Turnbull and Paul Fletcher kept this a secret and spent eight years knowingly misleading Australians to justify their copper mess.
“With waste and dishonesty as far as the eye can see – is it any wonder the cost of their copper NBN has gone from $29 billion, to $41 billion, to $49 billion and now $57 billion?”
NBN Co defends copper purchases
Despite the government’s concession that fibre upgrades are needed across the network, NBN Co has continued to defend its purchase of copper.
A spokesperson for NBN Co said “a common misconception seems to be that this copper is replacing existing copper in the legacy network”.
“In fact, this material is necessary to create short connections to new and upgraded components in the network. For example, close to 40 per cent of this volume is for specialised copper cable used in the FTTC network construction for short extensions of lead-in cables to the FTTC Distribution Point Unit (DPU) location. The installation of these short extensions deliver better speed and reliability to local customers,” the spokesperson said.
“Copper is also required to connect the local network into new FTTN nodes, which are then connected with new fibre to the exchange. A small amount of new copper cable is also procured for the assurance, maintenance and remediation of parts of its existing FTTN and FTTC networks.”
However, Dr Gregory disputed NBN Co’s claims that its continued use of copper was justified.
“New Zealand found that FTTC was not the way to go. It ends up being far more expensive than fibre-to-the-premises, and they’ve also discovered this in Europe and other places,” he said.
FTTC customers will miss out on gigabit-plus speeds
University of Melbourne professor of electronic engineering Thas Nirmalathas said NBN Co should “be focused on improving their network segments with poor broadband speeds” as consumer demand for ultra-fast plans grows.
While the demand for multi-gigabit fixed broadband is rising, NBN Co “will not be able to offer such services” to customers wth FTTC connections “even with the newer copper cables” installed, Professor Nirmalathas said.
Therefore, the firm’s installation of more copper “cannot be considered as future proofing their network”, he said.
“Instead, NBN should prioritise its efforts to harmonise the network to FTTP deployment as much as possible given the expectations on the fixed broadband to far exceed the mobile broadband offerings via 5G networks in near future.”