Monday, 9 May 2022

Australian Federal Election 2022: after eight and a half years the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison Government has still not delivered a reliable NBN high speed broadband network

(Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons)

It’s been eight and a half years since the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison Government came to power and took a wrecking ball to key policy initiatives of the Rudd & Gillard Governments – solely on the basis that these were programs initiated by the Labor Party.

Even in Opposition, one of the Coalition's targets had been the National Broadband Network (NBN).

However, unlike the price on carbon, it could not erase the NBN but was forced to tolerate its existence.

By 23 September 2020 the Morrison Government and NBN Co had declared the initial rollout of a national high speed broadband network complete and fully operational. Apparently the only thing remaining was to plan for future increases in demand.

NBN Co then closed the door and, to all intents and purposes, walked away from most of the issues both it and the Coalition Government had created by using a patchwork of different connection types to supposedly meet the needs of over 25 million people in homes and businesses scattered across est. 7.692 million square kilometres of widely varying terrain.

In 2021 in response to Internet connection problems in his own electorate a member of the Morrison Government, 

Liberal MP for Berowra Julian Leeser, tabled a private members bill - supported by seventeen MPs and senators - which attempted to make NBN Co more accountable, build better infrastructure and improve customer service.

Julian Leeser, Telecommunications, retrieved 9 May 2022:

In response to the Bill, Choice’s Alan Kirkland said: ‘It’s unacceptable for people who live in a major city like Sydney not to have mobile coverage in their home, and even worse in a bushfire-prone area. We find it puzzling that the telco industry, particularly Telstra, has been able to get away with substandard service for so long.’

Professor Alan Fels, former chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, agreed that more needs to be done. He said: ‘For many years the telco industry has failed to make access to mobile phone services universally available, even in a number of suburbs. Yet such access is an essential service and vital in emergencies. After waiting for so long, it is clear that the only solution is legislation, backed by sanctions compelling it.’

That particular private member’s bill appears to have withered on the vine.

Also in 2021 a five-member panel conducted a review of regional telecommunications in Australia. One could be forgiven for wondering about the independence of this panel given a former Nationals MP for Cowper and, a business person who worked on the 2013 Nationals election campaign and previously derived consultancy work from a WA Liberal Government are among its members.

It came as no surprise that there were 16 key findings contained in the December 2021 review report, along with twelve recommendations. Although Finding 10 (highlighted below) raised an eyebrow.

Key Findings

1. Increased coordination and investment between the Australian, state and territory governments is needed to address a ‘patchwork quilt’ approach to connectivity in the regions.

Relates to Recommendations: 1, 2

2. Local councils and other regional stakeholders are increasingly expected to facilitate telecommunications service delivery, but are not appropriately resourced to identify connectivity need and support the deployment of suitable solutions.

Relates to Recommendations: 1, 5

3. Supply side issues, including backbone fibre and spectrum access, are barriers to competition and innovation in regional telecommunications markets.

Relates to Recommendations: 1, 2

4. There is an urgent need to consider the future of the Universal Service Obligation in order to provide reliable voice services to rural and remote consumers.

Relates to Recommendations: 7, 8

5. There are significant issues with the maintenance and repair of telecommunications networks, particularly copper landlines, in regional, rural and remote areas.

Relates to Recommendations: 7, 8

6. In instances of natural disasters and emergencies, connectivity is significantly impacted by power and network outages. This reduces access to recovery and support.

Relates to Recommendations: 3

7. Mobile coverage continues to improve, but expanding reliable coverage to priority areas is becoming more difficult.

Relates to Recommendations: 9, 10

8. Increased ongoing demand for data on regional, rural and remote mobile and fixed wireless networks is not always being met, causing network congestion issues.

Relates to Recommendations: 6, 9

9. Although Sky Muster Plus has improved access to data, Sky Muster users are frustrated by insufficient data allowances, high latency and reliability issues.

Relates to Recommendations: 6

10. Current minimum broadband speeds are mostly adequate, but will need to increase over time.

Relates to Recommendations: 8

There is a certain irony in Finding 10 given that less than one month before the report was delivered to the Minister, review panel member Prof. Hugh Bradlow was tweeting the NBN on 1 November 2021 with this complaint: "Hello @NBN_Australia my Internet at Sandy Point, Vic has been out for 3 full days. Instead of all the excuses on your website (and don't blame the power - it is working just fine) can you actually give a committed time to get it fixed?

11. There are emerging technology options to meet the demand for data but their service performance has not yet been validated.

Relates to Recommendations: 4

12. Regional consumers, businesses and local governments experience difficulty in resolving telecommunications issues and providers are not adequately addressing the complex needs of regional users.

Relates to Recommendations: 5, 7

13. Regional consumers, businesses and local government need access to independent advice and improved connectivity literacy to support them in making informed connectivity choices.

Relates to Recommendations: 1, 5

14. Predictive coverage maps and other public information do not accurately reflect on-the-ground telecommunications experience. There is significant misinformation about the availability of 

telecommunications services.

Relates to Recommendations: 5, 9

15. The cost of telecommunications services remains high for vulnerable groups in remote Australia. This is impacting on their access to essential services.

Relates to Recommendations: 11, 12

16. Continued engagement with Indigenous Australians in regional, rural and remote communities is needed to address ongoing issues of access, affordability and digital ability.

Relates to Recommendations: 5, 11, 12

Over a year after the Morrison Government declared the high broadband network a success it was very evident that it was far from having that status.

Indeed, in some quarters opinion had been scathing. Public Policy and Business Innovation, 4 November 2021:

This week, Telstra claimed its 5G home broadband service will offer average speeds of 378 megabits per second to homes and businesses. In contrast, the average maximum speed on Fibre to the Node is 67 megabits per second, and up to 200,000 premises on the copper NBN can’t even get 25 megabits.

Imagine spending $50 billion on a copper dominated network, that’s not delivering minimum speeds required under law, and already losing its competitiveness.

That is the anti-genius of Liberal-National Party. Deceive. Implement bad technology policy at higher cost. Then spend more money to correct their mistakes. They led us down this path on broadband, and now want to do it with energy.

In 2013 the Liberals produced “modelling” known as the NBN strategic review. This elaborate sham had a sole purpose: provide political cover for abandoning fibre.

This document was then used to claim a multi-technology mix of second-rate technologies was going to be $30 billion cheaper than a full-fibre NBN.

This untruth, repeated at nauseum, relied on two tricks.

The first was pretending the copper dominated network being rolled out costs $41 billion. False. It is costing $57 billion.

The second was to claim the original plan to deploy a fibre network to 93 per cent of Australia would cost $72 billion, rather than the near $50 billion forecast under Labor.

The latter claim, which the Liberals clung to desperately, was decimated in a front-page report in the Sydney Morning Herald in February 2021.

It revealed that in late 2013 the Liberals were explicitly told deploying Fibre to the Premises was dramatically cheaper than what they claimed in public.

That advice was redacted and kept secret for seven years, and it is clear why.

If the redacted costs for fibre, along with real-world interest rates, were fed back into the strategic review “modelling”, the original fibre rollout would have cost around $53 billion.

Notably, Minister Fletcher stopped repeating his $30 billion claim since the unredacted extracts appeared in print, because he always knew it to be false.

The NBN copper rollout has now become a business case liability and looks increasingly uncompetitive against 5G.

The NBN HFC network, which relies on Foxtel Pay TV infrastructure, is arguably the most expensive and unreliable deployment of its sort in the world.

Tens of thousands of Fibre to the Curb modems across the country are also frying during storms because lightning is being conducted over the copper that leads into the home.

The government is now saying Fibre to the Curb technology will not deliver gigabit speeds, despite promising it would only a year ago.

Every fixed-line technology deployed by the Coalition is beset by technical or business case problems, except for Fibre to the Premises – Labor’s original technology of choice.

As the 2022 federal election date drew nearer the Morrison Government on 23 March bestirred itself enough to announce that:

The Morrison Government has welcomed NBN Co’s announcement that 50,000 homes and businesses will be able to order an upgrade to their NBN connection, delivering ultra-fast speeds at no upfront cost.

These are the initial customers to have access to upgrades that will allow 8 million homes, or 75 per cent of premises in the NBN fixed line footprint, to access to ultra-fast speeds by 2023.

Minister for Communications, Urban Infrastructure, Cities and the Arts, the Hon Paul Fletcher, said the on-demand upgrades will give more Australians access to the fastest broadband speeds available on the NBN.

There is no mention of ongoing costs and pricing which remain an issue.

I am honestly not sure that this is anything more than a typical election year 'announceable' which will sink down into the pile of past unmet expectations raised concerning NBN high speed broadband.

Regardless of whatever media releases the Morrison Government is sending out, the dissatisfaction with the NBN high speed broadband network remains 12 days out from election day…..

The Guardian, 8 May 2022:

The NBN rollout may have been completed, but Richard Proudfoot is still using an old ADSL internet connection, and he has to juggle his Zoom meetings around his partner’s work.

He runs a small IT business from his home in Maleny, on the Sunshine Coast, about 100km north of Brisbane, while his partner is a part-time university lecturer.

Due to their property’s terrain, NBN Co has told him he is not able to connect to fixed wireless or fixed line. While he has the option of satellite, many users have reported poor speeds and reliability. He has stuck with ADSL for the time being because he believes the tree cover and weather would adversely effect his service.

We are very, very dependent on a reliable internet ADSL connection. To make it work for us given the limitations, we schedule internet use based on need ... we cannot do concurrent Zoom meetings so we rearrange diaries in order to cope.”

The Coalition and NBN Co declared the rollout of the then $51bn network complete in 2020. There are now 12.1m homes able to connect, and 8.5m homes on the NBN.

The high-speed network was meant to resolve the digital divide in Australia, but two years on from its completion there remains a stark difference between the haves and have-nots; those who have a decent internet service and those still waiting or suffering from poor speeds and reliability on their NBN service.

The Liberal MP Julian Leeser wrote a scathing review of the NBN in a submission to the federal government’s regional telecommunications review last year, describing it as “too slow with countless delays”.

Leeser’s northern Sydney electorate, Berowra, is a mix of suburban and semi-regional locations, meaning his constituents are living with the spectrum of NBN technologies, from fixed to wireless and satellite.

There is too much variability in the quality of coverage across the various NBN technologies,” he said.

The pandemic forced many people to work from home and rely on their home internet more than ever before.

Leeser said that teachers had been forced to work out of McDonald’s car parks to leech the wifi for online classes, people were unable to work from home or undertake telehealth appointments, and some had even been forced to move out of the area due to their poor NBN connection…...

Many Guardian Australia readers raised problems with the project when asked what their major concerns were ahead of this month’s federal election.

One reader, Cate, who lives in Killarney Heights in the Sydney electorate of Warringah, missed out on full fibre or cable that some nearby suburbs have access to.

She says she was originally connected via the Optus internet cable but was moved over to fibre-to-the-node (FttN) on the NBN.

Using Optus cable we rarely had dropouts. I could count on one hand the number of times over five years that we lost internet for any noticeable length of time,” she says.

Now she says they experience daily interruptions.

Our modem takes five to 10 minutes to reconnect so this can often mean at least 25 to 50 minutes a day of disruption to our service and this is still considered acceptable by NBN and they will do nothing to fix it.”

She says she is rarely able to get the top speeds promised. In speed test results Cate provided to Guardian Australia taken between 2pm and 3pm on a weekday, the results ranged from 1.3Mbps to 40Mbps, compared to 100Mbps on her previous Optus cable…..

Around 119,000 premises that are connected to the NBN via FttN still can’t get the minimum 25Mbps download and 5Mbps upload speeds. Due to the ageing copper and environmental conditions, FttN connections will continue to get worse over time.

In February, the NBN CEO, Stephen Rue, admitted the bit rate – the number of bits that can be transferred across the network per second – would degrade between 2% and 4% every year on average across the 4m FttN connections.

The other looming factor is people switching the NBN off. Customers frustrated with the NBN might look to 5G or another service like Elon Musk’s Starlink, and threaten the ability of the network to make a return on the taxpayer investment.…...

Something to think about standing in line at the polling booths on Saturday 21 May 2022.

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