Aussie Minister Thunders at NBN Critics

Australia's broadband minister, Stephen Conroy, fired off a salvo against critics of his government's A$43 billion (US$33.4 billion) plans for Australia's National Broadband Network (NBN) at this week's FTTH Council Asia Pacific conference.

Ever since the Australian government revealed its plans to develop the fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) access network using a public/private partnership financing model, it has encountered criticism over technology choice, the potential role of national incumbent Telstra Corp. Ltd. (ASX: TLS; NZK: TLS), and the cost. (See Australia Unveils $31B FTTP Plan.)

In a not so subtle swipe at the naysayers, Conroy, the Minister for Broadband, Communications, and the Digital Economy, reiterated his government's belief that mobile technologies alone cannot meet Australia's national broadband needs.

While recognizing the need for wireless in rural areas where fiber access isn't feasible -- wireless access and satellite connections will account for 10 percent of NBN connections -- he was brutal in his response to suggestions from the government's political opponents that mobile services could meet Australia's future broadband access demands.

"This would be considered ignorance of the highest order if it were not simply political opportunism in the extreme," he told the conference.

But his speech wasn't all about verbal sparring. Conroy also further extended the olive branch his ministry offered to national operator Telstra in April, when it outlined the new NBN plans. The national incumbent had fallen out of contention to build the NBN under the government's previous strategy, but was handed a way back into the scheme under the new proposals. (See Telstra Dumped From FTTx Project.)

Conroy took the opportunity to single out Telstra when talking about where the government would be looking for private investment.

Conroy explained that private investment includes the possibility that network operators could contribute, or "vend in," assets in return for equity in the NBN. "I’m looking forward to constructive conversations with players across the industry, including Telstra, about the National Broadband Network opportunity."

Enabling existing infrastructure to become part of the NBN is one way the network's stakeholders can help keep budgets under control: Conroy stressed the government's desire to minimize duplication to keep costs down.

Indeed, the government expects "the actual cost to be significantly lower than A$43 billion," said Conroy, noting that a "substantial contingency" has been built into the cost estimate, which he clarified as being between A$37 billion and A$43 billion. He also said he expects the vend-in option to "bring down the total cost figure even more."

Although Conroy noted that "there have been strong statements from players within the telecommunications sector about the attractive nature of the opportunity and the potential to become involved," it's unclear yet whether Australia's carriers will be prepared to swap or sell any infrastructure as part of their involvement with the NBN. Telstra had not responded to Light Reading's enquiries at the time of publication.

In the meantime, consultations have begun between the government and industry on issues concerning regulation and backhaul, while Conroy noted that "we have already completed substantial work and are well advanced with project planning. We are now moving to the next stage... Issues around the detailed design of the network will be considered in the implementation study."

That study will cover the technical issues involved in building the planned FTTP network, which will include a mix of fiber-to-the-building (FTTB) and fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) deployments. One key issue is whether a mix of point-to-point and passive optical network (PON) technologies should be deployed, and which "flavor" of PON will best suit the NBN.

— Catherine Haslam, Asia Editor, Light Reading

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