After seven years of copper, Australian NBN pivots to fiber

Seven years and A$51 billion ($36.4 billion) into its copper-heavy NBN, the Australian government has made a A$3.5 billion ($2.5 billion) pivot to fiber.

The government and the NBN Co jointly announced a plan Wednesday to upgrade the state-funded wholesale network to deliver up to 1 Gbit/s to another 6 million premises, up from fewer than 2 million today.

The upgrade will be funded by refinancing NBN Co's A$19.5 billion ($13.7 billion) government loan and by private debt. NBN Co raised A$6.1 billion ($4.3 billion) in loans earlier this year.

It's a major departure for a government that came into power on a mission to "demolish the NBN."

The then-leader, Tony Abbott, had denounced the original fiber plan as a "video entertainment system" and "the greatest white elephant this country has ever seen."

After taking office in 2013, Abbott scrapped the plan to run fiber to 93% of premises in favor of a "mixed-technology model."

The result is Australia now ranks 61st in the latest Speedtest broadband rankings, behind Ukraine and Vietnam.

The switch follows the completion of the initial national rollout to 11.5 million premises. Around 18% are directly connected by fiber, 23% by HFC, 36% by FFTN and 12% by FTTC.

NBN Co said under its new corporate plan it would allocate A$3.5 billion ($2.5 billion) to improving service for homes and small businesses currently connected by FTTN, FTTC and HFC.

"This will mean that by 2023 an estimated 75% of homes and businesses in the fixed-line footprint will have access to peak wholesale speed tiers of 500 Mbps to close to 1 Gbps," it said.

But the U-turn has drawn plenty of critics, led by another former prime minister, Kevin Rudd, the author of the original NBN. He let fly on Twitter:

"What a mega backflip on the part by [PM] Morrison. For 7 years they've botched my govt's 2009 plan for fibre to the premises, instead wasting billions with fibre to the mythical 'node,' giving us the worst speeds in the world. Now this! What total policy frauds."

Mark A Gregory, associate professor in network engineering at RMIT in Melbourne, said the move was positive but warned of an entrenched digital divide with the requirement that consumers must commit to a high-speed plan before the upgrade occurs.

"For many Australians the NBN is already too expensive. It is about 20% more expensive than it should be due to the cost blowouts related to the [current] government's decision to roll out obsolete copper based technologies.

"The government should commit to providing FTTP to 93% of Australian premises and not have hurdles that disadvantage low-income families."

NBN Co has also allocated A$1 billion ($702.6 million) for business and regional connectivity.

It would invest up to A$700 million ($492 million) to support online collaboration and cloud services for business, with plans to set up more than 200 "business fiber zones," where all businesses will have access to Ethernet at reduced prices.

It has set aside another A$300 million ($211 million) investment to work with state and local governments to improve broadband in regional and remote areas.

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— Robert Clark, contributing editor, special to Light Reading

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