In the past Internet Australia (IA) has called for fast, ubiquitous broadband without publicly favouring a technological solution. Based on new fibre costings and backed by a survey of its members IA has now called for a re-assessment of the Government's MTM model.
"Deploy fibre" was the short answer from Internet Australia’s vice-chair, Dr Paul Brooks, when asked what the government should do with the National Broadband Network at a Senate inquiry on Friday.
The not-for-profit peak body representing Internet users was among a number of expert groups and individuals that gave evidence at the inquiry held in Canberra.
In his opening remarks IA’s CEO, Laurie Patton, summed up his organisation's attitude by proposing that we "follow the Nike principle — Just do it!"
"If the Internet is to reach its potential for good it is essential that we make it available to everyone," Patton said. "In the 21st Century to be without access to the Internet is like not having other basic services like water and electricity. The ability to participate in our digitally enabled future is a basic right of all Australians."
"Gaining employment and engaging in a wide range of community activities will increasingly require digital skills. We need to build our economic and social future around a connected world where everyone has access to the Internet and knows how to use it."
In the past Internet Australia has argued the need for fast, ubiquitous broadband without publicly favouring a technological solution. However, on the basis of information now available — including evidence from New Zealand on reduced fibre network construction costs and news of NBN's "low-cost" fibre option — it has now called on the government to urgently re-assess its commitment to the Multi-Technology-Mix (MTM) model.
One of the most significant revelations at Friday's Senate inquiry came from a representative of Chorus NZ, the country’s principle broadband provider. Under questioning from former Communications Minister, Senator Stephen Conroy, Chorus revealed that it has managed to reduce the installation costs for its fibre network by 29 percent.
This information came only a day after a 'leak' revealed that NBN has itself been quietly trialling a new low-cost fibre system that uses thinner fibre optic cables combined with more flexible joints and other improvements.
"Fibre-to-the-node was supposed to deliver broadband sooner and at a lower cost. We always knew that technology and improved implementation processes would gradually bring down the cost of fibre. It now looks like it might be coming very close to the same price as copper — especially if you take a long term view on the investment", Mr Patton pointed out today.
In addition to highlighting the need for fast broadband based on a fibre network, Dr Brooks told Senators that "Increasingly, people are looking for upload speed, not download speed," especially if they relied on the Internet for their business operations.
Dr Brooks also explained that new technology using 'wave division multiplexing' will allow for extraordinary increases in Internet delivery speeds using existing fibre, that simply cannot be matched by services based on copper wire. He pointed to places like Singapore and Hong Kong that are already delivering 10 gigabits per second to households.
This was backed up by comments earlier in the day from an academics group that pointed to the fact that fibre networks will continue to be upgradable long past the point where copper-based services will need to be replaced.
IA's chair George Fong, who is based in regional Victoria where he owns and runs an ISP, was ideally placed to explain the issues that confront customers when broadband becomes available in their area. NBN is due to arrive at his house ten days from now. However, Mr Fong has been fielding inquiries from confused consumers for many months now.
Expressing the concerns of many of his customers, Mr Fong observed "People keep talking about cost. From a regional point of view we're not looking at that, we’re looking at the investment and the amortisation of that investment over 20, 30, 40, 50 years…It’s a real problem when we are seeing (such positive) changes on the ground as a result of this technology being rolled out."
Preparing for its appearance at the Senate inquiry, IA carried out a survey of its members last weekend. "There were only about 50 respondents so we do not claim it to be scientifically rigorous", Mr Patton noted, "but the results certainly match the anecdotal evidence that we regularly receive from our members".
Asked about the current government’s MTM model, which heavily relies on the Telstra copper telephone network, only four percent said they were satisfied, 16 percent were neutral, 47 percent dissatisfied, and 33 percent extremely dissatisfied — an 80 percent rejection of the MTM.
On whether NBN speeds would be sufficient for them and for their customers' needs over next five to ten years, six percent answered yes, 78 percent said no, while 16 percent said "don't know."
The one day inquiry was billed as an opportunity for the committee to secure technical advice from parties not previously consulted. It began with a round table where technology academics provided their opinions on the best approach for Australia to pursue.
"It was clear that the majority viewpoint from this group was that fibre was the only option that guaranteed the ability to keep up with international developments", IA said in a statement also stating that "this view was vigorously supported by Senator Conroy who participated by telephone from Melbourne."
One of the participant’s contributions was momentarily interrupted when the Senator's voice "unexpectedly boomed from loud speakers in the hearing room with the words 'You do it once, you do it right, you do it with fibre'," IA states.
Shortly after Friday's session Senator Scott Ludlam also weighed in, posting on his Facebook page "Internet Australia are the peak body representing users of the Internet. They're the people we should most be listening to about the NBN".