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Four National Broadband Network myths

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I believe in public debate, but I also believe in facts. In the ongoing row about Australia’s National Broadband Network (NBN), facts are an early casualty. Some of the non-facts bandied about are to do with the NBN’s technology, but instead, I’d like to deal with aspects of the political and business dealing that are widely misunderstood.

'The NBN is buying Telstra’s network'

Many Australian media outlets have trouble distinguishing between Telstra’s network and its customers. The ABC provides an example here: “Telstra has bitten the bullet and agreed to an $11 billion deal to sell its copper phone network and its customers to the NBN Company”.

The deal between NBN Co, the government and Telstra doesn’t involve the sale of Telstra’s network. Telstra will move its customers to the NBN, and will then decommission the copper.

First, NBN Co will connect my home to the Telstra copper, along with all the other homes in the area. The copper decommissioning is agreed to be complete 18 months after the rollout is complete, in a given area. The copper doesn’t get transferred to the NBN.

Other infrastructure is covered by the deal as well – primarily Telstra exchanges, and “pits and pipes”. NBN Co will have access to these on commercial terms: it will pay Telstra rent for accessing its infrastructure. It’s not buying those parts of the network either: it’s just renting.

There is one place where Telstra infrastructure will transfer to NBN Co. Once the customer connection is made and the copper is decommissioned, the lead-in duct – the bit of conduit between street and home – will transfer to NBN Co. But that hardly counts as the sale of the network.

'Telstra is being paid to dismantle its HFC network'

The line goes like this: here’s a valuable asset (the Telstra HFC network) that’s going to be torn to pieces to make way for the NBN. For example: “…in return for billions of dollars of taxpayers' money, Telstra and Optus have effectively agreed to dismantle their existing hybrid fibre coaxial cable networks that already run past 2.5 million homes in Australia.”

Partly true. In the case of Telstra, the physical infrastructure will remain, to support pay TV customers. There is a non-compete agreement under which the HFC will nor longer carry broadband services, but the network isn’t being scrapped.

Optus, on the other hand, seems ready to lose home customers off its HFC network. It mentions two circumstances in which it will not decommission the network: where it is providing business services, and where it’s providing connections to mobile base stations. Unlike Telstra, Optus is not committing to keeping its HFC network for ongoing pay TV customers.

'The Telstra network was built with taxpayers’ money'

For some reason, this particular notion sparks outrage: “First, the taxpayers built the Telstra network, then we sold it off, and now we’re spending more government money in buying it back!”

The network wasn’t actually funded by government. It was funded out of the capital and income of government-owned enterprises – first, the Postmaster-General and then Telecom (which became Telstra). In both cases, the income or borrowings of the relevant body funded the build, not the federal budget. No taxpayer dollars were involved.

'The NBN will be filtered'

The conspiracy version goes like this: the government will accomplish its secret filtering plans by censoring traffic over the NBN.

The first problem with this is that there’s nothing secret about the government’s hopes for a filter.

The second is that it would be damned hard to run an “NBN filter” in secret. You would have to redesign the network.

The NBN is going to be a Layer 2 network. It won’t offer “Internet services” of any kind: no IP routing, no domain name services, no IP address allocation, no Internet transit. Turning this into a big filter would require a fundamental redesign of the network. Any filtering – whether DNS-based or IP address-based or content-based – would still have to happen at the retail ISP level.

Third: while not a lawyer, I can’t see a filtering regime coming into force without new laws. Someone’s bound to notice the bill being introduced to parliament, getting its first and second reading, being horse-traded through the House of Representatives, with all the effort you’d need to secure the independent votes, then getting knocked back by the Senate, tossed back at the lower house … does anybody really think the government would risk an election just to build a filter into the NBN?

There are plenty of other myths surrounding the NBN, which I’m certain are going to show up as comments to this story … ®

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