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NBN rollout to reach 1.3m new premises by late 2016

NBN Co and Minister offer different descriptions of construction deadline

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The timetable for rollout of Australia's national broadband network (NBN) has been updated. The nation's terminal-looking government, which faces an election on September 14th, has unveiled plans to provide an additional 1.3m premises with a fibre to the premises (FTTP) connection by December 2016.

A canned statement about the new timetable offers a list of the locales where fibre will be deployed.

The statement refers to “Locations where work will begin by 30 June 2016” and says at “premises where services are available, work will commence or be complete by 30 June 2016.”

Those terms don't mirror the language used by NBN Co's own rollout map, which uses the phrase “Construction to commence within three years - we will commence construction in your area from Dec 2014 in phases with last construction scheduled to commence in Dec 2016”, with an asterisk offering a disclaimer about boundaries on its maps being indicative.

That discrepancy between “commence or be complete by June 2016” and “last construction scheduled to commence in December 2016” may give opposition Comms spokesbloke Malcolm Turnbull something else to gnaw on, given he's criticised NBN Co for failing to achieve current rollout targets. Turnbull has posted the transcript of a doorstop interview he gave today (May 5th) in which he says the new plan is unlikely to be achieved, and is therefore a cruel hoax, given NBN Co has not been able to deliver on previous plans.

It's hard not to see the expansion of the rollout plan as either a vote-harvesting or policy-protection exercise. The first scenario seems sensible inasmuch as the NBN is one of the government's few popular policies. Promising more fibre connections therefore re-enforces the differences between the government's FTTP for free policy versus the opposition's fibre-to-the-node with optional user-pays FTTP. Fairfax Media analysis of the new rollout plan does, however, suggest that the new rollout does not favour government-held electorates.

A policy-protection intention is supported by an assumption that announcing the expansion now means the ink is almost certainly dry on contracts to connect the newly-named locales. Such contracts will be difficult for any new government to unpick, as it's extremely poor form for a newly-elected regime to stiff private sector providers.

The opposition Liberal/National coalition has, however, signalled its willingness to unpick one contract, namely the deal with Telstra that guarantees access to its ducts so fibre can be run to each premises. The coalition's NBN plan instead imagines using the copper in those ducts, which will require a lot of laywer time to rework the deal.

Would a coalition government try to cancel or alter those contracts to meet its stated aims of a faster, cheaper, xDSL rollout? If, as is currently predicted, it wins a thumping victory it may have the numbers to do so. If there's been no significant work undertaken in some areas where FTTP has been promised b 2016 it may even be possible to mount a case for partial cancellation in the name of saving money by stopping FTPP before the expense of construction is incurred. Whether the realpolitik of reversing a FTTP promise to more than a million homes is worth the pain of any budgetary gain or ballot box pain will be among Australia's most complex piece of political calculus. ®

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