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Malcolm Turnbull throws a bone to FTTP boosters

Mal the Builder expresses a certain fondness for fibre in TV interview

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Australia's communications minister Malcolm Turnbull has today given an interview to TV show Meet the Press in which he appears to have softened his line on fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) connections for the National Broadband Network (NBN).

The transcript of the interview can be found here and the most interesting bit is the following exchange between Turnbull and Channel Ten's Hugh Riminton:

RIMINTON: So just to be clear, sorry – if someone has not met your construction definition that you’ve just given, does that mean that they will not get the NBN under the Labor plan of fibre to the premises? It won’t happen.

MALCOLM TURNBULL: Well, that’s what we’re assessing, Hugh. We’ve got a strategic review underway. In all of these fixed-line areas, people will get access to the NBN. It may not necessarily be with fibre to the premises. In fact, for most of the brownfield areas, it’s unlikely that it would be. I would like to build as much fibre to the premises as we could, but we’ve got to get the cost down.

Those are our italics on the last sentence, because we believe they represent a shift for Turnbull, who has often suggested fibre-to-the-node is somewhere between comparable or equivalent (FTTN) to FTTP because it meets current needs and has a likely future upgrade path that means it will eventually match speeds attainable under FTTP.

The answer we've recorded above came after Turnbull picked apart some NBN Co jargon to explain that some areas where the company said FTTP connections were under construction actually did not even have detailed designs completed. That fallacy, not a cancellation of FTTP builds, was behind a change in NBN Co deployment maps last week that many took as an indication areas that had been promised FTTP would now receive FTTN.

What then to make of the “I would like to build as much fibre to the premises as we could” comment?

Vulture South sees four interpretations for the remark.

The first is that it's a live interview throwaway, an inelegant turn of phrase unworthy of being over-interpreted or taken out of context.

A second is that Turnbull would like to salvage as much extant work as possible, so that in areas where FTTP planning is advanced that rollout continues, subject to price.

The third is that Turnbull has expressed admiration for FTTP.

Number four: the comment is a bone thrown at those campaigning for the retention of FTTP.

Let's give each possibility a little further inspection by offering up what Turnbull said next:

“See, the problem with the project as it’s – as Labor framed it – they massively underestimated the cost, the complexity, and the time it would take to complete. So what we’re doing now with the strategic review is getting a handle on where the project is at the moment, how much and how long – how much it would cost and how long it would take to complete it, on the old specifications, and then what we can do to deliver it sooner, cheaper, and more affordably.”

Your correspondent thinks we can discount the first interpretation: Turnbull's looking for a cost-effective rollout plan and feels it might be possible that FTTP survives his review.

We believe our second interpretation holds, but feel free to differ.

Our third? We feel the interview shows that if Turnbull's strategic review shows the old plan can be made to work, with a reduction in price, he may find FTTP doable.

Whether the review will find it is possible to deliver FTTP on Turnbull's reduced budget is unlikely, because the minister goes on to rehash his observations about contractor Visionstream behaving, in his eyes, unreasonably as it seeks a better rate of pay for NBN work in Tasmania.

Throw in the construction industry's expectations of higher costs and we can't see FTTP remaining in the mix for many NBN connections, even if Turnbull may just have expressed some grudging admiration for it. ®

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