Australians need fast reliable broadband as soon as possible so we don't fall behind other economies around the world. The Coalition's election pledge on broadband was to use a mix of technologies to speed up the rollout of the NBN and provide all Australians with download speeds of at least 25mbps by the end of 2016. The minimum speed accessible to all was promised to rise to 50mbps by the end of 2019 for 90% of those living in the fixed-line footprint (FTTP, FTTN and HFC).

Close up pic of red and white fibre optic cables

The NBN Co Strategic Review released on 12 December 2013 was one of several reviews of the NBN launched after the new government came to office. The Strategic Review has provided some sobering new figures about the time it will take to reach those promised targets. It seems likely that only 43% of premises will have access to at least 25Mbps download speeds by the end of 2016 but the 2019 target is forecast to be met, with 91% of premises in the fixed-line footprint to get access to at least 50Mbps by the end of that year.

While it is disappointing that the Strategic Review found the rollout of faster speeds will take somewhat longer than previously expected, we recognise that the NBN will still bring faster more reliable broadband speeds to consumers.

Here are some key NBN issues that we think are the most important for Australian consumers:

The bush not to be left behind

We need to ensure that rural areas are not left behind and uniform national wholesale pricing is a critical part of achieving this goal. Uniform national wholesale pricing means your retail service provider (e.g. Telstra, Optus, iiNet etc.) pays the same price to use the NBN everywhere in Australia – meaning consumers in the bush are more likely to be offered competitively priced services.

Structural separation of Telstra – what is it and why does it matter for consumers?

Whatever the mix of technologies adopted, ACCAN wants to see the structural separation of Telstra flow through to finality. Structural separation was one of the main reasons the NBN plan was created in the first place. It means ending Telstra's control over the infrastructure which delivers our phone and internet services.

So why does this matter to consumers?

Currently, Telstra owns the copper network – the country's main telecommunications infrastructure – so it places Telstra's competitors at a disadvantage. They have to pay Telstra to access the network, and Telstra has a long history of unfair practices which has made it hard for rival companies to compete. This all means consumers pay more than they should.

One of the reasons we want to see the NBN rolled out is because it is still important to end Telstra's monopoly over Australia's telecommunications infrastructure. This will deliver more competition and choices with better prices for consumers. As the NBN project evolves with new technologies, we want to ensure this objective remains front and centre. There are however still some uncertainties to be resolved about how structural separation will be implemented with the NBN set to use fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) and hybrid-fibre coaxial (HFC) which is owned by Telstra and other providers. We look forward to working with government and industry to address those issues.

A mobile NBN

NBN infrastructure can be used to boost mobile coverage in rural and remote areas. Currently, there are many towns in remote Australia without any mobile coverage – and for those that do have coverage, Telstra is usually the only choice of provider. This is because it is simply commercially unviable for many telcos to stretch their mobile coverage to areas with a small population. Little or no choice in a market is a bad outcome for consumers, which is why the NBN presents the perfect opportunity for mobile providers to give regional and remote consumers better mobile coverage and more choice of providers.

According to Daniel Featherstone from the Indigenous Remote Communications Association, mobile phones are the most preferred communications service for remote consumers, while lack of mobile coverage was the single largest issue for members of the NSW Farmers Association in a 2011 survey. ACCAN welcomes the appointment of Vodafone CEO Bill Morrow as the new NBN Co CEO, as he has previously campaigned for NBN infrastructure to be used to boost mobile coverage in regional areas.

Next steps

According to the Review, NBN Co will need to prepare for commercial negotiations and start discussions (again) with Telstra and Optus about using the HFC and with Telstra about using its copper network along with an assessment of the physical state of the network.

For the medium-term, an equally daunting number of steps are listed. These include the required regulatory changes and approvals such as ACCC approval for any amendments to the Telstra and Optus agreements and revision to a number of new and existing Communications Alliance and ACMA codes and standards.

ACCAN's view

We at ACCAN are keeping a watchful eye on developments and are seeking early participation and input into the cost-benefit analysis of broadband which is being conducted by a newly-appointed panel of experts. The panel will provide a report to the government within six months.

Since the election, we've already met with Minister Turnbull's advisers and in the year ahead we will be emphasising how important it is that we don't allow new policy directions to create excessive delays in actually getting high-speed broadband to more Australians quickly.

It would be fair to say, consumers have process and discussion fatigue when it comes to the NBN. We just want to see it rolled out. To that end, we'd like to ensure that the industry doesn't bog down again in years of arguments on issues that have already been amply debated.


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