Waleed Aly's takedown of the NBN missed these critical points

NBN’s CEO Bill Morrow (left) at a site visit in Queensland. Source: supplied

The Project’s Waleed Aly joined the NBN debate last night during his ‘Something we should talk about’ segment.

Aly took aim at Malcolm “the man who virtually invented the internet in this country” Turnbull, labelling the Coalition NBN rollout as a “mongrel network”.

He highlighted that Turnbull, the then communications minister under PM Tony Abbott, stopped the rollout of a full fibre broadband network, replacing it with what the the politicians claimed would be a cheaper, faster network using a mixture of technologies.

Aly pointed out that despite the Coalition’s announcements, the new multi-technology, or MTM network, is over budget and early results from the now favoured fibre-to-the-node technology have been less than stellar.

Towards the end of his commentary he also added, “If you are watching this right now on the internet and you had to wait for even a second for this video to buffer, you know who to blame: Tony Abbott and the guy who he says ‘invented the internet’.”

While Aly’s popular show brings a somewhat technical debate alive to the average punter, he’s missed some crucial points, especially the biggest one: rollout speed.

A lot of his argument focused on the advantages of a full fibre rollout (Labor’s previous approach) versus the Coalition policy being implemented now, saying we’re suffering as a country because of it.

While he probably isn’t wrong, what he missed is that the full fibre debate is dead. It’s gone.

Neither party is going to go ahead with a full fibre rollout anymore, so any debate around it is beating a dead horse.

When it comes to the actual technology of choice, Aly was better off pointing to fibre to the distribution point (FTTdp) technology, which has become a viable, cheaper option.

Campbell Simpson at Gizmodo has put together a fantastic explainer, but to summarise FTTdp, it basically runs a skinnier fibre cable right up to the telecommunications pit outside your house and then uses the existing copper line to do the rest.

That means you don’t suffer from lower speeds due to the extensive use of copper – the further away you are from the node (those big green boxes), the slower the internet speed is. This technology is only marginally more expensive than the current fibre-to-the-node rollout, but offers speeds almost as great as full fibre.

It also means your front yard doesn’t have to be torn up to get full fibre, and there’s the relatively cheap option of paying to upgrade the connection to full fibre if you want.

Labor’s communications spokesman, Jason Clare suggested earlier this week that it’s the ALP’s technology of choice, and the NBN Co has been trialling the technology.

So why hasn’t prime minister Malcolm Turnbull or communications minister Mitch Fifield ever spoken about it as a viable alternative to the heavily criticised fibre to the node options? Their stance is it’s best used to plug holes when FTTN doesn’t work.

Back to Aly’s rant, the biggest thing he misunderstood is around rollout speed.

He raised the point that Australia’s global rank in average internet speeds had dropped from 30 down to 60. True, but Aly was placing the blame on the MTM rollout, which is completely false.

If you look at the rollout, the majority of connections activated are full fibre connections, meaning the drop is due to the amount of people still stuck on ADSL.

The problem lies in the huge difficulty NBN Co is having with its rollout. It’s simply years behind schedule. That delay is not about a political party’s policy or choice of technology.

Why? We never get any real explanations from politicians who proposed to the contrary or NBN executives. We get told it’s delayed, just to deal with it.

And that’s the biggest issue we should be debating, and the thing Aly needed to put more emphasis on.

Which brings us back to his final line, blaming Abbott and Turnbull if you have to “wait one second” for a buffer.

The line damaged the rest of his argument, because regardless of how you see this debate politically, the truth is that irrespective of the government rolling out the NBN, the exact same number of people would still be watching that video on their old ADSL connection. Despite is promises, the NBN just hasn’t turned up.

So stop arguing over the tech. It’s time to bring both the politicians and NBN CEO Bill Morrow to account over why it’s taking so damned long.

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