Joint Committee on the NBN splits, as National Party member sides with opposition

Liberal MPs say FTTN is fine, the rest call for FTTP or FTTC from now on

Australia's Joint Standing Committee on the National Broadband Network has released its first report [PDF] of the new Parliament, with a majority of members urging that the rest of the network be built with either fibre-to-the-curb or fibre-to-the-premises instead of fibre-to-the-node.

The 17-member committee has six members from the governing Liberal/National coalition.

But the “Chair's Dissenting Report” is signed by only five Liberal members: MP Susan Ley, MP Luke Howarth, Senator Jane Hume, Senator Dean Smith and MP Lucy Wicks. National Party MP Andrew Broad appears to have backed the majority report, which offers the following as its first recommendation.

The committee recommends that the Australian Government direct and enable nbn™ to complete as much as possible of the remaining fixed line network using FTTC at a minimum (or FTTP), and require nbn to produce a costed plan and timetable under which that would be achieved.

That's quite a recommendation, as nbn™ is currently adding tens of thousands of premises a month to the FTTN footprint, much of which is already planned. The company is yet to install FTTC in anger.

Other recommendations call for :

  • An independent audit of nbn™'s latest corporate plan;
  • nbn™ to create “a regional and remote reference group to support the rollout of the NBN in rural and remote Australia”;
  • regulation enabling end users to learn “clear information about the maximum attainable layer 2 speed of their NBN infrastructure/service on a per premise basis”;
  • better installation procedures to avoid repeat visits;
  • nbn™ to prioritise connections to areas that currently have no access to internet;
  • nbn™ to revise forecasts for rollout given the increasing number of premises in its too-hard baskets;
  • nbn™ to identify and disclose all areas that are currently designated to be served by a satellite connection that previously were set to receive the NBN by FTTN or fixed wireless, and explain why the change has occurred;
  • establishment of “clear rights and protections for suppliers and end users of NBN broadband services. This framework should include: service connection and fault repair timeframes; minimum network performance and reliability; and compensation arrangements when these standards are not met”;
  • nbn™ to clearly identify the complaint handling process for consumers, including: complaint resolution processes and timeframes, and internal and external complaint escalation processes”;
  • Australia's government to measure digital inclusion, and report on it.

The dissenting report notes that Committee Chair Susan Ley was bound to sign off the majority report, but re-states the government's long-held belief that a fast and cheap NBN build is better than a slow and expensive one.

The dissenting report also takes issue with the main report's allegation that the NBN won't meet its Statement of Expectations in terms of end-user speeds, pointing out current average FTTN speeds of 67.7 megabits per second and the likelihood of upgrades.

It also offers up the observation that “Demand for speed in Australia is also depressed compared to some other countries because of the compression technologies being used”.

There's also this observation, which is rather out of kilter with the “broadband=economic growth” equation underpinning the entire NBN project:

The reality is that access to high speed broadband (regardless of the technology) is just one factor to determine whether the economic and social benefits flow from access to high speed broadband. For example, Tasmania has the highest proportion of FTTP of any state, and has had access to the network the earliest. Nonetheless, Tasmania ranks the lowest on Telstra's Digital Inclusion index compared to other States.

The combined reports are over 200 pages in length and, on a first reading, don't offer much new in terms of argument or facts.

The Register led with National Party MP Andrew Broad siding with the majority report because that was not to be expected: the coalition parties are pretty tight.

But Broad's actions aren't unexpected, either, as his party represents regional voters many of whom will be forced to use either nbn™'s fixed wireless or satellite services. The report contains a whole chapter dedicated to the Sky Muster satellite service, plenty of it dedicated to users' complaints. The fixed wireless service also comes in for plenty of criticism. Broad's decision to side with a report that advocates for actions beneficial to his constituents is therefore far from a split in the government.

Internet Australia, the peak not-for-profit body “representing the interests of Internet users” said “This report totally vindicates the calls we’ve been making for more than two years now. Australia needs a 21st Century broadband network and this is not being delivered.” And because a government member has put his name to the report, that comment carries more weight.

The Register will attempt to mine the report for more detail over the weekend. ®

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