Tasmania’s Labor government is promoting an alternative to the National Broadband Network’s (NBN) current rollout scheme, which it claims will permit the construction of the network with greater speed and ease at a reduced cost.
The plan, which involves the installation of overhead network cables on existing power polls in lieu of copper or optical fibre wiring in underground trenches, could receive backing from the other side of the partisan line at the Federal echelon of politics.
Tasmanian Premier Lara Giddings has said that Prime Minister Tony Abbot and Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull were both "open to receiving a proposal," while a spokesman for Turnbull said that the minister would reserve his comments on the matter for when he sees a plan in writing.
Giddings is the chief force behind the proposal, requesting that state-owned utility Aurora Energy revise its previous plans for an aerial deployment, as well as touting it to Federal government.
"I have asked Aurora to prepare a brief on using its existing power pole network to deliver optic fibre, which we will provide to the Australian government, " Giddings said. "This technique has the potential to ensure that the NBN can continue to be rolled out in a cheaper and more efficient way."
While Aurora has not released its official cost estimates for a large-scale overhead deployment, some observers believe that it may be as low as $1000 per premise, as compared to the figure of between $1100 to $1400 via underground cabling as detailed in NBN Co documents. The latter figure is also disputed, with estimates of the use of underground cabling in Tasmania rising as high as $3000 per premise.
The overhead method was initially used in trials for the rollout of the NBN in Tasmania under former Labor premier David Bartlett, with the establishment of a joint venture which would make use of Aurora's power polls in a fibre-to-the-premises solution. Of 32,000 premises which have been connected to the NBN, 17,500 have been reached using Aurora's polls.
The method was subsequently abandoned by NBN Co, which has since turned to the "cookie cutter" approach at the national level of FTTP via subterranean tunnels, availing itself of infrastructure and protocols in the hands of telecom giant Telstra.
This approach has stalled in Tasmania, however, due to the problem of asbestos in Telstra's telecommunications pits, as well as payment issues with local subcontractors.
Members of industry and government now claim that Visionstream, the company contracted by NBN for the provision of FTTP to around 200,000 premises in Tasmania, low-balled its bid and will be unable to complete the project within budget. While Visionstream has denied such claims, the company has reportedly engaged in discussions with the Federal government on amendments to its contract.
Giddings believes that the overhead deployment method first pitched by her predecessor may be the solution to the problems which have beset NBN rollout in Tasmania.
"This has the potential to be a win-win for all of us, allowing the Coalition to honour its pre-election pledge, reducing roll-out costs for NBN Co and its contractors, and ensuring that Tasmania continues to realize the benefits of having super-fast broadband delivered to the door," Giddings said.
Members of Tasmania's tech and engineering sector have endorsed the Premier's proposal, with Dean Winter from Tas ICT pointing to the successful use of power poles during the first two stages of fibre optic rollout in the state.
"Obviously NBN Co and Visionstream have run into a lot of problem with asbestos and contractual disputes," Winter said to ABC News. "A lot of that revolves around having to work through the pits. The Aurora model eliminates all those problems and means we're able to use local expertise of Aurora."
Prior efforts to use power poles for the NBN have not been free of problems or controversy, however. Last year in New South Wales, the deployment method triggered heated dispute between NBN Co and the state government, with the latter claiming it was owed $400 million for access to its power lines, as well as claiming in a media campaign that the NBN's rollout had led to higher power prices.