NBN Co fudges numbers to expand rollout

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NBN Co fudges numbers to expand rollout

How the fibre rollout is slipping.

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NBN Co has delayed fibre connections to 69,500 premises in one month alone in order to begin construction activities in a greater number of Australian cities and towns, an iTnews analysis can reveal.

As Australia's most politically scrutinised construction project struggles to meet deadlines, NBN Co has continually promoted the impression of progress by announcing that its fibre rollout has expanded to new towns and cities. 

Today iTnews can reveal that NBN Co has resorted to connecting fewer premises within existing sites than originally promised to allow for this expansion.

Between January and February this year, NBN Co indefinitely delayed the rollout of a total of 69,500 fibre connections promised to cities and towns Australia-wide, redistributing them among 37 existing rollout areas and two new ones.

The new rollout areas — accounting for over half (39,200) of the connections taken from existing sites  — are in Labor-held seats: Slacks Creek in the Queensland seat of Rankin and Queanbeyan in bellwether Eden-Monaro.

The biggest losers from the redistribution of these connections are the LNP-held Townsville suburb of Gulliver, which now has 12,400 or 42 percent less fibre connections than originally promised — and the Labor-held Keysborough in Victoria, of which 8100 connections have been cut from the rollout plan.

In total, a substantial percentage of the fibre connections promised to 14 towns and cities have disappeared from the rollout plan.

These include a significant proportion of the premises in:

  • Armidale, Riverstone, Wollongong and Mudgee in NSW;
  • Toowoomba, Cairns, Ipswich, Ashmore and Rockhampton in Queensland;
  • Carlton in Victoria;
  • Geraldton in Western Australia;
  • Darwin in the Northern Territory.

Hold the line, please

A comparison of NBN Co data from one month to the next also gives an insight into how far behind schedule the network build is.

Month-to-month shifts in deadlines for NBN fibre rollout areas reveal that construction in 28 percent of new housing estates and 19 percent of built-up areas is running behind schedule.

The delays are in declaring the fibre optic cables as "service-ready". Connections in a service-ready area can be used by an internet service provider to sell a retail service (or by a consumer to connect to the internet).

Built-up areas of Western Australia and Queensland are the worst affected by delays in getting fibre cables ready.

In new housing estates, meanwhile, 50 percent of all rollouts that were pushed back were in Queensland.

A preliminary analysis by iTnews.com.au indicates that the delays in Queenland's new housing estates are clustered in cities and towns that experienced floods when ex-Tropical Cyclone Oswald battered the state in late January.

Sources close to NBN construction efforts in the state disagree, and believe the real issue is the availability of skilled labour.

An NBN Co spokesperson did not provide a response to several questions raised by iTnews.com.au.

Telecommunications analyst Paul Budde told iTnews that — in general — some delays in fibre builds were acceptable, but they became less palatable the closer they were to the proposed date of a cable being ready to carry internet services.

"Three years out [from being ready for service], a few months [of delay] would not make any difference whatsoever," Budde told iTnews.com.au.

"However, once you start reaching the six-month period [from being service-ready], I would think people would start to get annoyed by delays of more than a month.

"Once you get to the one-to-two month period [before service-ready], tolerance of any delay would start to be very low."

Robbing Peter to pay Paul?

The shrinking number of connections within towns earmarked for fibre was one of the more curious changes between the January and February iterations of NBN Co's service-ready schedule.

NBN Co lists 79 fibre serving areas (FSAs) in built-up areas where it currently has plans to roll out fibre optic cables.

FSAs are top-of-the-pile in the NBN topology. They are the towns, suburbs or portions of suburbs designated to receive connections.

Fibre to FSAs is deployed in phases, known as fibre serving area modules (FSAMs). A single FSA can consist of up to 24 FSAMs. Each FSAM consists of up to 16 fibre distribution areas (FDAs) that support up to 200 premises. (pdf)

To understand how far-reaching NBN Co's adjustment was over a single month, only seven of the 79 FSAs were not adjusted. Put another way, NBN Co altered the number of premises in 88 percent of the rollout areas.

It is possible to calculate the net effect of those changes. Between January and February, NBN Co skimmed 69,500 fibre connections off 33 existing FSAs.

It redistributed 32,300 of those connections to 37 other FSAs, and announced two new FSAs — Slacks Creek and Queanbeyan — to which it apportioned a total of 39,200 premises.

In summary, between January and February 2013, NBN Co added two new FSA locations to its brownfields fibre rollout schedule, which should have increased NBN Co's total brownfields footprint by 39,200 premises. Instead, the footprint only increased by 2000 premises.

NBN Co has effectively found a way to expand the network — without adding a great many new connections.

Read on for the winners and losers of NBN Co's creative accounting, and for a full analysis of slippages in new housing estates.

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