As the Department for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources in Ireland prepares the National Broadband Plan Intervention Strategy, it is useful to consider some lessons which can be learned from elsewhere. The experience of Australia is instructive, in part illustrating some of the pitfalls.
- Ambitious targets with ambitious deadlines
In 2009 the Australian Government announced an ambitious programme to deliver fibre to the premises (FTTP) to 93% of Australian premises (residential and commercial). This was a very ambitious target given the country’s very low population density (3% compared to Ireland’s 67%). The remaining 7% of the population, in the very remote parts of Australia, were to be served by satellite and wireless technologies.
The original deadline for completion was within six years (2015). By the end of 2013 just 3% of premises were connected.
Following an extensive review in late 2013, a change in direction and new targets were announced.
- Instead of 93% FTTP, it is more likely to be 22% FTTP, the exact technology (and therefore the actual %) will be determined on area basis.
- Fibre to the node (FTTN) to 71% approximately of premises, with the remaining 4% and 3% fixed wireless and satellite respectively.
- Lower speeds (50Mbps rather than 100+ Mbps download) resulting from the higher rate of FTTN connection rather than FTTP.
- Increasing costs – to the exchequer
The original plan in 2009, was forecast to cost AUD $44 billion (Australian dollars). In 2013, the estimated cost increased to AUD $73 billion – 65% greater than the original forecast.
- Higher costs – to the consumer
There is concern that the retail costs will be much higher than the cost of services currently available, estimated at an extra AUD $43 per month. This will influence the take-up of next generation services. Broadband is now accepted as a basic utility and access to it is considered necessary for participation in society and the economy. However as the recent water protests in Ireland demonstrate, basic utilities should not be expensive. The concept of ‘Willingness to Pay’ is a key element of the pricing structure.
From an Irish perspective, it will be interesting to see from the trials of next generation broadband (in Cavan and Mayo for example), to what extent consumers will revert to a basic service at a cheaper price rather than paying extra for a premium product. It is also likely that the consumers in the pilot areas will be more receptive to paying for a premium service which they currently access, compared to those yet to experience the benefits of the premium next generation service.
- What are consumers looking for?
There is a declining value to additional broadband speeds. Part of the Australian review included an assessment of the growth in demand for faster broadband speeds. A key finding is that while the Willingness to Pay for speed may grow rapidly at low speeds (less than 40 Mbps download), for most people the Willingness to Pay is not expected to grow at all for high speeds (greater than 50 Mbps).
A related finding is that consumers would prefer an increase to their current speeds quickly, rather than to wait longer to gain a higher level of speed. The Australian Government are now looking at prioritising delivery to those areas which are poorly served and this is consistent with the findings of the Independent Review. http://www.nbnco.com.au/content/dam/nbnco2/documents/soe-shareholder-minister-letter.pdf.
In an Irish context an increase in speed for example from 5Mbps to 10 Mbps is worth more to consumers than an increase from 20Mbps to 25Mbps. The Australian experience also suggests it would be preferable to rollout delivery to those areas with poor and inadequate broadband first.
- Don’t play politics with important infrastructure
In Australia, the different ruling parties have taken different policy positions on the rollout of next generation broadband. A change of Government can (and has in Australia) led to a change in policy on delivery and this can create huge uncertainly for investors as well as consumers. Given the scale of investment, the deployment of next generation broadband will generally take many years and beyond the lifetime of one Government. It is therefore important that Government policy is well considered and implemented consistently and not compromised by the electoral cycle.
 https://www.communications.gov.au/sites/g/files/net301/f/Cost-Benefit_Analysis_-_FINAL_-_For_Publication.pdf, http://spectrum.ieee.org/telecom/internet/the-rise-and-fall-of-australias-44-billion-broadband-project/