NBN CEO throws shade at copper in most polite mic drop ever

With just months left in the top job, NBN Co CEO Bill Morrow hasn't held back in revealing his issues with the NBN's current rollout.

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NBN Co CEO Bill Morrow has called out the problems with copper compared with fibre. 


The outgoing CEO of NBN Co has fired a politely-worded missive against the federal government's NBN strategy, pointing out that yes, using existing copper networks is a cheap way to build a national broadband network, but no, it's not the way to get the fastest network.

Bill Morrow, who will finish at NBN Co at the end of the year, has ended the diplomatic caution he's maintained during his years at the top job, and outlined the failings of the coalition government's multi-technology mix.

In a position paper quietly published on Friday [PDF], Morrow offered the executive summary of NBN Co's role in delivering the national broadband network, including the limitations of using legacy network infrastructure, the complexities of providing decent speeds in remote Australia and the difficulties of keeping a steady bottom line as a for-profit, government-owned business.

But the most significant position he took in the paper is the same one fibre purists have been maintaining for years: Old copper technology has its limits.

"While the use of the existing copper and pay TV networks has led to a faster network build and a lower cost-per-premises, there are consequences to this approach," Morrow said.

First and foremost? Speeds.

Morrow acknowledged that copper would be good enough to serve speeds recommended by the government-commissioned Vertigan report, which called for minimum speeds of 15Mbps into the near future. Beyond that (and as we've seen play out in the real world) copper will fail us if we want to push beyond 50Mbps.

The second problem with copper, according to Morrow, is the "increased fault rate and operating costs" from using the old wiring in the last kilometre of the rollout (from the fibre-connected node all the way to the end user).

Still, Morrow conceded the cost of fixing faults was less than delivering more expensive technology all the way to every home.

Watch this: Why your NBN is so slow -- explained with toy cars!

Beyond this, Morrow says NBN Co has faced issues with the cost of maintaining legacy networks while customers are moved over to the NBN, problems with digging into pits and finding old infrastructure in a worse condition than expected, or having no record at all of where the old wires were buried.

"This is a complicated industry-wide transformation with a complex build, an unprecedented pace and an often confusing demarcation between responsible parties," he wrote.

"The end user is at the 'pointy end' of all of this with some who didn't want a change at all, others who want more than what can be provided, and almost everyone who just want one company to contact, good service, a fair price and a product that meets their needs."

It's certainly one of the more blunt explanations we've seen from the head of NBN Co since he took on the job five years ago.

And with his time at the helm coming to an end, and with complaints about NBN services up a whopping 204 percent, there's no wonder Morrow wants to get his thoughts on the record before he leaves.

The question that remains is where the NBN goes from here.

NBN Co says it's on track to complete the task of connecting 8 million homes by 2020.

Morrow is already admitting that some telcos may choose to "bypass" NBN Co to sell services in high-profit, high-density areas (rather than offering services in regional Australia, where margins are lower). He also said some consumers may "cut the cord altogether" and not sign up to the NBN -- a nod to recent headlines about the relevance of the NBN in the face of 5G.

But Morrow is happy to let those discussions go on. 

"The work will continue in improving end user experience just as the heavily debated differences of opinion about all things NBN will likely continue," he said.

And at the end of the day as he makes his way out, Morrow is still an NBN believer.

"The vast majority of those who have worked on this transformation since its inception know they are part of something that is bigger than any one individual, something that is making a positive difference both socially and economically."

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