Turbo charging nbn’s Technology Choice Program

Summary: By manipulating who ends up own the infrastructure upgrade we can create a model that significantly incentivises people to perform a TCP upgrade earlier rather than later. Thus accelerating Australia’s eventual upgrade to FTTP.

It is fairly well known that the take-up of NBN’s Technology Choice Program has not been that great. When Malcolm Turnbull proposed his Multi Technology Mix model he said that those who wanted full fibre could upgrade for “a few thousand dollars”. It hasn’t turned out that way with most upgrades costing over $10,000 and many significantly higher than that.

So why is it so much more expensive? The reason is that NBN have used a “cost recovery” model, where anyone who asks for an upgrade has to pay for all the upgrade costs to the entire infrastructure needed to deliver FTTP to that person’s premises. In the early days, that even included purchasing an expensive OLT device – about $100,000 – that sits in the hub (often the old exchange). This OLT is capable of servicing hundreds of subscribers. We had an upgrade quote come back to us of over $120,000 because of this. They have since rolled out OLTs so thankfully they are no longer charging for this.

Assuming that this upgrade proceeded, the next person, maybe a neighbour, to upgrade would then be able to pay nothing for that infrastructure and just pay the extra bits that was needed – a significantly reduced amount. It is understandable why NBN did this, they want to make sure that any FTTP upgrades were at worst cost neutral to their budget.

This creates a significant disincentive to go first, a “first mover disadvantage”, which mean that few people want to go ahead unless they had a very high motivation. Unfortunately due to NBN’s high pricing of the higher speed tiers combined with a quirk in the CVC model, few RSPs actually offer speeds above 100Mbps (with the exception of us in Tasmania). So the speed motivation is not there, there are others like reliability and latency, but this often isn’t enough.

NBN in their latest pricing review is proposing some changes that will make offering the higher speed tiers (above 100Mbps) more financially viable for RSPs – in particular a cheaper 1000/50 speed tier. So this particular problem may be about to be fixed.

However what about the first mover disadvantage problem? Could we turn the problem on it’s head and actually create a first mover advantage and still not put any pressure on NBN’s finances?

Creating a first mover advantage

Suppose after an upgrade, the purchaser gets a certificate that details the upgrade performed and the costs of every segment of that upgrade. That person now “owns” all the parts of the upgrade. If another person comes along asking for an upgrade, that purchaser must buy all those shared parts from the previous owner – mediated by NBN. The new upgrader now owns those parts that were used in the new upgrade and is given a new certificate.

This would not require a significant amount of work, because NBN already keeps careful records of the parts of an upgrade and indeed many of the costs are standardised with their contractors.

The net result is that while the first mover still has to initially pay for all the upgrade costs, the quicker they do it, the more likely they are to be able to get a substantial portion of the upgrade costs back from other upgraders. Indeed the last person to upgrade would get landed with all the costs of the shared infrastructure. Of course there is nothing to stop the first upgrader encouraging the future upgraders by giving a discount on those costs. It would after all be a free market.

You could even see RSPs or other bodies financing these upgrades in return for receipt of the certificates. Banks could loan against them or add them to the mortgage. Consortiums could be formed that would pay for and receive all the certificates.

There are some variations on this that would allow each subsequent upgrader to pay a share of the costs rather than the full costs, but that would change it to being a neutral advantage. By making the default be “all the costs”, any variations can be done by individual negotiation. The important change that NBN have to agree with is to not allow subsequent upgraders a free ride on the earlier upgraders. The later upgraders must buy those certificates first.

Another minor variation is that NBN pays a lease payment for that infrastructure to whoever owns it (has the certificate). They are after all getting extra revenue from the higher speed tiers. While this may be a lot of process for a relatively small amount of money, it may be enough to partly defray the interest costs of the owner and further encourage takeup.

At any stage NBN could decide for operational reasons that they want to actually own the infrastructure (rather than paying lease payments), in which case they have the right to buy back those certificates at face value.

I believe this should be an attractive proposal for NBN. It ticks the boxes of not costing NBN any more money, turbo charging the inevitable FTTP upgrade that Australia needs and of course is essentially a free market approach that fits with the neo-liberal agenda that both sides of government seem to identify with these days. 

Let me know what you think.

Damian Ivereigh
Launtel