Frost & Sullivan predicts that the Federal Government's proposed fibre-to-the-premises National Broadband Network can potentially deliver significant long term benefits to Australia's economy and that it will be an important element in building Australia's digital economy. However, it also warns that the NBN will face a number of challenges including the difficulty of achieving a return on investment, pricing for NBN access, and the growing migration from fixed line to wireless access.
The findings are contained in Frost & Sullivan's latest Asia Pacific Market Insight: Australia's new National Broadband Network - Will the massive investment pay off?
One of the earliest challenges confronting the NBN is the need to attract sufficient private sector investment. To achieve this, the Australian Government will need to explain how it plans to ensure sufficiently competitive pricing for high-speed broadband services to win over the majority of Australia's existing broadband users. Early analysis estimates that for the government to achieve even a modest return on its investment, the new NBN is likely to have to charge access prices to the wholesale network that would result in substantial increases in retail charges on current standard access broadband plans.
Similar investments in other national FttP projects have only so far occurred in countries such as Japan, Korea and Singapore, and centres such as Amsterdam, where the geography and demographics keep infrastructure costs lower and more manageable than is the case in Australia.
The government will need to consider the accelerating trend of users migrating from fixed to wireless broadband access. This is expected to continue over the next five years and Frost & Sullivan predicts that by 2013, approximately 30 percent of all broadband users will be reliant on wireless access services. This is likely to dramatically reduce the potential subscriber base for the NBN and could impact on the overall profitability of the project.
Competition from current high speed offerings, such as high speed cable access and ADSL2+ broadband which are now becoming more widely available, will also have some impact on the potential NBN subscriber base. Although typical average speeds through these offerings are far lower than the potential 100Mbps that will be available via the completed NBN, full implementation of the NBN is many years off and the lower speeds will be sufficient for a significant section of population over the next five to ten years.
Key among the anticipated advantages of the NBN are improvements in services such as e-health and e-learning, and the equitable delivery of services to rural and developing markets. The NBN will also pave the way for smart grids, whereby an intelligent IP overlay is placed over the electricity grid enabling utility companies to more effectively manage their networks.
The benefits of such grids include the ability to introduce smart meters which allow customers to more efficiently manage their own energy use and the potential for utility companies reduce their output of carbon emissions.
As the NBN will be an open network, it will be possible to build and deliver the infrastructure as a utility, thus making the services offered over the network more affordable to users. Its structurally separated model uses infrastructure companies to more efficiently build the physical network, and allows telco services companies to develop the intelligent network architecture on top of the underlying network. New services on applications are therefore provided to end users in the most cost-effective and efficient way.
Phil Harpur, ANZ Senior Research Manager, Frost & Sullivan comments, "In ten years time, we expect traditional telco services such as broadband access to account for a very small percentage of the total revenue generated via the NGN (next-generation network). The full benefits will come from the services supplied via the network, and these will continue to flow for a number of decades beyond the completion of the project. Perhaps the best way to look at the NGN is to consider it a stepping stone to the ultimate goal of an FttP network."
In addition to user and service benefits, Frost & Sullivan notes that the NBN will bring important changes to the Australian telecommunications service provider landscape. Once the network becomes fully operational, telcos such as Optus, AAPT and Primus will be able to compete on a level playing field against Telstra's retail division without needing to purchase wholesale access from the incumbent.
Under the NBN plan, optical fibre will run in parallel with Telstra's copper network. Control of the copper network to residential premises has historically been a key factor in enabling Telstra to maintain its dominance of the local access network. With the building of a parallel fibre NBN network directly to homes and businesses, Telstra's dominance of this section of the network will no doubt be eventually threatened. However, it is likely to take the government at least eight years to get its network fully operational, assuring Telstra of significant breathing space before it has to compete with other telcos for wholesale access.
Frost & Sullivan's market insight includes consideration of a possible restructure of Telstra, as recently mooted in a Government discussion paper. One option is the forced separation of Telstra's wholesale, retail and network divisions, and the possibility of having to sell its HFC (hybrid fibre-coaxial) cable network and its fifty percent stake in pay TV operator, Foxtel. A second option is an "operational separation", or the creation of a 'Chinese wall' between the divisions to ensure a higher degree of transparency. While the Government has raised the possibility of going down this path in the past, Frost & Sullivan notes that this time, it seems to have much more conviction behind its proposal, and ensuring some form of separation of Telstra's divisions is in line with its vision of a new network which gives equal access to all players on wholesale pricing levels.
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