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Telstra defends copper network, says it's not ageing

Telstra has defended the quality of its copper network saying "it's like a grandfather's axe" that is fixed as needed.

"It's like grandfather's axe; It's had five new handles and three new heads. When it breaks, we replace the broken bit. So it's much the same as it always has been and always will be," said Stuart Lee, group managing director of Telstra's wholesale division.

Telstra's copper network isn't ageing, according to its wholesale chief.
Telstra's copper network isn't ageing, according to its wholesale chief. Photo: Sean Davey

The comments follow a Fairfax Media report which said Australians were waiting longer than ever to get new phone lines connected or faults repaired because the telecommunications company did not have enough technicians. 

Speaking at the CommsDay NBN: Rebooted telco conference in Sydney on Monday, Mr Lee defended delays in getting customers connected or lines fixed, attributing them to extreme weather. He said he became "cross" when he saw reports that referred to Telstra's copper network as "ageing".

Telstra's Lee: "When it breaks, we replace the broken bit. So it's much the same as it always has been and always will be."
Telstra's Lee: "When it breaks, we replace the broken bit. So it's much the same as it always has been and always will be." Photo: Peter Braig

"It's not an ageing copper network," Mr Lee said in answer to a Fairfax Media question.

"It's just an older technology, it's not that the asset itself has deteriorated.''


Telstra chief executive officer David Thodey said in June that the copper wire network had been going well for 100 years and would "keep going for another 100".

"There's some copper that's a lot older than others but copper does not decompose," he said.

Telstra's Stuart Lee.
Telstra's Stuart Lee. Photo: Telstra

Mr Thodey again talked up the copper last month, when he said it was "worth a lot of money".

Mr Thodey and Mr Lee's comments come as Telstra prepares to renegotiate its $11 billion national broadband network deal with the Coalition government, which wants to make use of the copper in its fibre-to-the-node rollout for 71 per cent of premises.

But the executives' comments are in stark contrast to what Telstra told a Senate estimates hearing a decade ago this week. Then, Telstra's manager of regulatory strategy, Tony Warren, said Telstra would replace its century-old copper network with new technology within the next 15 years, saying the copper wires were then at "five minutes to midnight".

In defending the increase in mass service disruptions, Mr Lee attributed it mainly to Telstra "grappling" with extreme weather. The number of notices published by Telstra telling the public about network repair delays has risen from 69 in 2012 to 80 this year, and the average length of each period for which Telstra exempted itself has grown by 80 per cent to 31 days.

In Victoria, this includes a stretch of nearly three months in which it ruled it would not pay any compensation when it failed to connect or fix services because local technicians had been sent to Queensland and NSW, where infrastructure was damaged by cyclones and flooding.

Network owners can publish notices excusing themselves from normal services if property is damaged by circumstances beyond their control including hail, rainfall exceeding 10-year averages, flash flooding, gale-force winds, lightning, blizzards, tornadoes and storm tides.

"Our service disruptions are not going up and up and up," Mr Lee said. "They correlate to weather events. And the weather events we've had in the last nasty season were about five to six times the impact of previous ones - so surprise, surprise there's a lot more damage.

"It does impact our wholesale customers like [iiNet] and impacted us very badly this year. It impacted our retail customers as well; it impacted the whole economy," Mr Lee said.

"That's just the way life is sometimes."

Asked by Fairfax if this meant Telstra should hire more staff to keep up with the extreme weather, Mr Lee laughed and replied: "You're the expert in climate change, not me."

iiNet’s chief regulatory officer, Steve Dalby, recently told Fairfax that this year's experience with Telstra raised questions about the telco's ability to keep the copper network in working order.

He said about 32 per cent of the faults experienced by iiNet’s customers this year were due to faults on Telstra’s infrastructure, up from 18 per cent of faults in 2011.

"To me it reflects that Telstra no longer has the resources at its disposal to manage the copper network to community expectations," Mr Dalby said.

The state of the copper network has long been debated in Australia. Critics say that it has deteriorated to the point where it might not be possible to get the 100 megabits per second speeds the Coalition wants to achieve using technologies such as VDSL2 vectoring under its national broadband network plan to boost its speed.

Despite this, the Coalition has promised to replace any copper that doesn't achieve the speeds promised. But critics say this could be costly and exceed the Coalition's national broadband network costings because the true state of the copper is not known.

Reports in June which showed Telstra technicians used plastic bags to "temporarily" fix problems also suggestd the company may not be maintaining its copper network to a high standard.

With Lucy Battersby