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Telstra's copper is 'nearly beyond repair' and 'an absolute disgrace': union

Date

Ben Grubb

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A temporary fix to Telstra's copper as seen by field staff in NSW's Illawarra region.

A temporary fix to Telstra's copper as seen by field staff in NSW's Illawarra region. Photo: CEPU

The union representing Telstra field staff says the telco's copper-wire network is "beyond repair" and "an absolute disgrace", casting new doubts over the federal government's plans to use it to deliver faster broadband in its mixed-technology national broadband network (NBN).

The comments follow assertions from Telstra on Monday that the century-old copper network is not ageing. Then, in response to a report by Fairfax Media, Telstra's Stuart Lee, group managing director of Telstra's wholesale division, denied the copper asset had deteriorated.

But Shane Murphy, assistant secretary of the Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union's New South Wales branch, said the network was nearly beyond repair.

"Replacing the broken bit right now would be [just about] replacing the [whole] network," he said.

"The network is an absolute disgrace," Mr Murphy added. "It's full of plastic bags [and] ring-barked cables."

The union has provided photographs that appear to show a number of Telstra pits in the Illawara region, in NSW, where recycled plastic bottles and bags have been used to insulate wires. Photos also show tangled wires, wires submerged in water and wet even when inside the plastic shieds.

Mr Lee has said the copper network was fixed as required.

"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," Mr Lee said.

Mr Murphy described Mr Lee's comments as "an absolute bollock".

"It doesn't matter which capital city of the country you live in, or country town, as soon as they get a dosage of rain, up goes the amount of outages of customer services or internet faults. And that is due to the state of the Telstra network. It is nearly beyond repair."

On Wednesday, a Telstra spokeswoman told Fairfax Media the company put temporary fixes in place "from time to time" to ensure continuity of service until a permanent repair was available.

"How many [temporary fixes] are in place and techniques used will differ at different times and circumstances," the spokeswoman said.

The age of the copper network varied "greatly", the spokeswoman added.

"But with the rolling remediation program we have in place to restore and replace copper it would rarely be older than 30 years."

Good for 'another 100' years

Mr Murphy said Telstra would need to invest "millions and millions" of dollars to bring the copper network up to scratch to survive the next 20 years. This was despite Telstra chief executive officer David Thodey saying in June that the network would "keep going for another 100" years.

"The union finds it alarming that the CEO or anyone within Telstra believes the copper network is in shape to last another 100 years," Mr Murphy said.

Mr Murphy said the network was in a bad state because Telstra field staff were measured on the number of jobs they did each day and not on the quality of the work.

"Telstra over the last five to ten years since privatisation has driven a system of as many jobs per day and pushing the guys to the next job at the expense of quality customer service," Mr Murphy said.

"The [field staff] are not left with any amount of time to sit on the job and fix the job properly. They are simply band-aiding the customers' repair and being pushed to the next job. And managers' bonuses are being based on the amount of jobs workers are doing per day."

But Telstra's spokeswoman disputed this, saying quality workmanship was measured as well as quantity.

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. The node-based network uses up to several hundred metres of existing copper wires running from the local node to each premise.

NBN Co's executive chairman, Dr Switkowski, told the Communications and Environment Senate estimates committee on Tuesday night he was confident Telstra's copper network "continues to perform robustly". He noted that fault rates were now higher than in the last decade because of rain. Copper faults increase after rain.

However, there were already millions of people accessing ADSL broadband services through Telstra's customer access network, as the copper network is known, Dr Switkowski said.

"That suggests to me the network is robust still and the concerns that are expressed about ... the network [that it] may not be the basis for the next generation broadband platform, I think, are misinformed," Dr Switkowski said.

Labor Senator Kate Lundy asked if NBN Co would get access to accurate data about the condition and quality of Telstra's network before it re-enters negotiations or decides whether to ditch Labor's plan of rolling out fibre-to-the-home for 93 per cent of premises in favour of rolling out fibre-to-the-node for 71 per cent.

"If we don't have data in detail by the time of the drafting of the review then assumptions will be made ... it is the task of one of the advisory groups to do that," Dr Switkowski replied.

NBN Co's new chief operating officer, Greg Adcock, confirmed at the hearing that NBN Co would test parts of Telstra's copper underground network before it made any definitive moves to a fibre-to-the-node design. 

"The current thinking is that there would be testing done. Whether it informs the strategic review or whether the strategic review makes some assumptions to be then tested, I think that is the way we would frame it at this point," Mr Adcock said.

The federal government will either buy the network or lease it. Buying it would likely require the government-owned NBN Co to maintain the network, while leasing it could potentially see that left to Telstra.

The state of Australia's copper network has long been a focus because critics say that it has deteriorated and might not provide the download speed of 100 megabits per second the Coalition eventually wants to deliver over it, with technologies like VDSL2 vectoring.

The Coalition has promised to replace any copper that doesn't achieve the speeds promised but critics say the true state of the copper network is not known, and its costly replacement could blowout the Coalition's NBN costings.

With Lucy Battersby

285 comments

  • Yes the CAN is absolute trash. but that's what people just voted for two months back to keep it for future broadband solutions. suck eggs.

    Commenter
    man cuddles
    Location
    melbourne
    Date and time
    November 20, 2013, 5:58PM
    • And not a word about a cost benefit analysis.

      I live in a rural town and we get regular visits from the helpful and efficient Telstra Techs, the few that are left that is.

      So it appears no NBN for our town, no cost benefit analysis and Tony is going to buy back what used to belong to the taxpayer before Howard sold it.

      People actually voted for this debacle?

      Commenter
      Paul01
      Location
      Riverina
      Date and time
      November 20, 2013, 8:28PM
    • Hmmm... how much should I believe the union? They couldn't possibly have any vested interest in all this, could they?

      Commenter
      Shtine
      Date and time
      November 21, 2013, 5:13AM
    • Now its gunna be real hard to bug indonesia if we still keep this copper wire.

      The bogans and ignoramus' have got the internet speed they deserve. Pity the rest of us.

      Commenter
      Tadd
      Date and time
      November 21, 2013, 6:40AM
    • The people gave the libs have a _mandate_ to build a state-of-the-art communications system using it, so stop complaining.

      Commenter
      engunear
      Date and time
      November 21, 2013, 7:28AM
    • Seriously I can't believe how much we lack internet technology. Overseas have moved on from broadband services and 4G services in the developed world for many many years. Their websites include amazing HD streaming content that utitilizes internet technology. The strength of the graphics and power these websites provide makes you just ditch your tv box because it's more interesting online. Then with our naked adsl2 service it can't even cope with the content speed half the time. Honestly what a joke. Being a born aussie I am embarrassed when my family from Europe visit they joke and laugh at the internet and wifi we have here. I don't blame them. While the rest of the world get's ready for Google Glass which is becoming very popular overseas and as the world leaves behind hand held mobile devices we are still trying to figure out basic broadband? Far out brussel sprout lol

      Commenter
      The Other Guy1
      Date and time
      November 21, 2013, 7:38AM
    • @the otherguy1....where overseas? How many countries have the same sort of population over such a massive land mass?

      Oh and the Libs believe we don't need an NBN....so all good ......

      Commenter
      shemp
      Location
      melb
      Date and time
      November 21, 2013, 8:22AM
    • @ shtine:

      shtine? really?

      How much should you believe the union? IT DOESN'T MATTER HOW MUCH YOU BELIEVE THE UNION... (apologies to the Rock, but this jabronie needs a smackdown)

      How much would you believe Abbott, Lord Mal or Ziggy the failed? Hmm...

      Commenter
      Duke
      Date and time
      November 21, 2013, 8:31AM
    • I want to see the cost-benefits. I want to see:

      (1) The cost of the entire Fibre to the Home network, as originally spec'd.

      (2) A separate 2 stage cost for Fibre to the Node and then how much it will cost to complete it Fibre to the Home.

      I also want to know how much it is going to cost to maintain the existing copper on an annual basis before the Fibre to the Home network is completed.

      I also want to know how many more staff are going to be required to maintain the node cabinets.

      And I want to know how much each node cabinet is going to cost, including it's deep-cycle battery backup.

      Added to this, I want to know how much Australia is going to lose in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) if the Fibre to the Node network is implemented as opposed to the Fibre to the Home network.

      Tell us Malcolm. We voted you in, we expect proper answers.

      Commenter
      Tone
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      November 21, 2013, 9:02AM
    • "How many countries have the same sort of population over such a massive land mass?"

      Canada, for a start. Bigger land-mass, 35 million people and faster broadband that the US.

      'Canadians enjoy among the fastest, most widely available and least expensive broadband Internet in the developed world':

      http://business.financialpost.com/2012/02/01/canadians-internet-speeds-among-worlds-fastest-report/?__lsa=05ff-61d8

      Commenter
      Jace
      Date and time
      November 21, 2013, 9:03AM

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