The National Broadband Network Maze
The complexities of the NBN maze

Prior to the election I had engaged in a running e-mail discussion about the NBN (National Broadband Network) with an internet ISP supplier I know, shared with mutual friends. Interestingly (or strangely enough) he did not see the benefits of Labour’s NBN model FTTH (Fibre-to-the-Home) and found that the alternative FTTN (Fibre-to-the-Node) was adequate because it would “probably get Australia to where we want to be without breaking the bank … “. I found that an interesting view, especially as internet technology underwrote nearly everything he did business-wise. Most of what I write here was part of a reply I wrote back then. I actually never sent it, as it was obvious he felt “adequate to our needs” was sufficient and going beyond that was a waste of money and we’d already argued about it for a while. I confess I thought these were views held because of a political viewpoint and intractable in nature, (as he probably did about myself) so why continue the argument when there was little possibility of making ground.

We both understood the technical basics. He understood that “with a fibre optic cable, we don’t have such a problem with noise or bandwidth…” and also said … “For a long line, example a copper telephone line, the bandwidth is about 1 to 5 MHz. With clever modulation techniques we can get 10s of megabits per second (for example ADSL), but the signal to noise ratio limits this, and the longer the line, the higher the noise, and the lower the data rate.” No arguments with these facts. He continued, … “Short pieces of copper can operate very fast, gigabits per second. The speed of currently ADSL2 (i.e. copper wire is about 10Mbps – Megabits per second) – global average on speedtest.net is currently 13.9Mbps. (megabits)“. So his basic argument was, “So if we use optical fibre for the long runs, and only short pieces of copper at either end, we can still obtain potentially gigabits per second of speed …. Therefore … the last mile .. that is short bits of copper wire (connected to a fiber backbone) … can go very fast … that is … A LOT faster than current ADSL speeds.” Most technical folks understand these dynamics but question the fit for purpose and possibly the “last mile‘s” capacity.

True? – potentially? My argument was “potentially” and “reality” were a little far apart, that the runs of copper were for most people are not going to be short (unless you lived next door to the node /exchange) and that we had the opportunity to ensure we had an “unlimited” future speed as opposed to an “adequate” one. As I said, after writing and researching much of what is below, I decided to discontinued this argument for reasons that it was getting heated & not worth affecting the “friendship”. The election came and went, folks tried to get the new communications minister, Malcolm Turnbull, to see the reasons behind FTTH but have had no traction either. Again political viewpoints do make folk intractable in nature. Then I read this Sydney morning Herald article. [http://www.smh.com.au/it-pro/government-it/telstras-copper-is-nearly-beyond-repair-and-an-absolute-disgrace-union-20131120-hv3mp.html] It was at this point I realised how big the gap between “potentially” and “reality” was. If you want more detail than the very cursory & light on article in the SMH then read Nick Ross’s article. So I have changed what was my original E-mail reply … into a blog.

Hopefully you, as a reader, are more amenable to reason ??? Let me warn you I am summarising some rather large blogs with significant detail. I would encourage you to read them properly before demonstrating how intractable you can be. First off, let’s get my bias out in the open. I am a film maker with a strong interest in the new models of content delivery over the internet exemplified by Magnolia/Magnet & IFC Midnight distributers as opposed to the old theatrical release models supported by both governments (Labor and Liberal) in their support of the Screen Australia distribution paradigm. Look up these Cinema distribution models here if you seek to understand how the Art’s industries would benefit. On with what I wrote months ago – slightly modified to remove a few personal remarks and bring the past/present tense to reference an, “after the election” status . . . . .

Many experts say that fibre-to-the-node simply can’t deliver the same speeds to most households as the labor government’s more expensive fibre-to the-home roll-out. Some folk think you just have to get fibre to a node and let the copper take care of the rest. ABC’s Nick Ross has been writing extensively about the NBN critical about the handling of it by the government (Labour) and critical about the oppositions (Liberal) alternatives. [Note: I wrote this month ago, remember?] He has written extensively on the subject from technical, costing and political aspect of it and while it is true to say his public advocacy for it is evident, it is also true (to quote Media Watch) it “is made by a person with professional expertise or specialist knowledge about the subject matter being analysed”. His most significant analysis is
[http://www.abc.net.au/technology/articles/2012/02/21/3435975.htm] and called “The great NBN fail“. Again to quote Media Watch .. “Ross’s NBN opus is not only long … it’s impeccably well-researched.” It is damn long and you would only read it if you were acutely interested in it. I figure you lot are because your reading this.

You don’t have to go very far into Ross’s article before I could simply say, let’s take this out of your political preferences and say quite simply … “perhaps you need to think about one’s parents?” And if you can’t figure out what I mean by that, you haven’t begun to read the article. Multiply that by a lot of other elderly mothers and fathers and let’s face it, none of my generation are getting any younger. Again what has that got to do with NBN? Read the article!! It’s not about bits and bytes. It never was and arguing about it at that level is missing the point, as most of the media (ABC aside – only sometimes) is doing.

Some of you may have children. I do. When you get to his section on Schools perhaps you will rethink. If you don’t have children, I expect you won’t find this important. And since most of you are urban dwellers I assume rural communities don’t rate either. [OK that was sarcastic but I hope you get my point]

It was to cost $50 Billion the coalition said. Not entirely accurate if you have read past the sections on affiliated benefits. But what if they were actually right by some miracle. [OK that was sarcastic too.] The criticism of the shortsightedness of the setup of NBN Co are reflective of the time I had worked in I.T. in the Public Sector. A more inefficient bunch of clowns I have never met, and thankfully I no longer have to apologise for referring to them as such. What if McKinsey and KPMG assessment was wrong and the coalitions is right (not that they have an agenda <sigh>). So what! Look at Ross’s Sydney Harbour bridge analogy. $50 Billion is probably a drop in the ocean. Look at the returns on investments – financial AND social.

There are very good arguments that have been around a long time that suggest that Australia is wasting time and money being in the manufacturing game. There is enough in recent press articles about the unsustainability of supporting it long-term. Countries like China do it so much better than we do. Instead it is intellectual “property” where a still reasonably educated country can make progress. NBN facilitates making this a competitive realm where we can compete internationally. Or can we…. ???

As for the subject of speed, here we are already behind the eight ball as a country. (Note that Australia does not even get a mention – even though we supply India with so much outsourced work) or try this link to the state of the internet. Depending of criteria you select the statistics may vary (but that all depends on the collection methods and timing of the data, obviously). Nevertheless it is hard to find a country in Europe or State in America with slower average connection speeds than Australia. So are we competitive internationally? Are we going to be socially advantaged or disadvantaged? Are we really investing in a future or “the future” be damned?

A few extra things to think about when considering the future of the internet in this country.

. . . . .

Alternative Broadband options
Alternative Broadband options

The above (between the dots) is largely what I wrote back at the end of July. I really don’t think anything has changed except that it will at least be another three years before Australia has a remote chance commence down a path to be competitive internationally, in the intellectual futures of the Internet. The content delivery models for film, I spoke of earlier, will not be realised in this country over the next three years, so the old paradigm will continue, while American and European markets streak ahead of us.  And if you are really interested in what the future needs for an internet competitive country I would suggest you read this article by the company See-Change and see where Tony Abbott’s vision of “more than enough” will leave us.

For a conservative government that purports to be interested in supporting big business models that provide internationally competitive strategies, the fallover to the FTTN model – given the real unsustainability of the current copper network in this country – is just short-sighted. Ultimately it is not about good support for forward looking and competitive business models but about the politics of intransigence that refuses to see the value in someone else’s ideas.