12Mbps: Why The Coalition Doesn’t Get It

Throughout the whole broadband debate currently underway in this country, the 12Mbps figure has been bandied around quite a bit. Every single broadband plan in some way has included this “magic number” as the minimum speed that everyone should have available to them.

Under the initial hybrid fibre/ADSL/WiMAX/satellite OPEL Networks plan – the initial phase of the debate – 12Mbps was the number, and this was the plan supported by the then Howard Coalition federal government.

After the 2007 election in which Labor came to power, that plan was shelved in favour of a Fibre-to-the-Node (FttN) plan that once again saw 12Mbps promised to all Australians. Finally, the NBN Fibre-to-the-Premise (FttP) plan as we currently know it promises 100Mbps over fibre within the defined fibre service areas, but 12Mbps via wireless or satellite everywhere else.

The one constant is 12Mbps, but the question is, where did this “magic number” come from? Why is 12Mbps the “holy grail”? What is the supernatural power of this number that has seen it included in some manner in every single broadband plan for Australia?

Quite simply, there is nothing special about this number.

There hasn’t been a specific internet application that requires this speed in mind. There has been no study performed to find out what speeds end users think they might require going forward. There is no tangible technical reason whatsoever as to why somewhere along the line, the politicians have settled on this number.

No tangible technical reason.

Speaking at the recent Westcon Imagine Conference, the General Manager for Government Affairs at Cisco Australia, Tony Wright finally shone the light on where the 12Mbps number comes from – that it is a number developed by the bean-counters.

It was a number derived from a government study, whereby an amount of funding the government of the day was prepared to spend on a broadband upgrade was found. To that figure, the model of a FttN network was applied, and the number of nodes that could be built and supplied with sufficient backhaul within that amount of funding was determined.

Overlaying a network of that design and scale to the population base and spread within Australia, it was found that 96% of premises would lie within 1.5 kilometres of a node.

When you are about 1.5 kilometres from an exchange or node-based DSLAM, in perfect conditions, your modem should be able to train up at about 20Mbps with ADSL2+. With the backhaul capacity that would have been achievable within the funding available, 12Mbps is about the general minimum throughput that each user connecting to a node would have been able to achieve.

There is your magic number folks – a speed minimum based on a funding model – nothing more, nothing less. No particular grounding in technical merit or requirements whatsoever, except for the scaling of the design within the budgetary constraints. This number became the baseline, and it has been the baseline ever since. It is the number that has entered into the minds of all of the people formulating all of these plans, and there it has stayed.

And here we go again:

“The policy accepted by the joint parties meeting would separate Telstra into two companies – a retailer free of onerous regulation and a wholesaler, possibly named CANCo, enjoying regulated pricing required by law to provide all Australians with broadband at a minimum speed of 12 megabits per second (Mbps).”

Despite Turnbull’s constant calls for a cost-benefits analysis on the NBN, there is absolutely no mention of what this latest plan would cost. We already know there is no technical grounding for yet another 12Mbps plan.

Further, anyone who believes that spending any large amount of money on a solution that puts a wall up in front of the 12Mbps barrier is money well spent, believes that no new technology requiring communications capacity, will ever be developed in the near future.

If we spend $10 billion on a plan like this to give everyone 12Mbps, you will need to spend another $10 billion a few years from now to get everyone up to, say, 40Mbps, when speeds like that are more than likely required as a norm.

Or spend $43 billion now on a plan that will provide in-the-ground capacity of around 40Gbps per user, or up to 400Gbps when the next round of fibre signalling specifications is finalised. Which of these two spending options is more future proof? How many multiples of 12Mbps can you get into 40000Mbps? About 3333 actually.

Further demonstration of just how much the Coalition simply don’t get it.