This NBN Or That NBN?

Generally speaking, apart from the recent asbestos incidents, things have been relatively quiet on the National Broadband Network (NBN) front of late. There have been some regulatory issues going on, but largely there hasn’t been much noise.

With the election approaching, broadband will go in one of two directions in Australia, depending on the result. The network will continue with the Conroy vision, or head down the Turnbull path.

Should the current government be returned, the existing NBN plan to rollout Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) to 93% of the population – (at speeds offered at up to 1Gbps) – will continue, with the remaining 7% of the population to receive at least 25Mbps through either LTE/4G wireless – (4%) – or Ku-band satellite (3%).

Should a change in government to the current opposition occur, we will likely see the implementation of a significantly scaled-back hybrid network, based predominantly around a Fibre-to-the-Node (FTTN) rollout.

As detailed in their detailed policy document as released on April 9th, we would see 22% of the population receiving FTTP – (presumably with the existing speed tiers) – 71% receiving FTTN – (and speeds of “at least” 25Mbps, and “up to” 100Mbps) – and the remaining 7% of the population to receiving the same solution as now, with “at least” 25Mbps through either LTE/4G wireless – (4%) – or Ku-band satellite (3%).

The 22% FTTP portion of their solution comes from the portion of the current NBN rollout they would not be able to stop, should they come to power. It is certainly not because they want to rollout FTTP.

There is no doubt that either plan would deliver a significant improvement to Australia’s current broadband capabilities. On a world scale, our broadband speeds are utterly woeful:

“The Akamai Technologies State of the Internet report, released overnight, puts Australia in 40th place for average net connection speeds, down from 39th spot in the second quarter of 2012, and beaten by five countries in the region.”

Importantly, I don’t believe there is anything intrinsically wrong with either an FTTP or an FTTN plan.

Both are entirely reasonable and elegant responses to the problems we currently face with our broadband infrastructure.

However, to see the real difference between them, we need to take a look at what each of the plans will cost us and what they will deliver for that price.

The opposition claim to be able to deliver their plan for approximately $29.4 billion of public money, whilst the existing government plan calls for approximately $34 billion.

It is these figures that shows the real difference.

The fastest speed offered on the opposition FTTN network – (ignoring the 22% FTTP they can’t get rid of) – is “up to 100Mbps”, and it will cost $29.4 billion to get there.

If you’re “lucky” enough to be in the FTTN footprint, your friend a few streets away may find themselves lucky enough to be in the FTTP footprint, and they will enjoy speeds you couldn’t get even if you wanted them – broadening the so-called “digital divide”.

People will be restricted on what speeds are available to them, based on something as simple as the street they choose to live in. The “haves” and the “have nots”.

In my experience in the telecommunications industry, the kind of broadband access available to a particular premise does affect the property value and/or the potential rental income at that property. A “financial divide” if you like.

Further, given the state of the current copper network – (which was described by Telstra in 2003 as having only about 15 years of life left in it; ie: 2018) – there is no guarantee that these speed promises can been achieved with the VDSL technology they plan to use for the “last-mile”.

As with any xDSL technology, the further away from the exchange/node/DSLAM you are, the slower speeds you achieve. When the NBN was first proposed in 2009, Optus submitted a response that required 75,224 nodes to achieve 12Mbps for 75% of the population, albeit with ADSL2+.

Any plan to bring a minimum of 25Mbps to 71% of the population with VDSL/VDSL2 will require at least that same number of nodes, and possibly more – and they still would not be able to guarantee you a particular speed.

Turnbull often cites the UK FTTN broadband model as “the right way” to do it. As shown in the above graph – (from Ofcom, the UK’s “independent regulator and competition authority for the UK communications industries”) – if we follow that model, everyone has to be within about 500 metres of a node, and that equates to a lot of nodes.

Turnbull has said that wherever 25Mbps cannot be achieved, he’ll just add more nodes. Ask people stuck on TelstraTop Hats” how that works out for them.

The results will wildly vary too – you might get 40Mbps, but your next door neighbour might only get 25Mbps, yet they would be charged the same.

The FTTN cabinets that contain the actual nodes are massive – want one of these on your nature strip? 75,000 lucky voters will get the chance if the FTTN plan comes to pass.

Once we need more than 100Mbps – (and the applications needing higher speeds are already upon us) – the only thing we can do is spend more money doing another upgrade, after we’ve already spent $29.4 billion.

Even Malcolm Turnbull himself agrees that we’ll have to spend more money one day:

“…now, you may say in 20 years time things will be different. Well, if they’re different in 20 years time, we’ll make some further investments in 20 years time.”

Will there be a newer copper-based technology that will allow faster speeds? Maybe, maybe not.

Is there an existing technology today that will definitely deliver higher speeds when that time comes?

Yes, and it’s called FTTP, and the existing plan is already rolling out this technology to 93% of the population for only about $4 billion more, with the significantly higher speeds we will need by the time it would be complete, with greater reliability, and with guaranteeable speeds.

The fibre technology going into the ground is already capable of 40Gbps, and leaps and bounds more upgradable than relying on the existimg, dying copper network.

Will a later upgrade from a Coalition FTTN plan to a comparable FTTP plan cost us less than $4 billion, in five or ten years from now?

No. Not on your life.

An FTTN solution also requires power to be provided to each and every node – (remember, around 75,000 of them) – in the distribution network. FTTP requires zero power in the distribution network, so will also be much cheaper to operate.

So, do we spend $29.4 billion on an FTTN solution that will be obsolete and locks us into an expensive upgrade cycle five years from now, or do we spend a little more now, to give us something that will last for 50 years or more?

You can answer that for yourself, and the philosophical differences between the two positions are at the core of the entire NBN debate.

For his part, Turnbull has often been disingenuous about his plans for the NBN:

“He told Radio 2UE earlier this month a Liberal-National government would “complete” the job, rather than rip up any cables.”

His media appearances regularly contain similar language – politically it sounds much better to say they’ll “complete” the network, rather than stop it – yet he will stop the current plan, and implement his own.

It’s not the same, and he knows it. It is a blatant lie to do nothing more than maintain a flimsy political position.

He may choose to still call it the NBN, but it is not the NBN we are building now. It is not even a shadow of what we are building now.

He and his Coalition colleagues also constantly misrepresent the cost of the FTTP plan, with a magical figure of “$90 billion or more” plucked from the air – a figure attacked in the house yesterday by parliamentary NBN committee chairman Rob Oakeshott:

“It absolutely does my head in when I hear members of parliament, who should know better, in conversations with their communities trying to spread the fib that this is a $90 billion spend or even a spend at all. This has a rate of return on investment to the taxpayer. It is an investment, not a spend. It is not a luxury item; it is an essential service for the future of this country. If we do not do it, we are going to have congestion on our internet in this country like we have never seen before. And it is going to be an enormous problem in business and in all forms of communication: health, education, personal, entertainment, whatever. Congestion is going to be our issue from 2016 and beyond.”

Faced with this attack on his FTTP cost claims, Turnbull misrepresented the cost in another way:

“The problem, however, is that because in order to reliably give everybody 100 megabits per second and more you would need to take, with current technology, fibre into every premise, the cost of taking everyone to 100 or better is enormous.”

Of course, we know his inferior solution is only to cost about $4 billion less. If his FTTN plan is so financially prudent, why does it cost 89% of the cost of what he believes is the “massive” cost of the current FTTP plan?

It’s bullshit – don’t believe it. The $90 billion figure is concocted to make it sound like his plan is $60 billion cheaper. Disingenuous to the end.

Do we want this NBN or do we want that NBN? Voters seem to know:

The existing FTTP solution allows for multiple services to be provisioned to a single premises, which is a godsend for businesses building corporate networks, and something FTTN cannot ever deliver.

For the most part, Turnbull continually ignores the importance of upload speed, which FTTP provides in spades full.

We will still be far behind the rest of the world in the broadband rankings, because by then much of the rest of the world will have completed what we have already started, but which a man with a narrow politically-based vision chose to stop. In Japan for example, Sony is already offering 2Gbps services to users for very little cost.

Why doesn’t the Coalition want Australia to lead the world?

It may just all come down to what happens on election day – Australia deserves a whole lot better than what an incoming Coalition government will serve up to us.

And that may not just be a point about broadband.