Thursday, 18 April 2013

Mal-ware? A final word on the NBN

"One vote, mate. One vote." Source: Liberal Party of Australia website
There were a few awkward moments during the Coalition’s broadband policy launch. When Tony Abbott, hardly the nation’s most gifted public speaker, started using words like “megabits” and “HFC cabling”, one could see the technical elocution education that preceded it: “No, Tony, the iMac doesn’t have a tower...that’s it. All in there...yes, just the screen...yes, people watch television on computers. No, Tony, no more 68cm CRTs. No, you can’t buy your next TV from Brashes. Well, because it no longer exists...yes, some years ago now, Tony.”

The ungainly back-patting and position-swapping from Abbott and erstwhile leadership rival, Malcolm Turnbull served to undermine Abbott’s place in this whole charade. While Turnbull spoke with authority and intellect (even if the vast majority of the tech-oriented disagree with his policy), Abbott, who formerly promised to “demolish” Labor’s National Broadband Network was now promoting a $29.5 billion plan to construct a Coalition version. How far we have come.

As Alan Kohler argues, Malcolm Turnbull has single-handedly saved the NBN. He has taken the Liberals from a party hellbent on destroying a vital piece of national infrastructure, to one willing to spend tens of billions of government funds on their own, albeit imperfect, broadband network. Although, as Kohler argues, it won’t garner much praise from the tech-press, Turnbull’s stewardship of broadband within the Coalition is itself an achievement.

What the Coalition’s policy is 
First things first, the Coalition’s broadband policy is a complete policy document. Unlike most Coalition policies (such as “stopping the boats” or “ending the waste” as ‘detailed’ in“Our Plan: Real Solutions for All Australians”), it is more than a glossy, slogan-filled brochure. No fluffy pictures of Tony or Mal in hi-viz, just words. Many, many words. This sort of documentary detail should be demanded more often from our politicians. Ahem, Scott Morrison. How are your community protocols coming along?

Basically, the Coalition’s broadband policy is to lay fibre just like Labor’s NBN, except that instead of connecting every home individually to the fibre network via its own fibre cable, the Coalition’s fibre network will terminate kerbside cabinets known as a node. From there, it will use the existing copper network to connect the home to the network, as opposed to Labor’s all-fibre NBN. This use of the existing copper network is the policy’s most contentious aspect.

Additionally, there are some questionable assumptions in the paper, like the Coalition’s claim that Labor’s NBN will cost $94 billion. The background paper, oddly missing from the Liberal Party’s website, goes into some detail on these assumptions. For that $94 billion figure to be reached, a number of conditions would have to be met, or to put it another way, a whole bunch of things would have to go wrong. More on that later.

What the Coalition’s policy is not
The Coalition’s broadband policy is not, technically speaking, a patch on Labor’s NBN. It’s not even a pale imitation. With quoted minimum speeds of 25mbit/s up to a maximum 100mbit/s, it does not compare to the NBN’s minimum of 100mbit/s.

This is mainly due to the use of the copper network over the “last mile”, which is telecommunications speak for the final leg of network delivery from the node to the customer. The Coalition believes they can avoid the greatest cost of Labor’s NBN which is the connection of every single house to the fibre network by using the existing copper network. The optical fibre of the NBN, however, offers far greater speed and reliability.

The Coalition’s document freely admits fibre’s superiority stating “there is no question that optical fibre offers the greatest capacity”. However, where the Coalition sees “no evidence” that customers need or want the high bandwidth fibre offers, those in the technology industry see the unlimited potential of fibre.

Fibre is good for you
Abbott is “absolutely confident” that 25mbit/s will be “more than enough” for households. In 2013, maybe. In 2028, probably not. After all, it was only 15 years ago that most households dialed-in to an ‘adequate’ 28.8kbps network and usage was charged in hours, not megabytes. Average speeds today are over 170 times faster than those line-clogging tech dinosaurs. Imagine what the next fifteen years might bring? 4K video? Holographic video? 3D printing networks? If it’s anything like the last fifteen, the only technology capable of delivering the same bandwidth increases is fibre.

Optical fibre is as close to a “future-proof” technology as possible. Since fibre was first employed in undersea communications cables in the 1980s, it has invisibly revolutionised telecommunications. For example, the coaxial undersea cables used throughout the 1960s and 70s could carry between 4,000–10,000 channels of communication. The first transatlantic fibre cable could carry 40,000 channels. Modern undersea fibre cables carry petabytes of digital data, instead of just telephone calls. Talk about an adaptable technology. While copper cables have physical limits on the amount of data they can transmit, optical fibre is yet to reach its full potential.

Not to mention the sometimes decrepit state of the national copper network. There are some reports of Telstra’s copper being “rooted”, even if this an exaggeration, it is at best an ageing network based on 19th century technology. Those with experience in this area are often precluded from putting their names to any criticisms of the state of the copper network and Telstra seems reticent to discuss the finer points of the network in detail. According to one Telstra source, copper has a lifespan of around 30 years and 80 per cent of the copper network is either close to or beyond this age.

The NBN is a once in a lifetime opportunity to replace lock, stock and barrel an ageing piece of vital infrastructure with the best possible technology. Australia has never had an opportunity such as this. Imagine replacing every road and rail track in Australia with a cutting-edge equivalent? The NBN is an accurate technology analogue, minus the asphalt.

If critics of the NBN are willing to use facile automotive analogies, such as calling optical fibre the “Rolls-Royce” policy choice, then building a fibre network only to use copper to connect it to the home, as the Coalition is planning, is like building a 10-lane freeway only to have it terminate in a dirt track. For Sydneysiders, it’s just like when the M4 hits Parramatta Road; for Melburnians, it’s just like when the Eastern Freeway hits Hoddle Street (except if Hoddle Street was a one-lane dirt-track). It makes little technical sense and the alleged savings the Coalition policy makes will no doubt have to be spent in the future upgrading this network beyond the merely adequate.

Although Turnbull hoped to dazzle the audience at the Coalition’s policy launch with future developments of copper-based technologies such as vectoring and VDSL, these are essentially transitional technologies propping up an ageing network. And Turnbull had the gall to say those who believe fibre is "future-proof" are kidding themselves. Well, it's certainly offers far greater future flexibility than copper, which is pretty much at its limit. While future DSL technologies could, on a good day with the sun shining and with no-one else using the line theoretically deliver maybe 300 mbit/s, fibre could do it in a pinch and as the Google Fiber project in Kansas has demonstrated, go even faster. Fibre is the best possible technology for now and the only one for the future. 

It’s the economies, stupid
Of course, merely imagining what the future might bring is not conducive to sound policy. It needs to be modelled and it needs to be tested. This has been the Coalition’s reasonable argument since Kevin Rudd and Stephen Conroy announced the fibre-to-the-home NBN. But ultimately, the cheapest adequate network the Coalition could come up with is only 25 per cent less costly than the Government’s all-fibre NBN. Yes, 25 per cent. 

Sure, Coalition MPs love citing the $94 billion figure presented in their policy paper, but it’s entirely speculative. While Limited News have run with the figure like it is gospel, others, such as independent telecommunications analyst Chris Coughlan described the Coalition’s figure as “possible, but highly improbable”. And this is a massive problem for the Coalition. Their whole argument against Labor’s NBN is no longer based on technology, but on cost. For instance, the Coalition arrives at a connection cost of $3,600 per premises, where as NBN Co. have costed it at $2,400 per premises. This quote from the background paper is telling:
In the absence of concrete data or any public explanation from NBN Co of what it has learned from the 72,000 premises it has passed with fibre so far, it is obviously impossible to know what the context is for any blowout, or how significantly capex may have deviated from the average budgeted across the rollout as a whole.
Conjecture. Pure and simple. Who knows? The Coalition may be right, but presenting these costings as fact is downright misleading. Beware the Coalition’s election advertising. “$94 BILLION” will appear regularly, as it already is now. It’s a shame many people will take this misinformation as fact. There are many other factual errors with this image that appeared on the Liberal Party’s Facebook page.

Labor never promised to finish the NBN by 2013 with a $4.7 billion price tag, that was an old policy NOT the current NBN. $90 billion is pure conjecture. Source: Liberal Party of Australia Facebook Page
What the Coalition describes as a “staggering” price for a fibre NBN might not be so “staggering” if the Labor network comes in either on budget, or even slightly over. Under the Coalition’s plan, Australians would receive a vastly inferior network, a mere two years earlier at only a 25 per cent discount. This, of course, assumes the Coalition will not have any blow-outs on their own network because the Liberals, when in government, have never let any projects run over-time or budget*.
*sarcasm alert

Not to mention the shite being peddled by Limited News as genuine journalism. Simon Benson’s pieces for the Daily Telegraph seemed to be little more than re-worded Coalition press releases, citing the $94 billion figure as fact, as well as claiming Labor had initially promised an NBN completion date of 2013. Except Labor never promised an NBN finish date of 2013. Ever. Their 2007 policy based on a $4.7 billion network to be built with Telstra was slated to have a completion date of 2013, but this was long before talks stalled with Telstra, resulting in the creation of NBN Co. to build a fibre-to-the-home network. So in effect, it was never really a policy. Sorry, Limited News, they’re different networks. Not playing semantics, just using facts. Coalition analysis argues Labor’s NBN will be finished in 2025, four years late. Again, this is conjecture based on analysis of certain conditions occurring. NBN Co remains committed to the 2021 completion date. To a cynic, it might seem like some ‘journalists’ are seeking to have this $94 billion figure placed in the electorate’s collective imagination as the NBN’s actual cost, when it is nothing more than an educated guess.

The Coalition’s other great argument is that their network will cost consumers far less on a retail basis. Malcolm even presented the audience with lovely graphs and that most exciting of acronyms, ARPU, or average revenue per user. The Coalition’s NBN, according to their colourful tables, will be $24 cheaper per month for the average household user. It remains unanswered, however, as to whether this figure includes line rental (usually $30 per month) as users will still require the use of a copper line, regardless of whether it has a phone in it or not. Of course some providers will offer ‘naked’ connections that do not require this extra cost, but if the majority of ‘mum and dad’ households go with Telstra,  the Coalition’s price ‘advantage’ is wiped-out.

The Coalition’s network will cost 75 per cent of the Labor NBN, but will deliver maximum speeds only 10 per cent of Labor’s fibre potential. Of course Turnbull and Abbott have argued their fibre-to-the-node network can be upgraded over time, but wouldn’t it be more prudent to do it once and to do it properly?

The vision thing
Come September, it is likely that the broadband policy announced by Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull will become the new National Broadband Network. Areas with existing fibre or new houses in greenfield estates will be able to access fibre-based broadband, while those in areas without a planned roll-out will have to settle for a second-tier copper system, or connect fibre from the node to the home at their own expense. Ho-hum. The opposition have spent years banging on about the exorbitant cost of the “white elephant” NBN, only to come up with their own policy that is not that much cheaper than Labor’s fibre network, yet deliver vastly inferior speeds and limited scope for future improvement.

The electorate often bangs on about politicians not having a “vision” for the nation, but when Kevin Rudd and Stephen Conroy announced a fibre-to-the-home national network, it was a bold decision that required “vision”. It was a vision that imagined Australia as the world leader in a field that, for once, wasn’t an Olympic sport. A piece of infrastructure Australians could rightly feel proud of as they rode their steam-era rail infrastructure to work, or paid five times as much for a pair of jeans at the department store. Perhaps Donald Horne’s “tyranny of distance” could finally be overcome?

No. It was too much to ask for. Critics attached moronic car analogies where optical fibre became the “Rolls-Royce” of available options, rather than a inspired, forward-looking policy. Another popular pejorative was describing the construction of expensive, world-leading infrastructure as “gold-plating”. Now Australia will have an adequate system. A mediocre network for a mediocre country. Perhaps future politicians will heed the experience of their predecessors before employing something stupid like “vision”. Now where did I put that high-speed rail report?

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