Tuesday, 9 April 2013

The National Copper Network?

A laser down an optical fibre – Souce: Timwether (Creative Commons)
(updated 10.8.2013 @ 0857 hrs)

Some initial thoughts on the Coalition's new broadband plan.

All too often, we chide our political leaders for having no "vision". For not being able to implement the big reforms that society needs. But when then-Prime Minister Rudd and Minister Conroy rejected the fibre-to-the-node tenders and announced a fibre-to-the-home National Broadband Network, the sharks started to circle. 


Because certain groups and individuals were able to put forward a narrative that painted Labor's technological choice either, confusingly as an outmoded, fifty-year-old technology, or as a type of communications technology that was entirely unnecessary for current and future needs.

Then came the the car analogies...
From news.com.au reporting Mr. Turnbull:
"Don't buy yourself a Camry, a Falcon - buy yourself a Rolls-Royce, a Bentley,'' opposition communications spokesman Malcolm Turnbull told reporters in Canberra today. 
From Dave Stevens in The Australian:
It will deliver 1GB high-speed internet to 93 per cent of Australians. 
But there would also be speed and safety benefits to giving every Australian a Rolls-Royce, and the government doesn't do that because it would be ridiculously expensive, with many rarely leaving the garage. 
So too the NBN.
From Business Spectator's Stephen Bartholomeusz:
There is undoubtedly a technology case for Conroy’s NBN – a FTTP network is the Rolls Royce of available broadband technologies today...
Enough with the automobile analogies. If fibre is the "Rolls-Royce" of Internet technologies, Tony Abbott is the Leyland P76 of party leaders. Stop using this lowest-common-denominator B.S. to help demystify something as vital as the NBN. If we are to extend this excruciating analogy, fibre is the "unbreakable" (as Top Gear proved) Toyota Hilux: ready for anything. 

The Coalition's Broadband "policy" is little more than an Heinkel Kabine. It'll get you there, but should you want a few kids in the future, you're screwed.

Heinkel Kabine AKA the Coalition's broadband plan if we are to extend clumsy analogies – Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Heinkel_Kabine_vl_red.jpg
Watching Tony Abbott trying to field technological questions was a painful experience. Seeing him use the word "meg" reminded me of this.

According to Mr. Turnbull, a Coalition government will conduct a: 

"rigorous review into NBN Co.’s current commercial progress and options to meet the Coalition’s policy objectives."
The outcome of this review, of course, seems to be already known. It will decide that fibre-to-the-premises was a waste of time and money and should be abandoned in favour of fibre-to-the-node.

The $90 billion dollar cost assumption the Coalition runs with is just that – an assumption. The cost of the Coalition's plan is not that much different from the NBN's stated price, and for the lesser money, Australians would get a third-rate system.

There is no doubt that the headline costing of the Coalition's policy is cheaper than the government's (although not by as much as the Coalition would like to think), however FTTN involves using the existing copper network. Copper in phone lines has a useable lifespan of thirty years. 85 per cent of Australia's network is close to or over thirty years old. Mr. Turnbull claims copper maintenance costs would not be an issue.

Mr. Turnbull also says the government are kidding themselves if they think they have a "future-proof" technology in using fibre for their NBN rollout. Yet somehow both Messrs. Turnbull and Abbott classify 25 Mbps as more than adequate for current needs. Labor must be banned from seeing into the crystal ball, but the Coalition can make pronouncements from it with or without evidence.

The fact is that fibre has been a proven telecommunications technology for decades, first used in the transatlantic telecommunications cable TAT-8 in 1988. The first fibre cables were able to carry 10 times the number of simultaneous telephone conversations compared to their coaxial predecessors. More modern cables can carry massive amounts of data.

As better transmission technologies evolve, fibre is the only technology with proven bandwidth potential. Copper is dead. Vectoring and other new evolutions on DSL are theoretical laboratory playthings at the moment and required perfect conditions to get the highest possible speed, not to mention they do nothing to fix the sometimes parlous state of the copper network.

FTTN would no doubt provide many people with a faster connection than they currently have. But then what? What about when the current copper network is no longer adequate? Will fibre be rolled out in drips and drabs? As Karl Schaffarczyk succinctly writes in his article on The Conversation:
"The Labor party policy of deploying the NBN as FTTH can be summarised as having an initially painful installation cost, but offering a more consistent outcome with greater spare capacity to meet future needs. 
By comparison, the Coalition policy can be described as quick and dirty: the network will be available to more Australians earlier, and will cost less up-front, but will attract ongoing maintenance costs, and be expensive to upgrade as demand grows."
The Coalition's proposal is like building a single train line with a single station that can only carry a single train, then building houses either side of the track and saying "we can expand the train line when necessary". 

We know we will need the extra capacity. There are the "known knowns" of future technological development which will require huge amounts of data to be transferred between locations. Fibre can do it in a pinch.

In fact, when looking at the speeds offered by the Coalition's proposal, 50–100 Mbps would likely be as fast as it will get for most. Sure, vectoring and other way-off technologies may improve the copper speeds in the most ideal conditions, but not by a big margin. Fibre can do 100 Mbps without breaking a sweat with 1 Gbps is not out of the question. For the Coalition's "agnostic" mix of technologies to achieve this, magic would have to occur. 

And if anyone mentions wireless, you will receive a patronising pat on the back.

To present the Coalition's plan as technologically equal to the NBN is inaccurate. At least Australia is now having a discussion about broadband...

More to come...

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