Posts Tagged‘broadband’

Labor’s Return to FTTP Scarred by the NBN’s MTM Past.

The current MTM NBN is by all accounts a total mess. Every single promise that the Liberal party has made with respect to it has been broken. First the guaranteed speed being delivered to the majority of Australians was scrapped. Then the timeline blew out as the FTTN trials took far longer to accomplish than they stated they would. Finally the cost of the network, widely described as being a third of the FTTP solution, has since ballooned to well above any cost estimate that preceded it. The slim sliver of hope that all us technologically inclined Australians hang on to is that this current government goes single term and that Labor would reintroduce the FTTP NBN in all its glory. Whilst it seems that Labor is committed to their original idea the future of Australia’s Internet will bear the scars of the Liberals term in office.


Jason Clare, who’s picked up the Shadow Communications Minister position in the last Labor cabinet reshuffle before the next election, has stated that they’d ramp up the number of homes connected to fiber if they were successful at the next election. Whilst there’s no solid policy documents available yet to determine what that means Clare has clearly signalled that FTTN rollouts are on the way out. This is good news however it does mean that Australia’s Internet infrastructure won’t be the fiber heaven that it was once envisioned to be. Instead we will be left with a network that’s mostly fiber with pockets of Internet backwaters with little hope of change in the near future.

Essentially it would seem that Labor would keep current contract commitments which would mean a handful of FTTN sites would still be deployed and anyone on a HFC network would remain on them for the foreseeable future. Whilst these are currently serviceable their upgrade paths are far less clear than their fully fiber based brethren. This means that the money spent on upgrading the HFC networks, as well as any money spent on remediating copper to make FTTN work, is wasted capital that could have been invested in the superior fiber only solution. Labor isn’t to blame for this, I understand that breaking contractual commitments is something they’d like to avoid, but it shows just how much damage the Liberals MTM NBN plan has done to Australia’s technological future.

Unfortunately there’s really no fix for this, especially if you want something politically palatable.

If we’re serious about transitioning Australia away from the resources backed economy that’s powered us over the last decade investments like the FTTP NBN are what we are going to need. There’s clear relationships between Internet speeds and economic growth something which would quickly make the asking price look extremely reasonable. Doing it half-arsed with a cobbled together mix of technologies will only result in a poor experience, dampening any benefits that such a network could provide. The real solution, the one that will last us as long as our current copper network has, is to make it all fiber. Only then will we be able to accelerate our growth at the same rapid pace as the rest of the world is and only then will we see the full benefits of what a FTTP NBN can provide.

Broadband Has to Remain Expensive Because…NBN? Come on…

In terms of broadband Australia doesn’t fair too well, ranking somewhere around 58th in terms of speed whilst being among some of the most expensive, both in real dollar terms as well as in dollars per advertised megabit. The original FTTN NBN would’ve elevated us out of the Internet doldrums however the switch to the MTM solution has severely dampened any hopes we had of achieving that goal. However if you were to ask our current communications minister, the esteemed Malcolm Turnbull, what he thought about the current situation he’d refer you to a report that states we need to keep broadband costs high in order for the NBN to be feasible. Just like with most things that he and his department have said about the NBN this is completely incorrect and is nothing more than pandering to current incumbent telcos.

Technology 2013 montage facebook online shopping icloud twitter wi-fi NBNCo national broadband

The argument in the submission centers around the idea that if current broadband prices are too cheap then customers won’t be compelled to switch over to the new, obviously vastly more expensive, NBN. The submission makes note that even a 10% reduction in current broadband prices would cause this to happen, something which could occur if Telstra was forced to drop their wholesale prices. A quick look over the history of the NBN and broadband prices in Australia doesn’t seem to support the narrative they’re putting forward however, owing mostly to the problems they claim would come from a price drop already happening within Australia.

You see if you take into consideration current NBN plan pricing the discrepancies are already there, even when you go for the same download speeds. A quick look at iiNet’s pricing shows that your bog standard ADSL2+ connection with a decent amount of downloads will cost you about $50/month whereas the equivalent NBN plan runs about $75/month. Decreasing the ADSL2+ plan by 10%, a whopping $5, isn’t going to change much when there’s already a $25/month price differential between the two. Indeed if people only choose the cheaper option then we should’ve seen that in the adoption rates of the original NBN, correct?

However as the adoption rates have shown Australians are ready, willing and able to pay a premium for better Internet services and have been doing so for years with the original FTTP NBN. The fact of the matter is that whilst ADSL2+ may advertise NBN level speeds it almost always delivers far less than that with most customers only getting a fraction of the speeds they are promised. The FTTP NBN on the other hand delivers exactly the kind of speeds it advertises and thus the value proposition is much greater than its ADSL2+ equivalent. The MTM NBN won’t have this capability unfortunately due to its mixed use of FTTN technologies which simply can’t make the same promises about speed.

It’s things like this that do nothing to endear the Liberal party to the technical vote as it’s so easy to see through the thin veil of political posturing and rhetoric. The facts on this matter are clear, Australians want better broadband and they’re willing to pay for it. Having cheaper options aren’t going to affect this, instead they will provide the opportunity for those who are currently locked out of the broadband market to get into it. Then for those of us who have a need for faster Internet connections we’ll happily pay the premium knowing full well that we’ll get the speeds that are advertised rather than a fraction of them. The sooner the Liberal party wakes up and realises things like this the better, but I’m not holding out any hopes that they will.

The Shambles That is The Liberal NBN.

It’s no secret that I’m loudly, violently opposed to the Liberal’s Multi-Technology Mix NBN solution and I’ve made it my business to ensure that the wider Australian public is aware of frightfully bad it will be. The reasons as to why the Liberal’s solution is so bad are many however they can almost all be traced back to them wanting to cast anything that Labor created in a poor light and that their ideas are far better. Those of us in the know have remained unconvinced however, tearing into every talking point and line of rhetoric to expose the Liberal’s NBN for the farce it is. Now, as the Liberals attempt to rollout their inferior solution, they are no longer able to hide behind bullshit reports as the real world numbers paint an awfully bad picture for their supposedly better NBN.


The slogan of the MTM NBN being “Fast Affordable. Sooner.” has become an easy target as the months have rolled on since the Liberal Party announced their strategy. Whilst the first point can always be debated (since 25Mbps should be “more than enough” according to Abbott) the second two can be directly tied to real world metrics that we’re now privy to. You see with the release of the MTM NBN strategy all works that were planned, but not yet executed, were put on hold whilst a couple FTTN trial sites were scheduled to be established. The thinking was that FTTN could be deployed much faster than a FTTP solution and, so the slogan went, much cheaper too. Well here we are a year and a half later and it’s not looking good for the Liberals and unfortunately, by extension, us Australians.

It hasn’t been much of secret that the FTTN trials that NBNCo have been conducting haven’t exactly been stellar with them experiencing significant delays in getting them set up. Considering that the Liberals gave themselves a 2016 deadline for giving everyone 25Mbps+ speeds these delays didn’t bode well for getting the solution out before the deadline. Those delays appear to have continued with the trial now having just 53 customers connected to the original Umima trial and not a single one connected to the Epping trial. This is after they gave a timeline of “within a month” in October last year. Suffice to say the idea that FTTN could be made available to the wide public by the end of 2016 is starting to look really shakey and so is the 2019 timeframe for their completion of the NBN.

Worst still the idea that the MTM NBN would be significantly cheaper than the full FTTP NBN is yet again failing to stand up to scrutiny. Additional cost analysis conducted by NBNCo, which includes opex costs that were previously excluded under previous costing models, has seen the cost per premises estimate for brownfields (deployed to existing houses) rise to $4316. That’s a substantial increase however it’s a more accurate representation of how much it actually costs to get a single house deployed. Taking that into account the total cost for deploying the FTTP NBN comes out to about $47 billion, very close to the original budget that Labor had allocated for it. Whilst it was obvious that the Liberal’s cost-benefit analysis was a crock of shit from the beginning this just adds further proves the point and casts more doubt over the MTM NBN being significantly cheaper.

I’m honestly not surprised by this anymore as its clear that the Liberals really had no intent of adhering to their rhetoric and were simply trashing the FTTP NBN because it was Labor’s idea. It’s an incredibly short sighted way of looking at it, honestly, as they would have won far more favour with a lot of people if they had just continued with the FTTP NBN as it was. Instead they’re going to waste years and multiple billions of dollars on a system that won’t deliver on its promises and we’ll be left to deal with the mess. All we can really hope for at this point is that we make political history and cement the Liberal’s reign under the OneTermTony banner.

Beating a Dead Copper Network.

Not so long time readers will know that a month ago (exactly, strangely enough) I posted about the issues that a FTTN NBN wouldn’t fix, namely that of the horrendous nature of the copper network that Telstra currently maintains. When I posted it I figured that my almost unusably slow Internet was the byproduct of the incumbent weather and would soon rectify itself, something which had happened in the past. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case at all and after many days of sunshine and no improvement in sight I decided to do the thing I had been regretting: calling up Telstra to get the line investigated.

Uncovered Telstra PitYou can then imagine my elation when I saw that they now have a handy online form for you to fill out instead of calling them. Like a dutiful consumer I filled it out and sent it on its way, not caring about the multiple warnings about getting charged $120 if there was no fault found. The site guaranteed me a response within a week and so I waited for them to respond. Almost like clockwork a response appear from Telstra a week later claiming that the problem had been resolved and inviting me to take a survey about my experience. If my problem hadn’t been fixed, it said, I could say so on the survey and they’d continue investigating the issue.

Of course the fault hadn’t been fixed as no one had contacted me since lodging the fault so it was obvious that they hadn’t done any troubleshooting at all, that was just the system automatically closing out a ticket that had no action on it. I replied to the survey in kind, outlining the issues I was experiencing and the troubleshooting steps I had taken to fix it. I received a call back a day later from an agent who was going to handle my case who was very understanding of the situation I was in. However the earliest he could send out a technician was a month away although he promised he’d get that moved up.

I never heard back from him after a couple call backs where he told me he couldn’t do anything for me (even though he promised to keep me updated). Luckily the technician did arrive on the scheduled date although at 8AM rather than the agreed time of after 5pm. Upon inspection of my outlet he asked if I was able to get a connection at all as the line was essentially unusable by his diagnostic tools. After a quick trip to the pit he came back with an assessment that shouldn’t shock anyone but should make you lose all faith in the state of Telstra’s copper network.

Essentially the pit had been uncovered for quite some time, much like the above picture, with the terminals exposed to the elements. Another technician had been by recently though as they had put a temporary cover the terminals to protect it however this had to have been done after my terminal had degraded. A simple rewiring job fixed the issue but the pit still remains uncovered although, hopefully, the terminals are now protected from the elements so that it won’t happen again in the future.

The issue here is that I know this isn’t exactly uncommon as I’ve managed to pass multiple pits in my travellings around Canberra that are in a similar state. To get speeds higher than what I get right now would mean that a lot of remediation to the copper network would need to be done and no where in the government’s NBN plan does it stipulate that happening. This makes their promise of getting higher speeds to everyone cheaper and faster hollow as the infrastructure they’re relying on to provide it simply isn’t capable of delivering the required outcomes. I could go on but I feel like I’ve said my peace about this a dozen times over already. I just wanted to highlight the amount of rigmarole I had to go through to get a single connection fixed which, when multiplied by an entire nation, shows how infeasible a FTTN NBN really is.

Get Your Fingers Out of Your Ears, Turnbull.

Convincing the wider tech community that the the FTTN NBN is a bad idea isn’t exactly a hard task as anyone who’s worked in technology understands the fundamental benefits of a primarily fibre network over one that’s copper. Indeed even non-technical users of Australia’s current broadband network are predominately in favour of the fully fibre solution knowing that it will lead to a better, more reliable service than anything the copper network can deliver. The was a glimmer of hope back in September when Turnbull commissioned NBNco to do a full report on the current rollout and how that would compare to his FTTN solution however his reaction to a recent NBNco report seems to show otherwise.

Generic Fibre Cable ShotThe document in question is a report that NBNCo prepared during the caretaker period that all government departments enter prior to an election. The content of the document has been rather devastating to the Coalition’s stance that FTTN can be delivered faster and cheaper with NBNCo stating in no uncertain terms that they would not be able to meet the deadlines promised before the election. Additionally many of the fundamental problems with the FTTN solution were also highlighted which should be a very clear signal to Turnbull that his solution is simply not tenable, at least in its current form.

However Turnbull has done as much as he can to discredit this report, taking the stance that it was heavily outdated and written over 6 months ago. However this is clearly not the case as there’s ample evidence that it was written recently, even if it was during the recent caretaker period (where, you could potentially argue, that NBNCo was still under the influence of Labor). In all honesty though the time at which it was written is largely irrelevant as the criticisms of it have been echoed by myself and other IT pundits for as long as the Coalition has spruiked their FTTN policy.

Worse still the official NBNCo report, which Turnbull has previously stated he’ll bind himself to, was provided to him almost 2 weeks ago and hasn’t seen the light of day since. It was even brought up during question time during a recent sitting of parliament and Turnbull was defiant in his stance to not release it. We’ll hopefully be getting some insight into what the report actually contains tomorrow as a redacted version of the report will be made available to some journalists. For someone who wanted a lot more transparency from NBNCo he is being awfully hypocritical as, if he was right about FTTN being cheaper and faster to implement, would have supported that view. The good money is then on the fact that the report is far more damning about the Coalition’s policy than Turnbull had hoped it’d be.

If Turnbull wants to keep any shred of creditability with the technically inclined voters he’s going to have to fess up sooner or later that the Coalition’s policy was a non-starter and pursuing the FTTP solution is the right way to go. Heck he doesn’t even have to do the former if he doesn’t want to but putting his stamp on the FTTP NBN would go a long way to undoing the damage to his reputation as the head of technology for Australia. I guess we’ll know more about why he’s acting the way he is tomorrow.

Oh The Things I Could Do If I Only Had the Bandwidth.

The Internet situation I have at home is what I’d call workable but far from ideal. I’m an ADSL2+ subscriber, a technology that will give you speeds up to 25MBps should you be really close to the exchange, on good copper and (this is key) make the appropriate sacrifices to your last mile providers. Whilst my line of sight distance to the exchange promises speeds in the 15MBps range I’m lucky to see about 40% of that with my sync speed usually hovering around the 4~5MBps range. For a lot of things this is quite usable, indeed as someone who had dial-up for most of his life these speeds are still something I’m thankful for, but it’s becoming increasingly obvious that my reach far exceeds my grasp something which as a technology centric person is fast becoming an untenable position.


Honestly I don’t think about it too much as it’s not like it’s a recent realisation and, since the difference between the best and worst speeds I’ve had weren’t that great in retrospect, I’ve developed a lot of habits to cope with it. Most of these are running things over longer periods when I wouldn’t be using the Internet anyway but not all tasks fit nicely into that solution. Indeed last night when I wanted to add in a video that I recorded to my post, one that was only ~180MB in size, I knew there was going to be a pretty long delay in getting the post online. The total upload time was around 30mins in the end which is just enough time for me to get distracted with other things and completely forget about what I was doing until later that night.

Sure it’s not an amazing example of why I need faster Internet but it does highlight the issue. The video wasn’t particularly large nor super high resolution (720p, 60fps), it was produced on technology that’s over 2 years old and uploaded to a service that’s been around for 7 years. The bottleneck in that equation is the connection that all of them share from my home network, something which hasn’t changed that much in the last decade that I’ve been a broadband Internet user.

For me it’s even worse when I run up against the limitations of paltry connection for things like services I’d like to host myself. In its infancy this blog was hosted from my little server at home but it became quickly apparent that little things like pictures were simply untenable because they’d take forever to load even if I shrunk them down to near unusable sizes. It became even worse when I started looking into using the point to point VPN feature in Azure for connecting a small home environment to the virtual machines I’m running in the cloud as my tiny connection was simply not enough to handle the kind of traffic it would produce. That might not sound like a big deal but for any startup in Australia thinking about doing something similar it kills the idea of creating using the service in that fashion which puts a lot of pressure on their remaining runway.

It’s reasons like this which keep me highly skeptical of the Liberal’s plan for the NBN as the speeds they’re aspiring towards aren’t that much dissimilar to what I’m supposed to be getting now. Indeed they can’t even really guarantee those speeds thanks to their reliance on the woefully inadequate copper network for the last run in their FTTN plan. Canberra residents will be able to tell you how much of a folly their idea is after the debacle that is TransACT (recently bought for $60 million and then its infrastructure sold for $9 million) which utterly failed to deliver on it’s promises, even when they deployed their own copper infrastructure.

It also doesn’t help that their leader thinks that 25MBps is more than enough for Australian residents which, if true, would mean that ADSL2+ would be enough for everyone, including businesses. Us IT admins have known that this hasn’t been the case for a while, especially considering how rare it is to get those speeds, and the reliance on the primary limiting factor (Telstra’s copper network) for the Liberal’s NBN plan effectively ensures that this will continue on for the foreseeable future.

All those points pale in comparison to the one key factor: we will need to go full fibre eventually.

The copper we have deployed in Australia has a hard upper limit to the amount of bandwidth it can carry, one that we’re already running up against today. It can be improved through remediation by installing thicker cables but that’s a pretty expensive endeavour, especially when you take into account the additional infrastructure required to support the faster speeds. Since there’s no plan to do such remediation on the scales required (either by Telstra or as part of the Liberal’s NBN plan) these current limitations will remain in place. Fibre on the other hand doesn’t suffer from the same issues with the new cables able to carry several orders of magnitude more bandwidth just with today’s technology. The cost of deploying it isn’t cheap, as we already know, but considering it will pay for itself well before it reaches the end of its useful life.

My whinging is slightly moot because I’ll probably be one of the lucky ones to have fibre being rolled out to my neighbourhood before the election but I do feel the NBN’s effectiveness will be drastically decreased if its not ubiquitous. It’s one of the few multi-term policies that will have real, tangible benefits for all Australians and messing with it will turn it from a grand project to a pointless exercise. I hope the Liberal’s policy is really just all that much hot air to placate their base because otherwise the Internet future of Australia will be incredibly dim and that’s not something that I, or any user of technology, wants for this country.

The Liberal’s NBN Plan is Just Plain Bad.

Last week I regaled you with a story of the inconsistent nature of Australia’s broadband and how the current NBN was going to solve that through replacing the aging copper network with optical fibre. However whilst the fundamental works to deliver it are underway it is still in its nascent stages and could be easily usurped by a government that didn’t agree with its end goals. With the election looking more and more like it’ll swing towards the coalition’s favour there has been a real risk that the NBN we end up with won’t be the one that we were promised at the start, although the lack of a concrete plan has left me biting my tongue whilst I await the proposal.

Today Malcolm Turnbull announced his NBN plan, and it’s not good at all.

Malcolm Turnbull Nice NBN You Have There

Instead of rolling out fibre to 93% of Australians and covering the rest off with satellite and wireless connections the Liberal’s NBN will instead only roll fibre to 22%, the remaining 71% will be covered by FTTN. According to Turnbull’s estimations this will enable all Australians to have broadband speeds of up to 25MBps by 2016 with a planned upgrade of up to 100MBps by 2019. The total cost for this plan would be around $29 billion which is about $15 billion less than the current planned total expenditure required for Labor’s FTTP NBN. If you’re of the mind that the NBN was going to be a waste of money that’d take too long to implement then these numbers would look great to you but unfortunately they’re anything but.

For starters the promise of speeds of up to 25MBps isn’t much of an upgrade over what’s available with the current ADSL2+ infrastructure. Indeed most of the places that they’re looking to cover with this can already get such services so rigging fibre up to their nodes will likely not net much benefit to them. Predominantly this is because the last mile will still be on the copper network which is the major limiting factor in delivering higher speeds to residential areas. They might be able to roll out FTTN within that time frame but it’s highly unlikely that you’ll see any dramatic speed increases, especially if you’re on an old line.

Under the Liberal’s plan you could, however, pay for the last mile run to your house which, going by estimates from other countries that have done similar, could range anywhere from $2500 to $5000. Now I know a lot of people who would pay for that, indeed I would probably be among them, but I’d much rather it be rolled out to everyone indiscriminately otherwise we end up in a worse situation we have now. The idea behind the NBN was ubiquitous access to high speed Internet no matter where you are in Australia so forcing users to pay for the privilege kind of defeats its whole purpose.

Probably the biggest issue for me though is how the coalition plans to get to 100MBps without running FTTP. The technologies that Turnbull has talked about in the past just won’t be able to deliver the speeds he’s talking about. Realistically the only way to reliably attain those speeds across Australia would be with an FTTP network however upgrading a FTTN solution will cost somewhere on the order of $21 billion. All added up that makes the Liberal’s NBN almost $5 billion more than the current Labor one so it’s little wonder that they’ve been trying to talk up the cost in the past week or so.

You can have a look at their policy documents here but be warned it’s thin on facts and plays fast and loose with data. I’d do a step by step takedown of all the crazy in there but there are people who are much more qualified than me to do that and I’ll be sure to tweet links when they do.

Suffice to say the Liberal’s policy announcement has done nothing but confirm our worst fears about the Liberal party’s utter lack of understanding about why the FTTP NBN was a good thing for Australia. Their plan might be cheaper but it will fail to deliver the speeds they say it will and will thus provide a lot less value for the same dollars spent on a FTTP solution. I can only hope come election time we end up with a hung parliament again because the independents will guarantee that nobody fucks with the FTTP NBN.

The Business Benefits of the National Broadband Network.

There’s little doubt in my mind that the National Broadband Network will be a major benefit to Australia, way past the investment we’re making in it. It’s one of those rare pieces of legislation that will almost certainly outlive the government that started it and the Labor government should be commended for that. Indeed something like the National Broadband Network is almost a necessity if Australia wants to keep pace with the rest of the world in a technological sense as otherwise we’d be stuck on aging copper infrastructure that really doesn’t have any legs left in it. Still whilst anyone in the IT or related sectors would agree that the NBN will be good for business it’s not entirely clear what those benefits will be. ran a story this morning that pointed to research showing only 30% of Australian businesses had a “medium to high” understanding of the benefits available to them through the NBN. Making a few assumptions here I’m guessing the survey didn’t ask actual questions to gauge their true understanding so it’s likely that that number is actually a lot lower than the survey lets on. I’ll admit that for a non-technical person, who was likely the one answering the survey, the benefits of ubiquitous high speed Internet for your business are not entirely clear especially when the Internet they have now is probably doing them well enough.

The businesses geared to make the most of the NBN are ones with multiple offices spread throughout Australia. Right now getting a good inter-office connection, whether a full WAN or just some trickery using VPN tunnels and a regular ADSL, is either an expensive or complicated affair. The NBN will provide high speed interconnects at prices that many businesses will be able to afford. This means you’ll be able to get almost 100MB connections between offices giving you LAN like speeds between disparate offices. It might not sound like much but even small government agencies currently struggle with this (I’ve worked for more than one) and the boost in productivity from better connections between regional offices is very noticeable. This would also extend to remote workers as well, since it’s highly likely that they’ll have NBN access as well.

Having a large connection also enables businesses to move services out of expensive hosted data centres and onto their own premises. Right now it’s nigh on impossible to host client facing services internally unless you want to shell out a lot of money for the business type Internet plans. The NBN will bring data centre level speeds to almost every home and place of business in Australia enabling current businesses the opportunity to migrate inwards, saving on rental and administration costs. Sure the facilities they have might not be as good as what they can get elsewhere but the cost savings of not using a co-located service (believe me, they’re not cheap) would be more than worth it.

There’s also a host of services that are currently infeasible to operate, due to their high bandwidth use, that would become feasible thanks to the NBN. Such services won’t be available immediately but as the NBN reaches a threshold of active users then we can expect either local innovators to create them or for current Internet giants to localize their services for Australia. Predominately I see this taking the form of cloud based services which are accessible from Australia but have yet to have local nodes due to the lack of supporting infrastructure. This would also help cloud providers crack into that ever elusive Australian government sector which has remained resistant due to the restrictions placed on where their data can be stored.

The NBN will also bring about many other ancillary benefits due to the higher speed and ubiquitous access that business will be able to take advantage of. Indeed the flow on effects of a fully fibre communications network will have benefits that will flow on for decades for both businesses and consumers alike. Realistically this list is just the tip of the iceberg as over time there will be numerous services that become available in order to take advantage of our new capabilities. I personally can’t wait to get onto it, enough so that moving to one of the fibre enabled locations is tempting, albeit not tempting enough to make me move to Tasmania.

National Broadband Network: Charging Forward.

As someone who languished with dial up whilst all his friends got ADSL, then got ADSL and then moved to a location where the sync speeds weren’t all that great you can imagine why I’m always excited to hear good news about the NBN making progress. Sure I’m not stuck with my old 56K connection which served me well for the better part of a decade but I can think of enough uses  for a 100Mbit connection that would make my life a whole lot easier (none more so than being able to host my own websites with a decent amount of bandwidth behind them). There’s been little news on how the roll out has been going and the only recent good news was that it wouldn’t be canned because of the hung parliament. Picking through my month sized backlog of blogs and news articles today changed that however.

On Friday it seems that the Senate approved a bill which splits Telstra’s wholesale and retail arms effectively putting an end to the natural monopoly advantage that Telstra had over every communications company in Australia. Back when I first heard about the government attempting to do this it seemed more likely that Telstra would be doing the separation themselves under the watchful eye of the ACCC. This legislation shows that such an arrangement couldn’t be met and instead the government has made good on its promise ensuring that the NBN can proceed as planned. Telstra isn’t wholly losing out in this deal however but they will be competing on level ground with the other telcos once the separation is complete.

The cost to the Australian public for this deal is $11 billion and that pays for all the copper networks and the Telstra customers that will be migrated over to NBNco. That cost may seem high however the alternative is to duplicate much of the infrastructure that supports the copper network, namely the cable ducts. Replicating that entire network just for the fibre cables would consume much more than the amount than what’s being paid to Telstra, especially if you factor in the costs of disrupting everyone while you dig trenches up major roads. Additionally with a good chunk of Telstra’s shares still being held by Australians and the Australian Government (to the tune of 10.9%) it works in Australia’s best interests to not tear into Telstra too ravenously, even if they deserve it.

The deal is fantastic news for the NBN program. Back during the election there was the distinct possibility that the hung parliament could have swung the other way which would have had it scrapped in favour of the Liberal party’s cheaper option. With that obstacle avoided it meant that the fledgling NBNco could continue the work it was doing in the initial pilot areas whilst plans for the larger implementations took shape. Now with Telstra’s network under their belt they can begin developing roll out strategies for larger deployments. That also means that should we face a change of incumbent parties in the next election it will be far too politically toxic for them to can it and Australia will end up with one of the most advanced communications networks in the world.

We are of course many years away from the majority of us receiving the benefits that the NBN will provide but it’s always good to hear that it’s still making steps towards its realisation. With the Internet filter dying an (albeit extremely slow) death the future of communications in Australia is starting to look a whole lot brighter than when it was back when I first started writing about it. Hopefully I can continue along those lines for many years to come, I’d hate to have to write about why the filter should die again 😉

Femtocells: I’m Not Paying For Your Infrastructure.

I spent the vast majority of my life living out in the country where mobile phone reception was scarce even when you were on the top of the highest hill you could find. For many years I stayed with Telstra because they were the only ones that could provide me with a connection that wouldn’t drop out most of the time and, thanks to my employment at a retail establishment that peddled their wares, I was able to get a very decent plan that kept me going until about 2 years ago. After moving into the city I’ve always felt spoiled having mobile phone reception wherever I go and I’m still mildly surprised when I get coverage indoors since the corrugated iron roof we had would kill any signal. I know I’m not the only one who’s had these kinds of issues but since I was at home I had many other ways to contact people, it was more the convience factor for those few who didn’t have IM or email.

The problem hasn’t gone away for my rural comrades who still languish with poor cell phone reception. Since the population is spread out so sparsely it’s not worth any mobile provider’s time and money to try and improve the signal out there as their potential customer base is quite small. It’s the same reason that they haven’t bothered with upgrading many rural exchanges with the DSLAM architecture required to give the same people broadband although there are other companies providing directional wireless broadband solutions to cover these guys off (that’s not the same as 3G broadband, just in case you were thinking that). The solution that companies overseas seem to be peddling to those who don’t get the mobile reception that they want seems to lie with the introduction of Femtocells, but I can’t really see how that fixes anything, nor why anyone would actually pay for the privilege.

A femtocell is basically a small version of those giant cell towers you see every so often. They work off the idea that they can route the voice and data traffic over a broadband connection, usually provided by the person who has purchased the femtocell. From a technical point of view it’s actually quite a simple and elegant solution as it makes use of existing infrastructure to provide a service that some people potentially lack. When deployed into the real world however there’s some issues that I just can’t see a simple solution for, especially when you consider those in a situation similar to mine all those years ago.

Firstly there’s the dependency on a broadband connection. Now whilst I’m not terribly familiar with the broadband situation in the USA here in Australia if you’re lucky enough to be able to get any kind of broadband the chances are you’re within a certain short distance from a telephone exchange which typically has its own cell tower. If you’re unable to get cell phone reception but you have connected broadband you’re either inside a building (which usually only kills 3G) or in some kind of freakish blackspot. Either way you’re still connected to the outside world via the Internet and possibly a landline or VOIP phone which could be your mobile phone if it’s capable of running Skype or similar. Additionally for those of us who lived with little to no mobile reception and lack proper broadband a femtocell is useless, since it simply can’t operate in those conditions.

There’s also the fact that, should Australian mobile carriers follow the USA’s lead, femtocells will have to be purchased by the end user. Now it’s always nice to have full bars on your phone but realistically if you’re at home there’s not really a need for it. The data aspect is fully covered by having wifi in the house which even the cheapest of ADSL routers come with these days. I can understand the voice aspect somewhat although if you have broadband in Australia you either have a landline which you can divert your mobile to when you’re out of range of a tower or you have naked DSL and VOIP, which could be used in much the same way. Additionally if you’ve got a smartphone there’s the possibility of using something like Skype which would still be contactable via the Internet should you lose signal at home. Really the mobile carriers should provide the customer with an outdoor picocell instead as coverage blackspots like that tend not to be isolated to a single household.

I guess I’m approaching this problem from the view of someone technically inclined as I can see the attraction for someone who’s stuck in a blackspot and doesn’t want to mess around with diverts and VOIP on their phone. Still the limited application of such devices really makes me think it should be a cost beared by the carrier as realistically it’s their infrastructure that the customer is paying for as even if it was free there’s still the broadband connection, bandwidth and power required for these devices. The problem would be rendered completely moot if a service like Google Voice came to Australia but for now it seems we’re still stuck with less than ideal solutions to poor signal issues in residential areas.