Fiber is the future of all communications, that’s a fact that any technologist will be able to tell you. Whilst copper is still the mainstay for the majority its lifetime is limited as optics are fast approaching the point where they’re feasible for everything. However even fiber has its limits, one that some feel we were going to hit sooner rather than later which could cause severe issues for the Internet’s future. However new research coming out of the University of California, San Diego paves the way for boosting our fiber network’s bandwidth significantly.
Today’s fiber networks are made up of long runs of fiber optic cable interspersed with things called repeaters or regenerators. Essentially these devices are responsible for boosting up the optical signal which becomes degraded as it travels down the fiber. The problem with these devices is that they’re expensive, add in latency and are power hungry devices, attributes that aren’t exactly desirable. These problems are born out of a physical limitation of fiber networks which puts an upper limit on the amount of power you can send down an optical cable. Past a certain point the more power you put down a fiber the more interference you generate meaning there’s only so much you can pump into a cable before you’re doing more harm than good. The new research however proposes a novel way to deal with this: interfere with the signal before it’s sent.
The problem with interference that’s generated by increasing the power of the signal is that it’s unpredictable meaning there’s really no good way to combat it. The researchers however figured out a way of conditioning the signal before it’s transmitted which allows the interference to become predictable. Then at the receiving end they’ve used what they’re calling “frequency combs” to reverse the interference on the other end, pulling a useful signal out of interference. In the lab tests they were able to send the signal over 12,000KM without the use of a repeater, an absolutely astonishing distance. Using such technology could drastically improve the efficiency of our current dark fiber networks which would go a long way to avoiding the bandwidth crunch.
It will be a little while off before this technology makes its way into widespread use as whilst it shows a lot of promise the application within the lab falls short of a practical implementation. Current optical fibers carry around 32 different signals whereas the system that the researchers developed can currently only handle 5. Ramping up the number of channels they can support is a non-trivial task but at least it’s engineering challenge and not a theoretical one.
Telstra was a brilliant example of why natural monopolies should never be put in the hands of private share holders. Whilst the situation has improved quite dramatically over the past decade thanks to strict regulation and enhanced competition we’re still suffering a few headaches of not jumping on the broadband bus earlier than we should have. Still though the Australian government is being no slouch when it comes to charging forward into the future with the National Broadband Network which, if fully implemented, will see Australia able to count themselves amongst the top tier of Internet enabled nations. Still with the high cost and long implementation timeline many are looking at alternatives that can provide similar benefits, and the first place they turn to is wireless.
Today the issue was brought into the spotlight again as Telstra announced their plans to do a nation wide rollout of 4G LTE (Long Term Evolution) wireless broadband services. The comparisons to the NBN flowed thick and fast, with many questioning the benefits of having both:
Telstra will significantly upgrade its mobile network to take advantage of fast 4G technology that will allow users to obtain speeds similar to home broadband connections while on the go.
The announcement comes on the back of a government-commissioned report warning uptake to its $36 billion network could be stifled by wireless technologies.
Long time readers will know I’ve touched on this issue briefly in the past after having a few long conversations with fellow IT workers over the NBN. On a pure theoretical level 4G wins out simply because you get similar speeds without having to invest in a large scale fiber network and you get the speeds wherever you have coverage. The problem is whilst the 4G specification does make provisions for such high speeds there’s a lot of caveats around being able to deliver it at that level, and they’re not all just about signal strength.
Upgrading the current 3G network to support 4G is no small task in itself, requiring all towers to be upgraded with additional transceivers, antennas and supporting infrastructure. Whilst upgrading the towers themselves won’t be too difficult the real problem comes in when people start wanting to use this new connection to its fullest potential, attempting to get NBN speeds from their wireless broadband. This at the very least requires an infrastructure upgrade on the scale of Fiber to the Node (FTTN) as the bandwidth requirements will outstrip the current infrastructure if they are used as a replacement for the NBN. Most critics looking to replace the NBN with wireless neglect this fact and in the end not upgrading the backhauls from the towers means that whilst NBN speeds would be possible they’d never be realised in practice.
Wireless is also no replacement for fixed line as it is much harder to provide a guaranteed level of service, something businesses and government entities rely on. Sure many of the limitations can be worked around with good engineering but it will still lack the scalability of a fixed fiber solution that already has implementations in the multi-gigabit range. Wireless might make sense for some low use consumer products (I’d love to get my mobile videos faster) but the fact is that if you’re relying on your Internet connection for critical business functions you’re not going to be doing them over wireless. Heck I don’t think anyone in the 4G enabled parts of the USA is even attempting to do that.
In reality the NBN and Telstra’s 4G network shouldn’t really be seen as being in competition with each other, they’re really 2 completely different products. The NBN is providing the ground level infrastructure for an Internet revolution in Australia, something that will bring extremely high speed Internet access to the masses. 4G should be seen as an evolutionary step in the mobile sector, enabling much more rich Internet services to be delivered to our handsets whilst offering some of the capability of a fixed line when you’re on the go. The sooner everyone realizes this the better as playing them off each other is just a waste of time and won’t lead to anything positive for Australia as a nation.
I think I speak for a lot of Australians when I say I was tired of this election 2 weeks ago. I didn’t have the same buzz I had 3 years ago when I made my way to the ballot box, eagerly waiting to cast my vote that would bring the change that Australia desperately needed. That night was filled with elation as my prime minister of choice was elected and Australia’s future started looking a lot brighter. The next couple years were a tumultuous time but we came through the other side with nary a scratch on ourselves. However Rudd’s non-negotiable stance on several key issues rubbed people the wrong way and the Liberal attack dogs were let loose, utterly destroying the once high approvals that Labor once had. In the end we ended up in a position where neither party really won the election and we’re now stuck with a minority government and 3 years of pork for a few regional seats. There’s really little good to come out of this election.
Still there had to be a winner and it was the Labor government. You’d think that by my glowing recollection of the first years of the Labor government that I’d be happy about this but in truth I’m indifferent. I voted for the Greens this year because they aligned with my ideals the best out of the lot, but they were still far off the mark for a lot of their other policies. Don’t think for a second that I was just voting for them because I was disillusioned with Labor; I voted below the line on this one ensuring all my preferences went exactly where I wanted them, not where the Greens thought they should. Still it mattered little for the electorate I’m in, but that’s just how it goes in representative democracies.
Probably the only good thing to come out of all of this is the fact that the National Broadband Network will not be scrapped in its infantile stages and will live on for the next 3 years. I commend the Labor government for initiating this project as the time frames are far past that of their current term (and then some) showing that they at least have some long term vision for the future, even if it’s only in this one area. The good news is that should they not win the next election the NBN will be far enough underway that cancelling it would be political suicide and it will keep on rolling until its fully realised. There’s still a chance that it might get scaled back or mucked with in another way by a future government but 3 years is long enough to secure the vast majority of its infrastructure to ensure that a good majority of the original NBN idea gets implemented within its original time frame.
However the NBN hasn’t come out of this election turd smelling of roses either. As funneling pork to the regional independents was key to securing this election for the Labor government the NBN, which would eventually bring significant investment to the regions anyway, has been rescheduled to first target regional Australia. Now it’s really here nor there on whether this is a good or bad thing in itself, I mean I’m all for them working out the bugs on the regional folk before rolling it out here, but the highest value places for the NBN are the CBDs of major cities. Rolling out to the regions first means that Australian businesses will be waiting longer to make use of these upgrades, potentially stymying them for a couple years. It’s not that big of a deal, but it does open up the potential for criticism when the NBN is only delivering on its promises to a small subset of Australia.
There’s also been an increased amount of scrutiny and criticism levelled at the NBN due to its increased visibility in this election. During its construction the NBN is going to require up to 25,000 workers to get it all rolled out by its current deadline of 2018. According to industry union estimates there are only 7,000 workers in Australia right now that are capable of performing the required work and their estimates show that there will be a shortage of 10,000 workers over the course of the NBN’s implementation. Such a skills shortage does mean that there will be an upward pressure on wages in this particular industry and that has the potential to increase the projected costs for the NBN. Most of this has already been taken into consideration however and I believe the potential impact to the project should be minimal if action is taken to address it immediately. It’s unfortunate that Australia has a tendency to be so xenophobic when it comes to migrant workers as there’s more than enough skilled labor overseas that could be imported for the required duration.
Can’t imagine how the unions would feel about that one either… 😉
Strangely enough one of the most common criticisms I’ve heard has come from my IT cohorts who say that the NBN goes too far with its planned implementation. Their reasoning is mostly based on the fact that the Internet they have now is quite adequate and there’s little reason to overhaul the network. However this does not take into consideration that the current copper infrastructure can not scale in the same way a fiber network can and whilst their broadband is fast enough now it won’t be in 5 to 10 years time. Additionally such a network would make Australia quite attractive to overseas technology companies looking to trial new services, especially those coming out of the United States. This has the potential to build Australia’s service industry up for the time when our natural resources run dry and our current source of economic success is cut off.
The counterpoint many of them use is that wireless technologies are rapidly and will render a cabled network useless. Indeed the LTE specification is designed to give peak performances that are very comparable to that of the NBN and there have been demonstrations of the technology to that effect. However the amount of work to implement such a wireless system on the same scale as the NBN requires investment on almost the same level. The wireless towers would all require a fiber connection back to the dark fiber back hauls in essence requiring a scaled back NBN that did fiber to the node. Additionally none of the towers in Australia are equipped to broadcast on the frequencies required to achieve speeds comparable to that of the NBN, somewhere on the order of 2.6GHz (most carriers are on the 850/900/1900/2100MHz bands). There would also be a need to increase the number of towers to ensure adequate coverage, further increasing the cost required. In the end the argument that a wireless NBN is the cheaper and better alternative is nothing more than a distraction, it’s just not as viable as a national fiber network.
It’s no secret that I’ve got a lot invested in the NBN idea, what with my dreams of starting up my own private data center in my basement so I can host all my web applications cheaply. But the NBN is so much more than that and whilst I might be unhappy with the way the election turned out this year I’m glad that the NBN didn’t get the chop. The next 3 years of pork barrel politics will be long forgotten when the NBN finally reaches its goal of bringing extremely fast Internet to the vast majority of Australia’s population and I can’t wait to see it happen.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m no fan of our dear Senator Conroy, but credit where it’s due he at least understands technology better than our current PM or opposition leader, even if he doesn’t listen to the tech community at large. Whilst I abhor the Internet Filter policy in its entirety I’m almost salivating at the possibility that one day soon I’ll have access to a 100Mbps fiber connection at my house. Not only is it awesome because of the raw speeds it also opens up opportunity for someone like me who’s looking to host his own services but doesn’t necessarily want to spend the cash on proper hosting just yet, but still deliver a decent service to his end users (this lightweight blog is about the limit of my current connection).
Last week saw the Liberal party finally release their planfor upgrading Australia’s Internet infrastructure. To say it was unimpressive would be putting it gently as whilst they did outline a plan for upgrading our infrastructure it was a far cry from what the NBN is currently shaping up to be. In essence their plan was just a continuation of what would have been done eventually with no fundamental change in the way Australia’s Internet infrastructure was done. This would not free Australian consumers from the problems that have plagued them thanks to the botched privatisation of Telstra (read: not keeping their retail and wholesale branches at arms length) and wouldn’t increase speeds for anyone who didn’t already have broadband at their homes. It was in essence the lowest cost option they could come up with, done to try and bolster their image of being fiscally responsible. We all know that is complete bollocks anyway.
Still for some reason the Labor party the need to kick the Liberals while they were down and announced that their NBN would reach speeds of up to 1Gbps, ten times that of what they originally promised:
Communications Minister Stephen Conroy confirmed today that the National Broadband Network NBN would reach speeds of up 1Gbps, ten times faster than the originally announced speeds of up to 100Mbps.
Conroy said he had only found out about the 1GB speeds yesterday when NBN Co chief executive Mike Quigley called him last night. Quigley will make further announcements regarding the faster speeds at a lunch time conference in Sydney today.
The announcement was made at the official NBN launch this morning at Midway Point in Hobart, Tasmania, one of the first townships to receive the NBN, as part of Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s campaign trail. The official launch was a chance to differentiate Labor from the Coalition — which has vowed to bin the NBN if elected.
On the surface it would sound like a bit of over-promising in aid of boosting numbers for the coming election but realistically there’s no fundamental issue that would stop the NBN from achieving these speeds and even exceeding them in the future. With so much mud being slung (as is the norm for election time) I would have thought the Liberals would’ve jumped all over this but the statement came and went without much fanfare at all. Conroy’s statement does highlight the fact that the NBN is a fundamental shift in the way Australian’s get their Internet and how it will remain with us for decades to come.
You see the current backbone of our Internet infrastructure in Australia is primarily copper wire, stuff that’s been around since the 1880’s. Right now the fastest connection you can push over our current copper based lines is around 24Mbps and that’s highly dependent on factors such as distance to exchange, back haul capacity and how over subscribed the exchange is. Theoretically if you used a technology like VDSL (ala Transact here in Canberra) you could squeeze 250Mbps out of the same copper, however that signal would drop dramatically if you were a mere 500 meters away from the closest repeater. Transact manages to get it done because they have a fiber to the curb network ensuring most houses aren’t that far away from the repeater, but the last mile is still copper.
Fiber to the home means that the underlying technology that we use for our communications in Australia changes to our generation’s copper: optical fiber. Whilst the current copper infrastructure has theoretical peaks double that of what the NBN originally planned to deliver optical fiber has current, working implementations that run all the way up to 10Gbps. Using a combination of single-modefor back haul and multi-mode it is entirely possible for any house that has a fiber connection to have speeds of up 1Gbps. The only limitation then is on the bandwidth at the local exchange but problems like line attenuation are completely removed. Additionally higher speeds than those currently possible could be achieved by upgrading the endpoints on their side of the fiber connection, ensuring the longevity of the multi-billion dollar infrastructure upgrade.
The NBN as it stood in its original incarnation would have put Australia right up there with the leading countries in terms of Internet infrastructure. Whilst the 1Gbps claim doesn’t fundamentally change what’s going to happen with the NBN it does mean that it is being built with a vision for the future. Compare this to the Liberal party’s plan of just carrying on as we have done for the past 2 decades you can see why I believe that the NBN needs to go ahead because as it stands right now Australia just doesn’t compare to the vast majority of other developed countries. I believe that the NBN is fundamental in making Australia attractive as a base for Internet companies worldwide, as well as existing businesses looking to extend their reach into our area.
It’s not often that you see a government project that will outlast its party’s term but the NBN is a shining example of long term planning. When it is implemented all Australians will reap the benefits of cheap, ubiquitous, high speed Internet that will spur innovation on a national scale of the likes we haven’t yet seen. With the current completion date hovering around 2018 we’re still a way off from seeing the benefits of such a network unfold but if we’re to have infrastructure that will last us as long as the copper has done up until now the NBN must be completed, lest we be left behind by the rest of the Internet world.