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.
It may come as a surprise to you to find out that Australia is a predominately service base industry. Whilst it’s hard to argue that we’ve enjoyed the benefits of the current mining boom Australia’s GDP is still predominately derived from our service industry, to the tune of 69% (pg. 134). Still the current prosperity and insulation from global economic crises that Australia has received from the growing mining sector won’t last forever and now is the time for us to start looking towards the future so we can ensure future economic prosperity. I strongly believe that we’ve already undertaken the first steps towards achieving this with the implementation of the National Broadband Network.
Australia as it stands today suffers from an incredible amount of skill drain to other countries. Well over half of the Australian residents who leave Australia for over a year or permanently were skilled workers and whilst the trend has gone down in recent times (thanks wholly to Australia’s isolation from the global economic turmoil) that hasn’t stemmed the flow of talent leaving our shores. For the high technology sectors at least there is the potential to recreate the hot bed of innovation that led to the creation of Silicon Valley on the back of the NBN. This would not only stem the brain drain overseas but would produce large and sustainable gains to the Australian economy.
Right now the public view of the NBN varies wildly. Businesses by and large have no idea what benefits it can bring them, public opinion is mixed (although Senator Conroy says differently) and even the federal government seems at a loss to what it could mean for Australia’s future, doling out cash to local governments in the hope they’ll be able to sell it for them. To combat this the government should instead provide incentives and seed capital to high-tech start ups who are looking to leverage Australia’s upcoming ubiquitous high speed Internet infrastructure, in essence building an Australian Silicon Valley.
Doing this requires co-ordination with entrepreneurial communities, venture capitalists and the willing hand of the government. They could easily make investment in these kinds of companies more desirable by extending tax breaks that are currently enjoyed by other asset classes to investment in NBN based high-tech start ups. This would also make Australian based startups incredibly attractive for overseas investors, pumping even more money into the Australian economy. As the sector grows there would also be an increasing amount of ancillary jobs available, ones that accompany any form of corporation.
Australia would then become a very desirable location for both established and aspiring businesses looking to expand into the Asia-Pacific region. It also works in the reverse, giving Asia-Pacific businesses (and nations) a more local launch pad into the western business world. Establishing Australia as a high tech hub between our strong local ties and western allies abroad would provide a massive economic boost to Australia, one to rival that of the current mining boom.
Of course it’s not like this hasn’t been tried before in Australia, indeed many have tried to recreate the success of the valley with little results. Indeed I believe this is due to a lack of co-operation between the key players, namely the government, entrepreneurs and investors. The NBN represents a great opportunity for the government to leverage the industry not only to ensure Australia’s future economic prosperity but also to establish Australia as a leader in technology. I believe that the government should be the ones to take the first steps towards fostering such an environment in Australia as once the industry knows they have the support they’ll be far more willing to invest their time in creating it.
Not leveraging the NBN in such a way would leave the NBN as a simple infrastructure service, woefully underutilised given the capabilities that it could unlock. Make no mistake the NBN puts Australia almost at the top in terms of ubiquitous, high speed Internet access and that makes a lot of services that are currently infeasible to develop attractive targets for investigation. Indeed since the same level of broadband access is almost guaranteed throughout the country it is highly likely that benefits will stretch far past the borders of the CBD, even as far as regional centres.
As someone who’s group up on and made his career in technology it’s my fervent hope that the Australian government recognizes the potential the NBN has and uses that for the betterment of Australia. As a nation we’re well positioned to leverage our investment in infrastructure to provide economic benefits that will far exceed its initial cost. Creating a Silicon Valley of the Asia-Pacific region would elevate Australia’s tech industry to rival those throughout the rest of the world and would have massive benefits far beyond Australia’s borders.
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.
News.com.au 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.
Ever since I’ve been able to get broadband Internet I’ve only had the one provider: Internode. Initially it was just because my house mate wanted to go with them, but having zero experience in the area I decided to go along with him. I think the choice was partially due to his home town being Adelaide, but Internode also had a reputation for being a great ISP for geeks and gamers like us. Fast forward 6 years and you can still find me on an Internode plan simply because the value add services they provide are simply second to none. Whilst others may be cheaper overall none can hold a candle to all the extra value that Internode provides, which I most heartily indulge in.
In Internode’s long history it’s made a point about being one of the largest privately owned Internet service providers (ISPs) in Australia. This is no small feat as the amount of capital required to become an ISP, even in Australia, is no small feat. Internode’s reputation however afforded it the luxury of many geeks like myself chomping at the bit to get their services in our area, guaranteeing them a decent subscriber base wherever there was even a slight concentration of people passionate about IT and related fields. In all honestly I thought Internode would continue to be privately owned for a long time to come with the only possible change being them becoming publicly traded when they wanted to pursue more aggressive growth strategies.
Today brings news however that they will be bought out by none other than iiNet:
In a conference call this afternoon discussing the $105 million takeover announcement, Hackett said that because of NBN Co’s connectivity virtual circuit charge, and the decision to have 121 points of interconnect (POI) for the network, only an ISP of around 250,000 customers would have the scale to survive in an NBN world. With 260,000 active services, Internode just makes the cut. He said the merger was a matter of survival.
“The size of Internode on its own is right on the bottom edge of what we’ve considered viable to be an NBN player. If you’re smaller than that, the economics don’t stack up. It would be a dangerous thing for us to enter the next era being only just quite big enough,” he said.
Honestly when I first heard the news I had some very mixed feelings about what it would entail. iiNet, whilst being a damn fine provider in their own right, isn’t Internode and their value add services still lag behind those offered by Internode. However if I was unable to get Internode in my chosen area they would be the second ISP that I would consider going for, having numerous friends who have done so. I figured that I’d reserve my judgement until I could do some more research on the issue and as it turns out I, and all of Internode’s customers, really have nothing to worry about.
Internode as it stands right now will continue on as it does but will be wholly owned by iiNet. This means that they can continue to leverage their brand identity (including their slightly premium priced value add business model) whilst gaining the benefit of the large infrastructure that iiNet has to offer. The deal then seems to be quite advantageous for both Internode and iiNet especially with them both looking towards a NBN future.
That leads onto another interesting point that’s come out of this announcement: Internode didn’t believe it couldn’t economically provide NBN services at their current level of scale. That’s a little scary when one of the largest independent ISPs (with about 3% market capture if I’m reading this right) doesn’t believe the NBN is a viable business model for them. Whilst they’ll now be able to provide such services thanks to the larger user base from iiNet it does signal that nearly all smaller ISPs are going to struggle to provide NBN services into the future. I don’t imagine we’ll end up in a price fixing oligopoly but it does seem to signal the beginning of the end for those who can’t provide a NBN connection.
Overall the acquisition looks like a decisive one for iiNet and the future is now looking quite bright for Internode and all its customers. Hopefully this will mean the same or better services delivered at a lower price thanks to iiNet’s economies of scale and will make Internode’s NBN plans look a lot more comepetitive than they currently are. Should iiNet want to make any fundamental changes to Internode they’re going to have to do that softly as there’s legions of keyboard warriors (including myself) that could unleash hell if they felt they’ve been wronged. I doubt it will come to that though but there are definitely going to be a lot of eyes on the new iiNet/Internode from now on.
It’s been about 2 and a half years since we first heard about the National Broadband Network although back then it was a much different beast than what it has become. Initially the NBN was mostly going to be a project that was only given initial seed funding from the government with the rest to come from private industry backers. That proposal fell flat on its face when none of the bidders were able to provide a serious proposal and it then transformed into a fully government funded project, to the tune of $47 billion. Keeping the project alive was one of the key points in swinging the election towards Labor’s win, albeit at the cost of deploying to regional towns first instead of major cities as it was planned.
The initial stages in Tasmania have been rolling out for some time and the stage 2 deployments in select regional towns on the mainland have also started. Just last week however brings news that the first 14,000 residents who have been connected to the NBN can now sign up for plans with their respective ISPs, signalling the beginning of the commercial NBN:
From tomorrow, the 14,000 residents whose homes have been passed by the National Broadband Network’s first release site roll-out and aren’t already locked into alternate contracts with their internet service provider will be able to order an NBN service.
“The launch of commercial services over the fibre network in the mainland First Release Sites marks a significant milestone for the delivery of the NBN. It is the start of a new era of service and competition as providers begin to offer a range of different plans over our open-access wholesale network,” NBN Co head of product development and sales, Jim Hassell, said in a statement.
From just an idea to first light in under 3 years is pretty good by government standards, especially when the project is scheduled to run for at least another 5. The competition for consumers has also begun to heat up as well with iiNet undercutting Internode, forcing them to rework their plan (it now currently stands at the same price, but with 30GB of data). This is great news for us consumers because it means by the time the NBN is available to a much wider audience prices will probably be forced even lower once the economies of scale start to kick in.
Even at these early stages however the current plans available are quite comparable to their ADSL counterparts. For example I’m on an ADSL2+ connection with 250GB of data (one of their older plans I believe) with a $10 “power pack” that makes my uploads not count and gives me a static IP address. The NBN equivalent is their silver plan, which is 25 down/5Mbps up, comes in at $74.95 for 300GB a saving of approximately $20/month over what I’m currently paying. For the same price I can get the top tier of bandwidth along with an extra 50GB of data, which is quite amazing for a service that’s only available to 14,000 people.
How long it will be before such services are available to a good chunk of the Australian populace remains a mystery however. The current rollout map only goes up to Stage 2 which is only a few dozen locations and I haven’t been able to source any rollout plans past that. From the rumours I’ve heard major cities should be the next stage after the current one, but even then rollouts in those areas will take a long time to complete, especially if the TransACT rollout in Canberra is anything to go by.
All of this is pointing towards a very bright future for Australia and the NBN. No future government would risk cancelling a project that is this far under way, especially with the potential benefits for both consumers and business. The pricing being competitive with current ADSL plans means that there will be a real incentive for people to switch to the NBN once it becomes available and it will only get better in the future. I’m really looking forward to being able to be part of the NBN once it becomes available, even though I know it will be a long time coming.
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.
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 😉
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.
I’m sure the regular readers of my blog know that I’m not the biggest fan of Senator Conroy, mostly because of his idiotic support of the Internet filter which I’m vehemently against. However he’s been distancing himself more and more from that piece of legislation and seems to be shifting most of his focus on the National Broadband Network, something that I definitely support in principal but still disagree with parts of the proposed design. You can then imagine my surprise when I heard the words Conroy and space in the same sentence, especially considering that Australia is still in the infancy stages of, you know, actually doing anything in space:
The minister, who last week announced he would take the axe to Telstra’s monopoly, told a Tamworth forum that he is prepared to do whatever it takes to solve coverage issues in rural and remote Australia.
He says he will not rule out Australia sending its own satellites into space to ensure adequate coverage.
“If we can’t do a deal with operators who’ve got satellites in the sky, we’re actually looking to do it ourselves,” he said.
Now when I first read this I had one of those moments when the scientific part of my brain shuts down and I go into gullible mode. Think that this might lead to Australia developing a small launching capability in order to support the government’s satellite program. Of course this isn’t going to happen, especially considering the kind of infrastructure that would be required and the hired help we’d have to bring in from overseas. In reality the government would probably be buying the infrastructure from overseas partners and launching them from either America or Russia, with China still being an outside possibility.
Seeking to disprove his idea even before it got off the ground I decided to look into the costs of setting up such infrastructure. A good example to base this off is Iridium, a company specializing in delivering such a capability. Currently they have a network of 66 active satellites with 7 in orbit spares, for a total of 73. They’re relatively cheap satellites, coming in at around US$5 million each fully constructed. That doesn’t take into account the launch costs however, and the majority of them were launched in bundles of 5 on top of a Delta-II rocket which costs about $50 million per launch (the wiki article cites 1987 dollars as the cost). That’s about $15 million per satellite up there and whilst I’m sure we won’t need the coverage of the Iridium network you’re still looking at a price tag in the AU$100 million area, which is actually quite doable even with just the initial funding for the NBN of $4 billion.
It’s a very interesting idea and it illustrates the issue for providing broadband to rural areas. As someone who lived in a not-so-rural-but-still-far-out area for most of his life I can attest to the sorry levels of Internet available. I was a mere 30 minutes outside of Canberra yet the only way for me to get any kind of broadband was satellite for many years. That changed when a company supplying wireless broadband set up shop in the area, although their service at the time was a little questionable and it appears that they’ve decided to charge everyone for the set up costs now (to the tune of $1500, no less). The situation is getting better, but not by much.
Conroy’s idea of creating a satellite network as part of the NBN is a solid idea, and I can only hope that it would lead to many larger ISPs buying satellite capability from the NBN which would drive competition and lower prices. The barrier to entry for being a competitor with this capability is currently far too high for any real competition to happen so a new satellite wholesaler makes quite a lot of sense if you’re looking to increase broadband penetration.
Good on you Conroy.