The unfortunate truth about telecommunications within Australia is that everyone is under the iron rule of a single company: Telstra. Whilst the situation has improved somewhat in the last decade, mostly under threat of legal action from the Australian government, Australia still remains something of an Internet backwater. This can almost wholly be traced back to the lack of investment on Telstra’s behalf in new infrastructure with their most advanced technology being their aging HFC networks that were only deployed in limited areas. This is why the NBN was such a great idea as it would radically modernize our telecommunications network whilst also ensuring that we were no longer under the control of a company that had long since given up on innovating.
To us Australians my opening statements aren’t anything surprising, this is the reality that we’ve been living with for some time now. However when outsiders look in, like say the free CDN/DDoS protection service Cloudflare (who I’ve recently started using again), and find that bandwidth from Telstrat is about 20 times more expensive than their cheapest providers it does give you some perspective on the situation. Whilst you would expect some variability for different locations (given the number of dark fiber connections and other infrastructure) a 20x increase does appear wildly out of proportion. The original NBN would be the solution to this as it would upend Telstra’s grip on the backbone connections that drive these prices however the Liberal’s new MTM solution will do none of this.
Right now much of the debate of the NBN has been framed around the speeds that will be delivered to customers however that’s really only half of the story. In order to support the massive speed increases that customers would be seeing with the FTTP NBN the back end infrastructure would need to be upgraded as well and this would include the interconnects that drive the peering prices that Cloudflare sees. Such infrastructure would also form the backbone of wide area networks that businesses and organisations use to connect their offices together, not to mention all the other services that rely on backhaul bandwidth. The MTM NBN simply doesn’t have the same requirements, nor the future expandability, to necessitate the investment in this kind of back end infrastructure and, worse still, the last mile connections will still be under the control of Telstra.
That last point is one I feel that doesn’t get enough attention in the mainstream media. The Liberals have released several videos that harp on about the point of making the right amount of investment in the NBN, citing that there’s a cut off point where extra bandwidth doesn’t enable people to do anything more. The problem with that thinking is though that, with the MTM NBN, you cannot guarantee that everyone will have access to those kinds of speeds. Indeed the MTM NBN can only guarantee 50Mbps to people who are 200m or less away from an exchange which, unfortunately, the vast majority of Australians aren’t. Comparatively FTTP can deliver the same speeds regardless of distances and also has the ability to provide higher speeds well into the future.
In all honesty though the NBN has been transformed from a long term, highly valuable infrastructure project to a political football, one that the Liberal party is intent to kick around as long as it suits their agenda. Australia had such potential to become a leader in Internet services with an expansive fiber network that would have rivalled all others worldwide. Instead we have a hodge podge solution that does nothing to address the issues at hand and the high broadband costs, for both consumers and businesses alike, will continue as long as Telstra controls a vast majority of the critical infrastructure. Maybe one day we’ll get the NBN we need but that day seems to get further and further away with each passing day.
The resignation of the National Broadband Network board was an expected move due to the current government’s high level of criticism of the project. Of course while I, and many other technically inclined observers, disagreed with the reasons cited for Turnbull’s request for their resignations I understood that should we want to get the NBN in the way we (the general public) wanted it then it was a necessary move that would allow the Liberal party to put their stamp on the project. However what followed seemed to be the worst possible outcome, one that could potentially see the NBN sent down the dark FTTN path that would doom Australia into remaining as an Internet backwater for the next few decades.
They hired ex-Telstra CEO Ziggy Switkowski.
For anyone who lived through his tenure as the head of Australia’s largest telecommunications company his appointment to the head of the NBN board was a massive red flag. It would be enough to be outraged at his appointment for the implementation of data caps and a whole host of other misdeeds that have plagued Australia’s Internet industry since his time in office but the real crux of the matter is that since his ousting at Telstra he’s not been involved in the telecommunications industry for a decade. Whatever experience he had with it is now long dated and whilst I’m thankful that his tenure as head of the board is only temporary (until a new CEO is found) the fact that he has approved other former Telstra executives to the NBN board shows that even a small amount of time there could have dire implications
News came yesterday however that Turnbull has appointed Simon Hackett, of Internode fame, was appointed to the NBN board. In all honesty I never expected this to come through as whilst there were a few grass roots campaigns to get that to happen I didn’t think that they’d have the required visibility in order to make it happen. However Hackett is a well known name in the Australian telecommunications industry and it’s likely that his reputation was enough for Turnbull to consider him for the position. Best of all he’s been a big supporter of the FTTH NBN since the get go and with this appointment will be able to heavily influence the board’s decisions about the future of Australia’s communication network.
Whilst I was always hopeful that a full review of the feasibility of the NBN would come back with resounding support for a FTTH solution this will almost certainly guarantee such an outcome. Of course Turnbull could still override that but with his staunch stance of going with the review’s decision it’s highly unlikely he’d do that, less he risk some (even more) severe political backlash. The most likely change I can see coming though is that a good chunk of the rollout, mostly for sites where there is no current contracts, will fall to Telstra. Whilst I’m a little on the fence about this (they’d be double dipping in that they’d get paid to build the new network and for disconnecting their current customers) it’s hard to argue that Telstra isn’t a good fit for this. I guess the fact that they won’t end up owning it in the end does make it a fair bit more palatable.
So hopefully with Hackett’s appointment to the NBNCo board we’ll have a much more technically inclined view presented at the higher levels, one that will be able to influence decisions to go down the right path. There’s still a few more board members to be appointed and hopefully more of them are in the same vein as Hackett as I’d rather not see it be fully staffed with people from Telstra.
I’ve never had much luck with Internet speeds. That’s probably because unlike most of my geek brethren I always seemingly forget to check the distance to the nearest exchange from the place I was looking to rent or purchase, something which is now top of my list. Heck even my parents who live in a rural area outside Canberra manage to get better speeds than me thanks to their short distance to their exchange, even though my line of sight distance is almost equal to theirs. It’s still a worlds away from the dial up that I used to make do with but I know there’s a whole other world of faster speeds out there that are just tantalizingly out of reach for me.
At the top of the list is the the holy grail of Internet connections in Australia: the National Broadband Network. Whilst it might be in the realms of fairy tales and unicorns for most people in Australia I know a couple people who’ve managed to get themselves on the service thanks to being in the right place at the right time. From what they tell me its everything that its marketed to be with extremely fast speeds that aren’t dependent on distance from exchange, the modem your using or how much your hardware likes you on a particular day. Unfortunately short of moving into a location that has it already (there are quite a few now, but they’re still the minority) the wait for it is going to be quite long.
There is one technology that is available today that can deliver some pretty impressive speeds so long as your’re within range of a city CBD. The tech I am referring to is, of course, 4G wireless.
Now if you’ve been here for a while I’d forgive you for thinking that I wasn’t a big fan of the whole 4G idea especially when its mentioned in the same breath as the NBN. It is true that I believe they’re solutions to different problems but just as the underlying technology alludes to (Long Term Evolution, or LTE, if you were wondering) I do believe that it is the future of wireless communications. Unfortunately I don’t believe that the wireless network would be capable of supporting all the Internet requirements of Australians even if the specification is theoretically capable of it. It certainly has its place though, however.
As part of my new position with Dell I was given a laptop for accessing the corporate network but the site I’m currently attending doesn’t have an unfettered connection for me to use in order to do so. Initially I was just tethering to my phone as I have a pretty decent data plan (1.5GB/month) that barely ever gets close to being used and for the most part it worked well. However should I pick up my phone to go somewhere or if my S2 was having a particularly bad day I’d lose the connection, dropping anything that required to be always on (like the VPN). Frustrated I decided to grab myself a wireless broadband dongle and for a cool $130 I got myself a 4G one that had 3GB for the first month.
It’s a rather tiny device resembling an overgrown USB stick (and it in fact has a USB stick in it as well for driver installation, pretty neat) so you can imagine I was slightly sceptical about its capabilities to deliver true 4G speeds with such a small antenna. The signal in the area where I’ve used it the most isn’t particularly fantastic either and I was relegated to the NextG network, which is still not bad by mobile broadband standards. However over the weekend I was up in the middle of Sydney on the 11th floor of a hotel in Darling Harbor and I was privy to full bars of signal strength on the 4G network. So like any self respecting geek I gave it what for.
And boy did it ever deliver.
For regular web browsing the difference wasn’t particularly noticeable but I did see something when I opened up Steam on my laptop to try and get a game configured. The download speed I saw was about 2 MB/second and I figured it was just updating from the cache. It in fact wasn’t and was downloading at those blazing speeds right over the wireless broadband. To put that in perspective that kind of speed is about 4 times what I get regularly at home and I wasn’t even trying to stress the connection fully. In hindsight I should’ve done a speed test just to show you what it was theoretically capable of but just simple Steam download test seemed sufficient enough to prove its value.
Unfortunately I feel that the ludicrous speeds I saw are a product of the lack of usage at the moment. Currently there are only a handful of 4G handsets capable of being used in Telstra’s network and the $130 dongle looks quite expensive next to the $30 3G dongle that’d do the job for pretty much everyone. Whether the 4G network is capable scaling up to the same level of demand that the 3G networks currently have is a question that won’t be answered until 4G reaches a similar level of penetration that 3G has today. With the rapid pace of handset development that could come much sooner than you think and 4G services might become much more commonplace sooner rather than later.
I had really, truly believed that the Internet Filter was dead and buried. My last post about it was back in September last year and since then I’ve failed to come across anything solid about it apart from Conroy saying that he was still committed to the idea. It’s a good thing really since Australia didn’t appear to really want it and it wouldn’t have been effective anyway but the lack of an official release from the government saying that the idea had been canned meant that the Internet Filter always had a small chance of resurrecting itself. Indeed the much bigger issues facing Australia would seem to have the Internet Filter well buried, leaving us to leave that ugly part of Australia’s past behind us.
Unfortunately for us however it seems that nothing is as unkillable as an election promise to appease a vocal minority and 4 Australian Internet service providers have implemented their own form of what the Internet filter was to become:
MOST Australian internet users will have their web access censored next month after the country’s two largest internet providers agreed to voluntarily block more than 500 websites from view.
Telstra and Optus confirmed they would block access to a list of child abuse websites provided by the Australian Communications and Media Authority and more compiled by unnamed international organisations from mid-year.
“The ACMA will compile and manage a list of URLs of child abuse content that will include the appropriate subsection of the ACMA blacklist as well as child abuse URLs that are provided by reputable international organisations (to be blocked),” the spokesman said.
It seems that whilst the funding for a “mandatory voluntary” filter was indeed dropped in this year’s budget due to limited interest (or was that outright hatred?) the notion of a voluntary filter paid for entirely by the ISPs themselves was still on the table. Strangely enough 4 ISPs agreed to this idea including Telstra and Optus, two companies not known for doing things out of the good of their hearts unless they’re legislated to. I have no idea what their motivations are for doing so either since it just means more work for them without providing any sort of benefit to their end customers. Hell I don’t think this will generate any good will either as most people using these ISPs will be completely unaware of the changes.
They’re also implementing a filter that’s going to be completely ineffectual. Basically it’s just a simple list of URLs to be blocked, curated by ACMA and apparently they’re all sites that contain child abuse material on them. Such a filter disregards the fact that the vast majority of people attempting to access material like this aren’t going to be deterred by the simple fact the URL is blocked, especially when it’s trivial to change the URL at a moment’s notice. Additionally blocking URLs does nothing to stymie the distribution of such material through peer to peer networks and would more than likely drive more of them to use such services. In essence this is nothing more than a complete waste of time for everyone involved and really only serves as a political talking point.
The government and all ISPs involved could do themselves a huge favor by just dropping this idea entirely. It is politically toxic, ineffectual and above all has the potential to be misused in ways that could do Australia a great deal of harm both locally and internationally. Hopefully this is the last time that the Internet Filter will crawl out of its grave to give us one last scare but as they say the price for freedom is eternal vigilance and I’ll be ready with my shotgun should the bloated corpse of the Internet Filter dare try to rise again.
Look I can understand how frustrating it can be to live in a place with crap cell phone reception. I spent the majority of my life living only 30 minutes outside Canberra and even that short distance was enough for the reception to basically drop off to nothing unless you were with Telstra. Even then you were lucky to be able to place a call indoors (especially if you had the typical colourbond roof) with most mobile calls being made from the nearest hill you could scurry up. I still suffer from spotty coverage even in town thanks to my current network provider but not once have I thought that a femtocell would be the answer to my problem.
Like I’ve said previously femtocells seem to be like a cash grab from cellular providers who instead should be spending their own money on fixing their coverage problems. Their use case is almost too narrow to be of any use since you need to have a broadband connection (which usually puts you in mobile phone range) and since nearly every broadband router comes with a wireless access point there’s no need to use 3G when you’re at home. In essence you’re just giving yourself full coverage so you can pay the exorbitant cellular data rates whilst at the same time using your own data cap, in essence double charging yourself for the privilege. Just like there doesn’t seem to be a case for a cellular tablet I struggle to find a use for a femtocell other than for a cellular provider to bilk their customers.
It seems that these useless devices have finally made their way onto Australian shores with Optus, the carrier with the worst record for coverage (in my experience at least), beginning trials of the devices:
Dubbed the ‘3G Home Zone’, the new Optus femtocell device is a small base station that plugs into a wireless router and uses a fixed-line broadband Internet connection to boost mobile coverage. Once operational, the Optus femtocell device should typically provide full mobile coverage within a 30 metre range.
Optus recommends that the 3G Home Zone be connected to a broadband service with a minimum download speed of 1Mbps and a minimum upload speed of 256kbps — if the speed is capped at 128kbps or lower, the device will no longer work.
The most insulting part about Optus’ introduction of these devices is that they’re charging for them, and it’s not a trivial amount either. You either pony up $60 initially and another $60 over 12 months (with a $70/month plan) or you pay $240 outright. Now far be it from me to get in the way of a company trying to make a profit but it would seem that the investment they spent in getting these devices functional could have been far better spent upgrading the spots where reception is a problem. Getting 3G indoors is all well and good but the vast majority of use cases for that are already covered off aptly by wireless, and you don’t need to pay an additional monthly fee to use that.
What I would support however would be something along the lines of what AT&T is doing in the USA, giving all users who request it a free femtocell. Of course it would seem like a silly move to begin with but having been an actual AT&T customer and seeing the coverage problems they had a free femtocell would go a long way to keeping people on their network. Of course they didn’t start out free (they definitely weren’t when I was there) but obviously the cost can’t be too high or they wouldn’t be offering it. Hopefully it won’t be too long before Optus follows suit.
Femtocells feel like a solution in search of a problem. Sure it might be great to have full coverage in your house (I currently get 1 bar) but the reason for doing so seems almost non-nonsensical when you look at the requirements needed to do it. I can’t see a future where I’ll ever need a device like this unless they somehow make it affordable with a satellite connection, but even then if I’m that far away from humanity I’d be guessing I wouldn’t want to bring the Internet with me. So hopefully these silly devices will disappear into the dark niche they belong in: the technically ignorant and woefully misinformed.
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 😉
When the National Broadband Network was announced it was fairly obvious it was going to be a big stab to Telstra. Their monopoly on Australia’s copper line infrastructure was beneficial in the early years when it was wholly government owned. However in true Liberal style John Howard thought it best to privatise the company, and that’s when things started turning bad. There’s only one thing worse than a monopoly controlled by a government, and that’s a monopoly controlled by shareholders.
It seems however that in order to circumvent the mistakes of the past the Labor government (I highly doubt Conroy was the driving force behind this, but I’m willing to be proved otherwise) is in essence bringing Telstra back under government control, albeit in a rather weird fashion:
Communications minister Stephen Conroy has put the Government on a collision course with Telstra, warning the telco giant to split its wholesale and retail arms, or face business restrictions.
The major reforms to the telco giant’s structure and operation were announced today as the Government geared up to roll out its $43 billion National Broadband Network and move Telstra towards becoming part of it.
The Government is moving to restructure the sector to pave the way for the rollout of the network, which it plans to build in the next eight years.
Now don’t get me wrong I like this idea. Telstra has been using its monopoly on the copper lines as a bargaining tool for many years and it’s done nothing to improve the level of service that Australian’s recieve. In fact around 8 years ago they were caught selling broadband plans cheaper than what they sold wholesale to their competitor ISPs (I can’t find a direct article, but here’s the results). Putting their retail section at arms length from their wholesale division is a good move that will hopefully keep them a little more honest, but I still have this weird feeling about how they’re going about it.
Really the issue stems from the previous government selling off our assets in order to fund their surplus (although the historical position on the matter seems to be that the government couldn’t keep pace with technology, go figure). Bar actually buying Telstra back from it’s shareholders there’s not a lot the government can do apart from legislating against them. Although with the government hammering them with legislation that will, let’s be honest here, damage Telstra’s business they could get themselves a bargain with the share price dropping 6% on this announcement. I guess it’s probably the best solution we can hope for as the government’s hands are tied from any other course of action.
On the surface this would appear to be a hastening of Telstra’s defeat at the hands of the National Broadband Network but in reality it’s the opposite. The initial plans announced by the Labor government made no mention of Telstra’s involvement at all and in fact, their involvement in a previous Fibre-to-the-Node (FTTN) request for tender was seen as joke rather than an actual submission. It seems however that this separation might form part of some deal that will get Telstra in on the ground level for the National Broadband Network, with the public announcement just the government making sure Telstra stays honest.
Overall this appears to be a benefit for Australian’s at large. It should mean that the Internet service we get is more uniform and at a lower cost than what we currently get. It will also stop Telstra from standing on top of its monopoly hill in order to keep themselves going, hopefully leading to some actual innovation by the company. It’s going to be a long process to get this whole thing worked out and I’m sure we’ll be hearing much more of this over the coming months as negotiations take place.
I’ll be watching.