The NBN to end the Copper Age

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The Coalition may not have got the memo, but the days of copper wire are over. Tech expert Kieren Cummings cuts through the spin to explain why only the fibre optic solution provided by the NBN is the only realistic way to future proof Australia’s communications infrastructure.

NBN rollout map (click on image to access interactive map on NBN website)

IT SEEMS there are many ways that politicians deceive us, such as through spin, campaign promises that were never intended to be enacted and through omitting key information about policy. This is normal, we’ve come to expect to not be told the 100% honest to goodness truth by a politician; actually, we expect to be lied to from the get go. It seems that this knack for deceit has allowed information on the National Broadband Network (NBN) in Australia to be not only misrepresented, but the alternatives to be lauded as the panacea of high speed internet.

There are many who just don’t know enough about the technologies on offer to understand the benefits & drawbacks of different platforms, yet it seems almost every political commentator has an opinion, albeit poorly formed, on what the best solution is.

As a geek working in IT, I’ve had a lot of exposure to networking technologies over the years. From the old coaxial 10Base2/10Base5 days, through to ISDN/ADSL services, and now with Fibre Optic networking — the evolution of networking has been somewhat predictable. Technologies fall along the wayside as the costs of both services & systems come down. At one stage, you would only deploy fibre if you absolutely needed it — now it’s what makes up most of the infrastructure we rely on every day. From networking through to storage, fibre optics is still seen as the fastest, most reliable & secure technology for mission critical applications.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone suggest using wireless or older technologies for even non-mission critical applications; it’s counter-intuitive to hobble a network or system with technology not suited to the task. This seems to be where a lot of detractors of the NBN (yes, Malcolm Turnbull, I’m looking at you) get stuck. Viewing complex systems through the lens of political rhetoric gives an air of deceit and, at times, ignorance of the facts. By asserting that “we can use the copper already in the ground”, the Liberal Party has ignored the limitations of the copper that’s already there.

After working for Telstra – both programming PSTN, ISDN & ADSL lines & updating cable records from techs in the field – I’m not sure anything can be done to save Australia’s copper network. Years of neglect and, at best, patch up jobs of the network, some areas are lucky to even get phone lines, let alone broadband. So where does this leave the copperholics in the political debate? Technologically, on shaky ground. Yet, with a little spin – and a few choice quotes from analysts being paid to support a telco not upgrading their network – the “we already have the copper” idea seems to gain traction politically.

While I know Malcolm Turnbull is greatly respected, I feel he is doing the bidding of a bad leader to keep his own job. Malcolm knows that NBNCo are investing heavily in backbone infrastructure — an investment that would still have to happen under the LNP’s plan to service Australia with Hybrid Fibre-Coaxial (HFC), cellular data (EDGE/3G/4G), and xDSL (ADSL2/2+). So, the real argument is over “last mile” infrastructure — which, in a lot of ways, is the most important decision to undertake when designing a network.

In the good old days, this wasn’t a hard decision — there were few technologies available to end users. It was pretty much dialup modem connections or ISDN — the latter being out of reach of all but the wealthiest consumers. These days, there are many options for many applications; however, they all rely on high speed, low latency backbones — i.e.: fibre optics.

So, how do all these “last mile” technologies stack up against each other? Well, that depends on what you’re trying to do, how much you have to spend, and where you’re trying to deploy the service.

While HFC was a great stop-gap solution for smaller providers to bypass Telstra’s copper cable monopoly, in densely populated areas it just can’t perform as well as straight fibre optic services. Why? Unlike fibre optic services, HFC uses fibre to an interconnect from where the bandwidth is shared via coaxial. This is where such technology falls over, if 500 people are using the connection, your speed will be 1/500th the speed, minus network overheads. Not exactly next generation technology.

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Cellular data has revolutionised the way we communicate, with people Tweeting from the train, gaming on the grass, and even browsing from bed, the benefits of wireless data are plain to see. While it’s hard to argue with the flexibility of wireless data, it is easy to see where this falls over. Spend five minutes in the Melbourne CBD on Telstra’s 3G network at midday and you will experience one of the biggest hurdles of cellular data — how to deliver full speed internet access to large groups of people wirelessly. In a best case scenario LTE/WiMAX (4G technologies) can deliver mindblowing speeds, but this does not translate into real world scenarios.

It seems that the Liberal party didn’t get the memo that ADSL has reached the limit of its capabilities these days. Yes, there are many xDSL services being developed, but with an increase in speed, line lengths are shortened. It’s just not possible to push a technology that was always seen as a way of extending copper’s life further than fibre optics. Even basic fibre services outperform xDSL. The suggestion of using Fibre to the Node (FTTN) is almost laughable, seeing as FTTN has been in use in Australia for over a decade — we just didn’t call it FTTN. “On-street” DSLAMs & ISDN interconnects have been the bread and butter of rural broadband in Australia — and they have failed miserably. With our extreme climate here in Australia, I’ve come across on-street DSLAMs that were flooded, corroded, and even burnt out, from scorching summer temperatures.

The only option that will future proof Australia’s communications infrastructure is fibre optics. While other networking technologies are useful, building on the firm foundation of fibre optics will ensure that these ancillary technologies are easier to deploy.

I’m hoping that this post will enable people to cut through the deceit coming from politicians and pundits alike, as the debate is being framed around ideology rather than a true look at the benefits and drawbacks of different technology.

(This story was originally published on Kieran Cummings blog Also read managing editor  David Donovan’s analysis of why opposing the NBN may deny the Coalition victory at the next election.)
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