Scott Morrison not up to the task of saving Australia's NBN

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Through all its promises, the Coalition Government has botched the job of delivering an NBN comparable with the rest of the world, writes Anthony Eales.

AS PARTS OF the rest of the world offer and prepare to offer ten gigabit-per-second fixed internet services, Australia and its National Broadband Network only manages a guaranteed 25 Mbps download speed and of that many can’t achieve even that dismally low mark.

Japan is now offering ten Gbps internet speeds for end users and gigabit internet is becoming the norm in most developed countries. Closer to home, New Zealand offers gigabit services to residents and Kiwis are taking gigabit up over 100 Mbps.

NBN Co revealed in 2017 that 54,000 fibre-to-the-node users could not even reach the 25 Mbps download speed minimum promised by the Coalition Government infamously in 2013 when Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott set out to destroy the NBN. NBN Co has been a little sheepish in revealing how many FTTN users can reach 25 Mbps as of late.

Of course, this hasn’t stopped Telstra, the number one provider of NBN services in the country from removing the 100 Mbps down/40 Mbps up speed tier for FTTN, fibre-to-the-curb and fibre-to-the-basement users. Their reasoning for this is that they simply cannot guarantee these speeds to users on copper-based connections.

The problem was customers would sign up to the maximum speed possible only to be hit with the hard thud of reality that copper-based connections provide, which is much less than expected from the customer. This, of course, is not a very good experience but one that a lot of FTTN customers experience whenever signing up to the NBN from any Retail Service Provider (the NBN-era term for Internet Service Provider).

A breakdown of connection types from I.T. News shows the following:

At the same time, the company also broke down its active services as of 31 October by technology. Of the 6.2 million active services, 877,000 were on brownfields FttP, 473,000 had greenfields FttP, 2.85 million received FttN/B, 1.25 million had HFC connections, and 353,000 used FttC. Beyond fixed line connections, 296,000 premises had fixed wireless and 97,000 were connected via satellite.

The NBN is hoping to have its network completed by the middle of the year. It’s all well and good to say “mission accomplished” but its a little hard to be celebrating too much when Australia and it’s fixed-line internet is so monumentally behind the rest of the developed world and, suffice it to say, the developing world in an increasing amount of cases.

What is needed are upgrades. The sooner the better. Yesterday would have been what was required in terms of upgrades but this is where we find ourselves today. The FTTN network at the bare minimum needs to be upgraded to FTTC. Preferably FTTP as FTTC has been having some problems in its upgrade path to get to higher than 100 Mbps speeds.

If NBN wants to make any of the money back on the network build in the face of 5G and even Elon Musk’s SpaceX Starlink gigabit satellite space internet (set to start providing services to the U.S. mid-year and rollout to the rest of the world in 2021), it needs to bring the network up to standard to be able to compete. This will involve more fibre. Fibre that should have been originally built into the network.

Paul Fletcher, the Communications Minister, appeared on Sky News Australia doing his best to weasel out of the need for more fibre. Much like Stephen Rue, NBN Co’s current CEO, these Coalition mouthpieces have to toe the copper cavemen line, never allowed to admit that fibre would have been the superior choice first time around. They castigate the “do it once, do it right, do it fibre” crowd as “fibre zealots” and insist they built the network faster and for less money.

Who can forget the 2013 promise that the Coalition would have the NBN completed by 2016? Four years later and we are still going. Another promise Malcolm Turnbull made was $3,000 upgrades to FTTP. Whatever happened to that? I wrote about this in a quite scathing article on the state of the Technology Choice Program this time last year.

5G is supposed to be the magic bullet that makes the NBN obsolete. Those on the Right of politics in Australia often say that wireless is the answer and we should never have built the NBN in the first place. But this ignores the capacity issues of wireless. When too many people use it, it slows down considerably. This is what happened to previous wireless generations – 3G and 4G – and it’s bound to happen in some form to 5G.

Not to mention the form of 5G that most people will use, known as mid-band, will be just like faster 4G and not like the game-changing millimetre wave 5G with the huge gigabit speeds and more. mmWave 5G requires mini towers every few hundred metres and all of them need to be hooked up to fibre. Also, it doesn’t do very well with obstacles.

In conclusion, Australia needs to get its act together and fast. I fear the visionless Scott Morrison isn’t up to the task. Labor leader/Opposition leader Anthony Albanese is finally offering up a plan with a full-fibre replacement of the “dog’s breakfast NBN”. Good on him. But the next election is a minimum of two years away and I fear we can’t afford to wait that long, or we risk getting left even further behind than we already are.

This is without the very real risk that the Coalition Government tries to privatise the NBN and sell it to Telstra’s planned infrastructure spin-off InfraCo. It’s a worry, but a very real prospect. And then we’d be back where we started pre-Kevin Rudd. The Coalition Government has no doubt done untold damage to Australia’s telecommunications infrastructure for now and into the future and with them in power, I’m not optimistic there will be a turnaround any time soon.

Anthony Eales is a media, news and tech junkie from Australia. You can follow him on Twitter @ants000. This article was originally published at Medium.com and is republished with permission.

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