LAURIE PATTON. Turnbull’s New Year resolution should be a fibre-based NBN for everyone

Dec 30, 2016

 As we all make our New Year’s resolutions, here’s one for Turnbull: build us a better broadband network. It’s time to allow NBN to dump copper and revert to a fibre-based model. The sooner the better.  

In the 1990s Australia’s innovation power house, the CSIRO, invented Wi-Fi. Without it, the internet could not have become the omnipresent foundation of modern telecommunications.

Without it, the internet might still be largely the plaything of geeks and academics. At the very least, we would not be browsing online via smartphones or other wireless devices, something that we all take for grantedSo, it is sadly ironic that we find ourselves stranded at around No. 50 in global broadband speed rankings. Once the leader, now a follower, in the race towards a digitally enabled global future. Hardly destined to become an innovation nation. Imagine what would happen if we came 50th in the next Olympics medal tally!

For years Telstra was well placed to build a nationwide broadband service, but failed to deliver. History will show this to have been one of the greatest missed opportunities in recent Australian telecommunications history.

Telstra’s forebear, the Postmaster General’s Department, was given the task of building the telegraph 150 years ago, and subsequently the telephone system. In its later guise as Telecom it was charged with ensuring that anyone who wanted one could have what telco engineers call a POTS (plain old telephone service). Nobody suggested that the size of our continent meant only people living in, or very near to, our major population centres could have the phone. Nor was it reserved for the wealthy. Australia’s much-vaunted egalitarianism meant universal service was deemed mandatory.

When the then federal government enthusiastically embraced the idea of the National Broadband Network in 2009 it declared we would use the most technically advanced and future-proofed technology available – a service based around optical fibre to the premises for 93 per cent of us and modern fixed wireless, or satellite, for the small minority in more remote areas.

Tony Abbott famously told us he wasn’t going to build a broadband network so people could watch television. In government, he ordered our now Prime Minister to take the knife to the NBN. Dumping optical fibre and using ageing copper wires and old pay TV cables will be remembered in times to come as the equivalent of rejecting motor vehicles in favour of faster horses.

NBN recently admitted what most telco engineers south of the equator knew long ago. The 25-year-old Optus pay TV cables, its Hybrid Fibre Coaxial network, are unusable. In the original NBN business plan Optus was to be paid to decommission the HFC network and sign over its customers. Its cables were never intended to be used. Which bright spark told Turnbull to incorporate them in his so-called multi-technology mix model? A model that also has millions of homes being connected to the internet via Telstra’s copper wires which are, in some cases, more than 50 years old and destined to need replacing in 10 to 15 years, if not sooner?

Fortunately for the government, technology has ridden to the rescue. When as communications minister Turnbull contemplated his instructions from Abbott, there were essentially only two options – rolling out fibre to the premises or repurposing copper wires.

Since then a middle ground has emerged. Fibre to the driveway (also called fibre to the distribution point, or FTTdp) involves running fibre cables through the existing Telstra ducts under our footpaths. From there, the choice is whether to use the existing copper wires for the relatively short distances from the footpath into premises, or run fibre all the way.

The advantages of FTTdp are many. For starters, it would be a reasonably inexpensive process to upgrade to full fibre. It doesn’t require the big ugly cabinets currently being placed on footpaths across the nation or an external power source. One of the factors slowing down the rollout of copper-based fibre to the node (FTTN) is the need to supply electricity to each of the cabinets.

On the very near horizon is another piece of new technology called “dot fast” which provides the icing on the cake for FTTdp. G.Fast and its higher speed sibling XG.Fast are DSL lines that promise to dramatically increase the rate at which data can be transmitted across short distances over copper wires. The technology is too short to work with FTTN.

Having conceded that it can’t use the Optus cables, NBN has decided instead to use FTTdp. Clearly, NBN management concluded that they would have a riot on their hands if they told people expectantly awaiting high-speed broadband via HFC that they were going to be lumbered with a slower-speed service. Crisis avoided.

However, if FTTN has been deemed inadequate for the 700,000 Optus customers how can the government argue it is good enough for anyone else?

In a recent Essential opinion poll 88 per cent of respondents said they see the internet becoming an essential service like water and electricity. Yet only 22 per cent think the current NBN will meet our future needs. You only need to scroll through any of the social media sites to find endless complaints from NBN customers.

As we all make our New Year’s resolutions, here’s one for Turnbull: build us a better broadband network. It’s time to allow NBN to dump copper and revert to a fibre-based model. The sooner the better.

Laurie Patton is chief executive of Internet Australia. This article was first published in the SMH on 30 December 2016.

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