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Expert panel: the state of the National Broadband Network

Should the fibre extend to the street or the premises? Shutterstock

Expert panel: the state of the National Broadband Network

Should the fibre extend to the street or the premises? Shutterstock

Is the rollout for Australia’s National Broadband Network (NBN) on track? Are we employing the right technology for the job? Will the NBN be fast enough to handle future demands?

The Senate Select Committee on the National Broadband Network recently asked five of Australia’s leading academic experts to give their views on the state of the NBN.

Here, each of the experts gives a summary of their views as they presented them to the Committee, raising concerns about the current technology and suggesting there might be ways to improve the NBN rollout using new approaches being adopted overseas.

David Glance, University of Western Australia

The Senate Committee was brought up-to-date with contemporary answers to these questions. It was given examples of companies and countries that thought fibre to the node (FTTN) was an adequate implementation strategy, but have since changed to a fibre to the premises (FTTP) approach.

In the US for example, AT&T last year abandoned fibre to the node and has switched to deploying fibre to the premises because of the speed and capacity limitations, and because 1 Gigabit per second (1 Gbps) is the “new normal”.

AT&T is also now certain that 25 Mbps will not be adequate for most people, and in fact, won’t be what most people actually want to deploy in their homes or businesses. Households are already consuming multiple simultaneous media streams at whatever definition their network will support. Business, especially in an online innovation-led economy, is increasingly coming to rely on the presence of ultra-fast broadband.

Costs and technologies that make up those costs have also changed. In Australia, since the decision was made to switch to a fibre to the node implementation of the NBN, costs of implementing other solutions, including Fibre to the Pavement (Sidewalk) have come down. Technology solutions like G.Fast allow short lengths of copper to be used to a home and still deliver 1 Gbps speed.

With technology, especially in the time frame of the construction of the NBN, the rationale for a particular approach will change. In the case of the NBN, most of the answers to the usual questions have indeed changed, and continuing with a fibre to the node approach no longer makes any sense.

Mark A. Gregory, RMIT University

The NBN is a nation building project that has been hijacked by politics. As a result, the obsolete fibre to the node technology is being rolled to a large number of Australians.

The government should accept the weight of international evidence and move back to fibre to the premises (FTTP). There is an urgent need for a 20 to 30 year life-cycle costing analysis to be completed to provide an engineering cost benefit justification for the NBN technologies to be used in the rollout.

There is a need for a broad panel to be formed that includes academics, industry, consumer representatives and government to discuss the future of the NBN beyond 2020.

It is time for Australia to adopt a “universal access” regime, where everyone can connect reliably to digital services, including health and education and other government services, at all times. This is especially for the socially and economically disadvantaged, including the homeless and itinerant, to be provided with the means to access digital services.

For this reason, nbn Co should rollout a national wholesale Wi-Fi network to facilitate companies and local government offering free Wi-Fi similar to what is happening now through Telstra Air.

Rod Tucker, University of Melbourne

Since the days of dial-up modems, there has been a relentless growth in demand for higher broadband speeds. But the 2014 Vertigan report underestimated Australia’s future broadband needs by a factor of ten. Vertigan supported the Coalition’s game-changing shift from fibre to the premises (FTTP) to fibre to the node (FTTN).

Since Vertigan, a lot has happened in the broadband world. For example, the major US telco AT&T has switched from FTTN to FTTP, arguing that demand is growing for speeds that FTTN cannot deliver. And rollouts of FTTP are accelerating in many countries. Australia is rapidly being left behind.

All of this points in one direction: Australia’s FTTN network will be obsolete by the time it is rolled out and will not be able to deliver the speeds that will be needed in the future.

Unlike FTTP and other technologies such as fibre to the distribution point (FTTdP), FTTN will be expensive to upgrade and a future owner of the FTTN network may not bother. Every way you look at it, FTTN is a bad idea.

The notion FTTP is much more expensive than FTTN turns out to be incorrect. The cost of rolling out FTTN is often understated and the cost of rolling out FTTP is overstated. New lower-cost FTTP construction techniques and cost increases for FTTN have changed the equation.

While public attention has generally focused on the fixed network in urban areas, people in rural and remote areas will use NBN’s satellites. Qantas also plans to use nbn’s satellites to provide video entertainment on its flights, sapping bandwidth from people on the ground. A third satellite will alleviate this problem.

My advice to the Senate Select Committee on the NBN is that the FTTN rollout should be abandoned before it is too late, and replaced with FTTP.

Arthur Lowery, Monash University

I have been in telecommunications for over 35 years now, and co-founded VPIsystems, a company that develops software tools for optimising and rolling-out telecommunications systems using multiple technologies, such as national broadband connectivity.

The goal of the NBN is laudable: to provide decent connectivity to everybody in Australia. I’m interested, as a taxpayer, in how this can be done in a cost efficient manner. One of my points is that a rollout is a longish-term endeavour, and maybe it should provide long-term employment for its skilled-up workforce.

Thus, when designing the rollout, a staged approach should be used. Because civil engineering is a large part of the cost, it is prudent to defer decommissioning existing infrastructure close to dwellings (which can support > 1 Gbit/s, as it is short and not shared), and concentrate on the real bottlenecks nearer the exchanges.

This means “fibre-to-the-fence” (G.fast). The fact that many period Australian homes are being rapidly replaced also makes FTTP question somewhat academic. Of course, once fibre is at the gate, it’s relatively easy extend to any building in the future, if needs be.

Thas Nirmalathas, University of Melbourne

The rapid proliferation of connected devices is transforming connectivity between people, places and things and creating a networked society. This presents many opportunities for citizens, businesses, and governments through the advancement and use of connectivity.

The NBN presents Australia with an opportunity to provide the critical infrastructure for the networked society. It remains the essential launch pad for transformation of key industry sectors, for a data-driven economy, and for delivering greater social equity across the Australian society.

Global rankings of internet connectivity and speed show that Australia needs to improve its standing or risk being left behind by the current wave of innovation. Australia falls short particular on broadband subscriptions and faces a widening gap between peak and average speed of internet connections.

The NBN rollout provides an opportunity for Australia to increase bandwidth and capacity to support innovation. However, in order to meet growing demands to enable innovation the NBN rollout must improve.

The actual rollout rates is falling short of the original targets promised under the NBN. Despite a change in the technology mix and revised network architectural options recommended through the strategic reports, NBN deployment remains slow across both new and existing sites.

The NBN should plan for a third satellite without waiting for demand saturation. Machine-to-machine traffic arising from connected devices across many key sectors of relevance to regional Australia will demand cost-effective wireless access using satellite or other wireless alternatives such as those that could take advantage of optical fibre networks to provide improved wireless coverage and access.

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