In yesterday’s Business Spectator, shadow communications minister Malcolm Turnbull defended the Coalition’s broadband plan, released on Tuesday, as a better alternative to Labor’s National Broadband Network (NBN). Well, was he right?
Vectoring - essentially patching up the existing copper network – was put forward by Turnbull, not for the first time, as something of a magic bullet for delivery of Australia’s National Broadband Network (NBN), under a future Coalition government. It is, he wrote:
a key technology which has extended the life of copper everywhere from China to Germany.
So let’s put this statement in the context of what we already know about the differences between Labor and the Coalition, with regards to the NBN.
Fibre vs copper
You may have already read The Conversation’s explanation of the differences in the two sides’ policies.
To put it simply, Labor’s NBN uses Fibre to the Premises (FTTP) technology, which lays optical fibre to each household; but the Coalition’s plan uses Australia’s existing copper network to deliver Fibre to the Node (FTTN), essentially delivering new optical fibre to “cabinets” in the street, which is then relayed to individual houses and other premises via existing copper wiring.
The Coalition claims its plan will be faster to build (shaving five years off the current completion date of 2021) and cost tens of billions less than Labor’s projected prices.
The current debate on broadband networks reflects a lack of understanding of internet services, the infrastructure that supports it, and future, not-yet-imagined, services.
Many arguments (including Turnbull’s) focus on vectoring.
With such an approach, the copper wires used in Australia’s current telecommunications network are paired and twisted together to cancel out as much electromagnetic interference as possible from adjoining wires.
Vectoring coordinates those twisted pairs to most effectively reduce interference and increase data transfer volume and speed.
Unfortunately, vectoring’s performance deteriorates rapidly with the length of the copper runs, the number of copper pairs bundled together and the quality of that copper.
Turnbull wasn’t wrong to call vectoring “as a key technology which has extended the life of copper everywhere from China to Germany” but the best use of vectoring is in high-density areas, where distance to the node is less than 800m.
This has been feasible and effective in European and Asian cities but has not gained much traction in North America, and is unlikely to be a long-term solution for a massive country such as Australia.
Structure of the internet
It’s unfortunate that the term “internet”, originally “internetwork”, incorporates the word “network”.
This makes most of us – and all sides of politics – think of “the internet” as a physical infrastructure.
The internet is actually a suite of services, such as email and web browsing – not an infrastructure. And while it needs infrastructure to support it, generally that infrastructure is optimised for a given set of services.
But today’s internet is not the one we’ll be using tomorrow.
Moving forward with FTTP
The best long-term solution is FTTP – as is currently envisioned in the Labor version of the NBN.
Copper from the node to the premise – as the Coalition is promoting, through its vectoring/FTTN approach – can only really support old-style internet services.
Labor’s FTTP approach suffers none of the interference experienced by copper, and is very capable of long signal runs. For FTTN to perform similarly, we would have to install nodes closer to homes, with fibre running into them anyway.
Ultimately it will be far more expensive upgrading and maintaining copper than simply installing fibre to begin with.
Supporting the future
This NBN has the potential to support services that we have not yet developed.
Some 20 years ago, most of us would not have imagined the services we are able to get using our current infrastructure.
If we do not build a new infrastructure now, our horizon will remain just over the hill, and nowhere near where it will need to be in the not-to-distant future.
The government’s NBN investment as it currently stands is a way of future-proofing us, plain and simple.