news NBN Co today revealed that its satellite and wireless services designed to serve a small proportion of the population will feature higher speeds than previously confirmed, with the services now to provide download speeds up to 25Mbps and upload speeds up to 5Mbps. However, questions remain over the timing and technical details of the company’s announcement.
Previously, the satellite and broadband services were only confirmed to be able to provide download speeds of 12Mbps and upload speeds of 1Mbps. The satellite and wireless solutions are slated to cover over half a million premises (seven percent of Australian premises) which will not be covered by the NBN’s predominantly fibre-based rollout, as the cost of providing fibre to those rural and remote areas is prohibitive.
NBN Co has previously flagged the potential for its satellite and wireless services to offer higher speeds than the 12Mbps/1Mbps baseline which constitutes the Federal Government’s policy on the matter. For example, in June 2011, when NBN Co signed its 10-year, $1.1 billion contract with Ericsson to build its wireless network, the company’s chief technology officer Gary McLaren said NBN Co would look at the potential to offer higher speeds in future after they could assure a certain base level of service to all customers in each area, and technology in the area also developed.
In addition, in NBN Co’s most recent corporate plan (page 38, the PDF is available online), the company stated: “The Fixed Wireless and Long Term Satellite networks will initially provide services to NBN Co’s wholesale customers at a peak speed of 12 megabits per second (Mbps) in the downlink, 1 megabit per second in the uplink (both at a wholesale level). Both networks will continue to be upgraded to match the fibre speed tiers when the technology and costs make this possible. The 2012-15 Corporate Plan includes the costs associated with anticipated technology upgrades across both technologies.”
However, the company’s media release today (PDF) represents the first time the company has publicly confirmed the precise speed upgrades which will be available to customers; they will be available across NBN Co’s wireless network from June this year and through the company’s satellite service when it launches in 2015. The wireless network is also slated to be finished construction in 2015.
In addition, the wholesale prices for internet service providers who retail NBN packages to rural broadband users will be pegged at the same rate as they are for fibre users in the cities: $27 per month for the 25/5Mbps service and $24 for the 12/1Mbps service respectively. NBN Co said it “has already committed to reducing wholesale broadband prices in real terms”.
NBN Co Chief Executive Mike Quigley said: “Every home and business in Australia – from the outback to the city – will have access to fast internet at speeds as good as or faster than ADSL2+ services available in metropolitan areas today.”
“That will give people in the most isolated parts of the country access to economic and social opportunities that the rest of the country takes for granted. For instance, faster speeds will allow people in regional communities to work from home like they would from a big city office, access video- based health services and make high-quality video calls to family and friends. Just as importantly, the NBN is helping to foster real competition, and that drives affordable prices for consumers. Every provider has equal access to the network and NBN Co’s prices are the same in the city and the bush.”
NBN Co’s announcement today is the second time the company has announced a major speed upgrade to its planned network during an election campaign. In August 2010, ahead of that year’s Federal Election, the company’s chief executive Mike Quigley confirmed for the first time that the NBN’s fibre would eventually support speeds of up to 1Gbps, although Quigley denied the revelation had anything to do with the election campaign.
I’ve got two things to say about this announcement. Firstly, and most obviously, this is great news, and we’ve been expecting speed upgrades to the NBN’s wireless services for some time. With the fixed LTE technology that the NBN has been deploying capable of speeds much higher than 12Mbps, it was probably only a matter of time until NBN Co did enough testing of its wireless network and worked out that it could reliably support 25Mbps. It’s a similar situation with the satellite component, and overall it’s good news for rural Australia that they’ll be getting these speeds.
However (and this is not going to be a popular line of argument amongst readers), I must also question the timing and technical details of this NBN Co announcement this morning. Please consider the following with an open mind.
There have been no, and I repeat no, massive developments in satellite technology over the past week (or indeed, I believe the past several years, at the very least), which have meant that NBN is suddenly this week able to guarantee 25Mbps satellite broadband speeds to Australians. NBN Co must have known internally for quite a long time (perhaps years) that the two new satellites which it plans to put in orbit in 2015 will be capable of speeds up to 25Mbps.
Similarly, I suspect that NBN Co has known for quite a long time (perhaps as long as six months, perhaps longer) that its wireless network was indeed capable of providing speeds up to 25Mbps. The company started deploying its wireless network 18 months ago, and must have been speaking to Ericsson and other vendors about the potential of that network for six months or so earlier, as it was negotiating its contract.
I expect that Ericsson has for a year or more had its own beliefs about the speeds which NBN Co’s wireless network is capable of consistently delivering. Why do I believe this? Well, Ericsson is one of the largest global networking vendors and knows the capabilities of its own equipment inside out. In addition, locally, you may remember that the company deployed Telstra’s Next G network. That’s a mobile network, not a fixed wireless network, but it features much of the same infrastructure as NBN Co’s wireless network.
Today’s media release from NBN Co is not the result of “hard news” generated internally inside the company. NBN Co has likely had the information in this media release for a long time. The company chose to collate this information together and release it in this fashion on this random day, magically delivering an instant “upgrade” to its network.
This brings us to the question of why NBN Co would do such a thing.
If you believe the company, it wants to provide consistency about the way it talks to those living in the seven percent of Australia which will receive wireless and satellite services instead of fibre. It doesn’t want those residents to feel as though they’re getting left out, and it wants to provide consistent speeds across its wireless and satellite services. Perhaps NBN Co has recently finished testing the higher speeds on its wireless network (now that it has 1,000-odd live wireless customers) and it was able to announce the 25Mbps wireless speeds. It probably wanted to do both simultaneously and so it issued a joint release about both technologies. This is the most likely case.
Some will argue that NBN Co released this ‘upgrade’ today because Prime Minister Julia Gillard released the date of the election last week. While I don’t personally believe NBN Co did this, there is no doubt that Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has already jumped on this morning’s announcement and is using it for political capital. So while this isn’t likely on the part of NBN Co, it’s still a valid question to be asked of the company. And regardless of what NBN Co intended, its action objectively represent a boost to Labor’s election message.
Irrespective of why NBN Co released this information today, however, what we do know about this release is that it represents the opposite of transparency from a technical point of view.
When NBN Co was able to confirm that its satellite service would definitely be capable of 25Mbps services (probably years ago), it should have released that information at that point. When the company was able to confirm that its wireless service would definitely be capable of 25Mbps, the company should have released that information at that point.
In fact, the fact that NBN Co today released both the wireless and satellite upgrades simultaneously leads to the question of whether it is too big a coincidence that both technologies magically support the same maximum upload and download speeds.
After all, despite the fact that NBN Co has conflated both services together in the past and has done so today, isn’t it true that wireless and satellite broadband are fundamentally different technologies and not similar at all? Isn’t it likely that, instead of both coincidentally supporting 25Mbps speeds, that they each support completely different speeds (for example, 26.2Mbps for the satellite and 33.4Mbps for the wireless, or vice versa) in practice, and that NBN Co has artificially set the 25Mbps limit, purely to ensure that it can promise a consistent speed across regional Australia?
Yes, this is very likely. It is very unlikely that both the satellite and wireless services coincidentally have a top speed of 25Mbps.
In fact, there is precedent for this in Australia’s telecommunications industry. Those with long memories will remember that Telstra artificially set ADSL speeds at three speed tiers — 1.5Mbps, 512kbps and 256kbps — despite the fact that many people’s connections would actually work at up to speeds of 8Mbps. It was only when ISPs like iiNet started rolling out their own DSLAMs throughout the early 1990’s and uncapping ADSL1 to 8Mbps that Telstra did the same. Now it looks like NBN Co is setting artificial 25Mbps speeds on its satellite and wireless services. I’m not saying it’s the exact same situation; but there is an element of artificiality here.
To sum up: NBN Co’s upgrade of its satellite and wireless services today is great news for rural and regional Australia. But let’s not fool ourselves. The company is not being completely honest about the technical capabilities of its network here, and this announcement has been carefully stage-managed in timing and structure for purposes which have absolutely nothing to do with the underlying technology.