analysis Calm down, everyone. The fact that the National Broadband Network is rolling out wireless broadband services in your area doesn’t mean that your existing ADSL broadband service will be shut down. You won’t be left in the lurch with inferior speeds and latency.
Over the past week, a recurrent National Broadband Network myth has popped up again in Australia’s national media. We’ve squashed this one before, but it’s such a pervasive one that I thought it might be worth squashing again.
At the heart of the issue is the fear that some rural and regional communities in Australia could be left with worse broadband than they started with, following the rollout of the NBN in their region. The idea goes that there are some communities which currently enjoy ADSL2+ broadband, with its acceptable levels of latency and capacity, which are not scheduled to receive fibre infrastructure under the NBN as they’re part of the small percentage outside of the NBN planned coverage areas. Consequently, these areas are slated to receive fixed wireless connections from NBN Co instead, offering consistent speeds up to 12Mbps to each premise.
However, there is a fear that these services will be inferior to the current ADSL2+ services, which range up to 24Mbps (if you’re close to your local telephone exchange). Latency (sometimes known as ‘ping’ or ‘response’ time) is also an issue — with wireless connections generally delivering poor latency compared with fixed broadband connections. This can be an issue for time-sensitive applications such as playing online games or doing remote desktop screen sharing, for example.
This week’s batch of fear was generated by the Northern Inland NSW branch of Regional Development Australia — ironically an Australian Government initiative.
In its submission to the joint Parliamentary Committee into the NBN (PDF), the RDA noted that some communities in its remit, such as Bendemeer and Bundarra, were below the population threshold to receive fibre coverage and so would only be offered wireless.
“These communities already have ADSL2+ and a conversion to an NBN wireless service may potentially be to their detriment,” the RDA’s submission argued. “Maybe it would be better for towns that currently have ADSL or ADSL2+ that are below the minimum population threshold be NBN fibred in lieu of a wireless service.” This innocuous-sounding comment then resulted in a headline flagship article in (where else) national newspaper The Australian, claiming the NBN rollout “could lead some towns worse off”.
Now the interesting thing about this situation is that it’s not the first time we’ve heard similar concerns about the NBN’s wireless component. In March 2011, similar concerns were raised in Tasmanian communities about losing their ADSL connections in favour of wireless.
At the time NBN Co provided a very simple answer to the concerns: In actual fact, the copper-based ADSL network won’t be switched off until a decade after the wireless is rolled out.
Read that statement again: That’s right. Contrary to the claims raised by the RDA and repeated in The Australian newspaper, the NBN wireless is not replacing current ADSL networks for ten years. In those affected areas, the copper network (which provides the ADSL) will be maintained for ten whole years after the wireless is rolled out. Residents will have plenty of time to test the NBN wireless network and compare it with their existing ADSL service. If they’re worse off, I’m sure a special Ministerial Determination will be made in eight or so years to keep the copper online.
There are also other options for affected locations after that period.
For those communities not covered by the initial fibre rollout, the NBN Co spokesperson twelve months ago pointed out the Government had encouraged it to explore mechanisms for a community to fully or partially fund the extension of the fibre network to cover that location, with NBN Co only seeking to recover the incremental costs incurred in the extensions. Since that time NBN Co has indeed put in place a program to address community concerns in this area.
All this, of course, is leaving aside the fact that many of those on the NBN wireless component will actually be receiving much better and more reliable broadband than they would receive on ADSL of any variant. NBN Co is tweaking its wireless rollout to the extreme, and there is every reason to believe that the 12Mbps guaranteed speed is only the start of what this highly optimised wireless network will be able to provide in future.
The same way the NBN’s fibre will be capable of gigabit speeds, many anticipate its wireless network will be capable of speeds faster than 12Mbps, and latency beyond what we would expect from many other wireless networks today.
Now I don’t want to slam the purveyors of the misinformation in this NBN wireless issue too harshly. In the RDA’s case, it is likely the organisation knows about the fact that the ADSL network won’t be switched off for a decade. But it seems as if it is merely trying to maximise its self-interest. As for The Australian, well the newspaper merely repeated the RDA’s claims.
However, I do think accuracy is important in the NBN debate. Perpetuating fear, uncertainty and doubt, and implying that Australians will be worse off under the NBN is simply not a good outcome for anyone. This is an important and high-profile infrastructure project, the kind we see only once every few generations. Whatever you think about the politics of the NBN, at least we can all agree that any decision about the network should be based on the truth — and not claims which are at best misleading and at worst outright falsehoods.