news NBN Co executive chairman Ziggy Switkowski has declared that the specific technology chosen by the company in its network rollout “does not matter”, as long as that technology can deliver the “speeds” that Australians need today and that it can be upgraded as demand required, in a controversial statement which appears to fly against conventional wisdom in the telecommunications sector.
Under Labor’s NBN policy, some 93 percent of Australian premises were to have received fibre directly to the premise, delivering maximum download speeds of up to 1Gbps and maximum upload speeds of 400Mbps. The remainder of the population was to have been served by a combination of satellite and wireless broadband, delivering speeds of up to 25Mbps.
Originally, the Coalition’s policy was to have seen fibre to the premises deployed to a significantly lesser proportion of the population — 22 percent — with 71 percent covered by fibre to the node technology, where fibre is extended to neighbourhood ‘nodes’ and the remainder of the distance to premises covered by Telstra’s existing copper network. The Coalition’s policy was also to continue to use the HFC cable network operated by Telstra and would also target the remaining 7 percent of premises with satellite and wireless.
However, NBN Co’s Strategic Review published in December last year changed the paradigm, with the company recommending (and the Coalition supporting) a vision in which up to a third of Australian premises will be served by the HFC cable networks of Telstra and Optus, and Fibre to the Node and Fibre to the Basement used in other areas not already covered by Labor’s FTTP approach. Trials of FTTN and FTTB are currently underway.
Critics of NBN Co’s new approach have consistently pointed out that both the HFC cable and copper networks planned to be reused as part of the new version of the project offer significantly degraded capabilities compared to Fibre to the Premises. Copper cable is inherently less reliable than fibre, especially when wet, and cannot be upgraded to offer the same speeds in the long-term, while while HFC cable is inherently a shared medium that has suffered congestion when deployed in Australia, and also cannot be upgraded to the same extent as fibre.
Speaking to the NBN Senate Select Committee in Sydney this week, Switkowski acknowledged that the Committee had visited the Central Coast earlier in the week, and had been met with disappointment from local communities who had expected the previous Labor Government’s NBN project to deliver better broadband to their area.
“The frustrations of people in areas like the Central Coast are real, but it is not my job to continue setting unrealistic expectations,” Switkowski said. “It is my job and the job of everybody up here and everybody at NBN Co to get the company and the project back on track. The recently completed strategic review provides a road map to do this. As you probably heard yesterday, the Central Coast happens also to be the site of some of the technology trials that will help the company incorporate this broader mix of technologies and significantly speed up the rollout. We are installing the first node in Umina this week as part of the construction trial.”
“In the context of these trials there has been a suggestion that a mix of different technologies will somehow create a digital divide in places like Gosford and Woy Woy. The claim goes to the heart of a great misunderstanding, which I fear is being somewhat exploited and which was a key point of the strategic review. It really does not matter what technology is used to provide fast broadband to your home—any more than it matters what frequency your television programs are broadcast on or where your electricity was generated.”
“The important issue is that it delivers the speeds people need today and has the capacity to be upgraded as demand requires. So it is not helpful to tell people they are not getting the NBN when in fact they will. It is not helpful to tell people that 50 megabits per second or 100 megabits per second is not enough for their needs when in almost all cases it will be. And it is not helpful to say that the project has ground to a halt when it certainly has not.”
Switkowski’s comments, however, run directly counter to conventional wisdom in the telecommunications industry. The reason for this is that there are specific characteristics of different fixed-line and mobile technologies which make them inherently different from each other, and deliver different results to customers which go beyond the measurement of baseline broadband speeds.
For example, it is theoretically possible to deliver base download speeds up to 100Mbps using different technologies such as Fibre to the Premises, Fibre to the Node, Fibre to the Basement, HFC cable and mobile broadband.
However, most technologies have other technical disadvantages which impact performance. Anywhere copper cable is used, for example — in the Fibre to the Node or Basement deployment styles — will be subject to lesser reliability and limited long-term speed development than where fibre is used. It is very common in Australia for the copper network to suffer outages and speed degradation during periods of rain.
Both copper and HFC cable (a hybrid medium using both fibre and coaxial cable) suffer from problems offering high-speed upload services, and HFC cable and mobile broadband have also suffered congestion problems in Australia, due to their nature as shared mediums. For this reason, each technology is typically used in different settings globally.
In addition, over the long-term, only Fibre to the Premises offers very long-term upgradeability, with the other technologies being limited by the copper portion of their networks, or by the availability of wireless spectrum, in the case of mobile broadband. The nature of light as a data transmission medium (used in fibre-optic cables) has been shown to be inherently superior to other mediums. The main disadvantages inherent in FTTP broadband rollouts are that they tend to be costly and slow, compared to other forms of broadband rollout.
Former Communications Minister Stephen Conroy was quick to point out some of the technical facts to Switkowski at the committee hearing.
Referring to Switkowski’s time leading the local division of camera company Kodak, Conroy said: “Did it make a difference to the functionality of a photo if it was taken with an analog or digital camera?” Switkowski responded: “Digital photography became popular well after I left Kodak, unfortunately.” And Conroy shot back: “So it is not something you ever had to worry about coming along and being a problem?”
“… when you make the points that it does not matter what technology delivers as long as you get the speed, that ignores a number of basic facts about the laws of physics,” Conroy continued. “You can deliver the same speed on a satellite, a fixed wireless, a 3G/4G network and a piece of fibre, but them all having the same headline speed does not mean you get the same quality, does it?” The Labor Senator additionally mocked Switkowski for what he said was the NBN Co chief’s claim to be “an expert in the laws of physics and copper”.
Switkowski acknowledged that there were inherent differences between broadband technologies, but added that he was not sure the point was as strong “when it comes to comparing copper and fibre.” “I have not accused anybody of being ignorant of the facts or of physics; but, if you are a household and you are being delivered 50 megabits per second via a fibre-optic cable or a combination of copper and fibre-optics, I do not think it matters what the technology is,” he said.
The news comes as one of Australia’s neighbouring countries has explicitly rejected the approach outlined by Switkowski in his comments about the nature of different broadband technologies.
Like Australia, the New Zealand Government is currently engaged in a wide-scale broadband deployment project dubbed the Ultra-Fast Broadband Initiative. Like the Australian Labor Party’s National Broadband Network project, the effort is based around the deployment of Fibre to the Premises technology throughout the country. New Zealand has a stated aim of delivering broadband speeds of 100Mbps to 75 percent of the population by 2019.
In March Vodafone NZ chief executive Russell Stanners wrote to the government company overseeing the rollout, Crown Fibre Holdings, proposing that the company substantially modify its rollout to take advantage of existing HFC cable assets owned by Vodafone.
However, according to a report by popular website Stuff in NZ, the NZ Government rejected the HFC cable approach. The site reports: “Communications Minister Amy Adams said Vodafone was ‘obviously pursuing its own commercial interests’ and the Government ‘will not be stopping the UFB build in any of the candidate areas’.”
Non-profit group InternetNZ, which promotes adoption and development of the Internet in New Zealand, said in a separate statement that it was strongly opposed to Vodafone’s proposal. InternetNZ CEO Jordan Carter said that HFC networks ccould deliver decent speeds, but were not “future-proof”.
The news also comes as Australians continue to strongly demonstrate that they prefer Labor’s all-fibre model for NBN Co’s rollout, rather than the so-called ‘Multi-Technology Mix’ approach of the Coalition. In mid-February, Shadow Minister for Communications Jason Clare presented to Federal Parliament the signatures of 272,000 Australians who want the new Coalition Government to adopt Labor’s model.
In mid-January, an attempt by Malcolm Turnbull to leverage a visit to Facebook’s headquarters in the US to communicate with Australians about the future of the digital economy via social media backfired, with the Communications Minister’s official Facebook site filling up with hundreds of comments slamming the Coalition’s broadband policy.
And also in February, a comprehensive study of public attitudes towards Labor’s National Broadband Network project found the initiative still enjoyed very high levels of widespread public support from ordinary Australians, despite what the study described as an “overwhelmingly negative” approach to the project by print media such as newspapers.
Image credit: Parliamentary Broadcasting