Why the Coalition’s NBN is a terrible idea (to me)

So, Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott released their policy on their take on the NBN today. It is a terrible idea, but rather than just saying it’s a terrible idea and leaving it at that, here are some facts to consider with a dash of pragmatism.

First up, the coverage is woeful. 93% of Australian premises will get a fibre connection to their home and whatever you pay for in terms of speed, you’ll get it under Labor’s plan. We sync at 3.5mbps on our ADSL2+ service on a good day in an established metro suburb; when it rains, this can drop by 50% or more. This means that if we get FttN under the Coalition, our connection will also be shot as it suffers the same variability as ADSL. If I’m lucky, under FttN I may get an ADSL-speed connection. The policy notes that there will be a minimum 25mbps connection standard, but the state of the copper and the topography of the copper network makes that impossible to guarantee, unless you run fresh copper… which seems like a waste of money. If you’re going to roll out new infrastructure, why use something as prone to errors with a limited operational life like copper when fibre is a significantly better option with cheaper maintenance costs and a lower carbon footprint?

So, best-case scenario, under the Coalition’s plan, I’ll finally get an ADSL-speed connection at our place. At a cost of $AU30 billion.

But the plot thickens, as we have overhead cable used to deliver cable TV in our streets. Under the Coalition’s plan, they will not roll out NBN infrastructure where overhead cable exists. This means I’m locked into a monopoly and have to go with one ISP if I want a connection faster than 3.5mbps. To add further insult to injury, since cable is a shared resource, once everyone in the street moves to cable the speeds will cripple since it becomes a shared resource and once again, I’ll be stuck with performance not unlike my current situation.

So, after spending AU$30b, I’ll receive absolutely no benefit under the Coalition’s plan. Ever. Because there is no plan to eventually replace the existing copper with fibre to the home. Given 30% of Australian households have cable running past their property, that’s a good chunk of the population that will not receive any infrastructure upgrades.

So in effect, the Coalition’s solution only covers a fraction of the population. Makes sense that it’s cheaper and faster to roll out. You’re only doing a fraction of the construction using cheaper technology.

To get even more pragmatic, the Coalition’s plan is actually more expensive to me compared to the status quo. Based on current costs, for around $90/month I can get a 100/40mbps connection with 300gb of bandwidth and a VOIP service to handle voice calls (which in turn reduces our overall phone bill each month). At the moment I’m paying around that for an ADSL2+ connection with 300gb of data and phone line rental. So, for the same cost I can reduce my monthly call costs and receive a connection that is 2757% faster than my current connection and with clearer voice quality compared to my copper line. Nice.

Under the Coalition’s NBN I might be able to retain my current setup, or I’ll have the option of grabbing a cable connection which is more expensive than my current ADSL connection that utilises a shared spectrum and therefore has no guarantee of quality/performance (Telstra note I can get 200gb [30% less] per month on cable for $80). Oh, and the decidedly average voice quality on my current PSTN line will remain.

I realise there are those out there who can’t see why we need an NBN because they’re connection is just fine. But that’s the issue – ADSL (and FttN by extension) are variable due to the reliance on the copper network, so if you are close to the exchange with good quality copper you’re ADSL connection may be suitable. The real-world average ADSL2+ speed is 8-12mbps, and less than 5mbps isn’t uncommon, which reflects that the network and its topology is far from perfect. There are also plenty of areas that can’t even get an ADSL connection and are forced to use wireless, which is no substitute for a wired connection (having operated personally and professionally on 3G, 4G and fixed-wireless networks, I can’t say I’m a fan of its use as a primary connection source).

Beyond this, if you have no imagination or ability to think strategically and can see the applications possible under a ubiquitous high-speed network (including researching into the area to enlighten yourself), it strikes me as unusual that you consider your thoughts to be a logical and valid argument. I can already think of what I can use a faster connection for – moving backup storage to the cloud for all our important documents, photos, etc; eventually using cloud storage to replace local storage (and thereby no more HDDs piling up in the study); true cloud computing (which we’ll see with the PS4 and it’s BC functionality); multiple HD and 4K video streams running around the household simultaneously; improved ability to work remotely on various platforms (I get called in by family living metro, country and interstate to assist with PC problems, and a ubiquitous and reliable network means I can fix their problems quicker; for work, it improves their ROI in putting together remote access functionality and will help me work remotely more efficiently); truly reliable HD and 4K video conferencing; and so on. To degrees these could be achieved with FttN, but the variability and subsequent lack of ubiquity kills the degree to which it can be relied upon.

… and that’s today – 10 years ago I was on dial-up. In 10 years time the push for more bandwidth-intensive applications will increase, and the Coalition’s plan aren’t even providing a solution to Australians today.

So, this rant is long. To make it easier, here’s the summary.

Under the Coalition’s NBN I:

  • … at best will receive a connection with ADSL-level performance or will be locked into an anti-competitive monopoly that uses a shared-bandwidth resource via HFC, and
  • … will pay more per month for phone and internet connectivity compared to the ALP’s NBN.

So for AU$30b, nothing changes.

I realise the delays with the current NBN rollout are frustrating, but at least the vision is there and my situation will be improved and with enough capacity to deal with future demands in the household. Under the Coalition, the AU$30b makes no difference to myself and others in similar situations (including up to 30% of Australian households with HFC currently running past their home). Accordingly, it seems unusual to spend AU$30b and come out with a network with a fraction of the performance and ubiquity of the current model, fraught as it is with delays in its rollout to date.

Whew, glad to have that off my chest – please excuse the nerd rage 🙂 If I’ve made some factual inaccuracies, let me know so I can update and respond to the points in question.

I’ll be back soon with another Japan-related post for those who have enjoyed the entries to date, and will also get cracking on some 1080p wallpapers drawn from the shots taken during the Japan trip too!