nbn(tm)’s release of its end of financial year results show that work is accelerating, but there’s still some serious work to do.
Image: G Meyer
It’s all but impossible to discuss the NBN — sorry, nbn(tm) — without politics coming into play. It’s regrettable in the bigger picture, but just about every pundit will talk about the NBN being a political football, and I’m no different in that respect. Right now, the NBN is a rather sad, soggy mess of a football, although there is significant work being done to polish up its laces and perhaps pump a little more air into it. Depending on where you sit on the political spectrum, that air may or may not be hot.
So to put my cards on the table: I’d much preferred had NBN stuck to the FTTP model, because from a technology standpoint it’s easily the endpoint we should be striving for, and the costs associated with upgrading the hodgepodge of the “MTM” NBN aren’t likely to be trivial, despite the stated aims of making the deployment at the lowest possible. NBN as a company has always toed the line of the government in charge, so it’s no surprise that the current mantra of lower cost and suitability of the MTM model is the one that prevails in its official releases.
nbn(tm) released its financial year 2015 targets, and announced that it had hit its stated targets for the year. That’s great news, even if like me you’re not a fan of the MTM model, because anything that broadly expands the Australian online experience is a good thing, no matter how incremental. In the last twelve months, nbn(tm) has doubled the number of “serviceable” premises to a total of 1.2 million, although only 486,000 of those serviceable premises have actually taken up a connection. Of those connections, full fibre are by far the most commonly taken up, with some 399854 active connections, while fixed wireless (47473) and satellite (28,288) make up the minor percentages. So right now, if you’re on an NBN plan, there’s an 82 percent chance it’s a fibre connection, but you’re still in relatively niche company, with only around 1 in 8 Australian households already passed. Lots of work to do, in other words.
Presuming NBN stays on track — and there are some broad assumptions there that do concern me — that fibre percentage is set to drop, because the vast majority of the nbn(tm) model relies on FTTN and HFC cable mixes, using the copper network purchased from Telstra and both Telstra and Optus’ HFC Cable technologies. Right now, while there’s been some government-assisted hype around FTTN in the northern NSW town of Umina — sorry, but single users on a copper system don’t represent reality in my view — there’s no rollout of significance in the FTTN space. What’s more, as Delimiter reports, the NBN approach to FTTN has become one where they’re taking a much more gradual approach to testing and rolling out FTTN to a larger number of consumers.
It would be easy to point to this as an absolute failure, especially (to kick that political footy back in for a second) given the then-opposition’s claim that all Australian households would have 25Mbps connections as a minimum by 2016. Remember that one? It was declared “bulletproof”, and then they went and found a better bullet.
We can safely say that isn’t going to happen, but what’s actually interesting here is that this is nothing new. Large scale network rollouts take time, and if you’re sensible, you do a lot of modelling and testing. This was what was done for FTTP rollouts, which is part of the reason why they’ve now started accelerating to the rate they are. If FTTP had ceased rollout, those nbn(tm) figures would look a whole lot worse than they do for 18 months of government supervision and several billion dollars of spend, although it would be equally cherry picking to say that everything was being run smoothly at NBN back when it was a mostly-FTTP operation.
(Nobody ever mentions that both the FTTP and FTTN NBN plans always included satellite for remote connections, and who am I to break that streak?)
At the same time, though, the early NBN years were rife with complaints about the speed of the rollout when it was in its testing phase. The successes listed in today’s report rely quite a lot on work done years and years ago, not just in the last 18 months.
The issue for FTTN is that the state of the network will impact far more seriously on the rate of rollout than would be the case for full FTTP, because nobody’s entirely certain what the quality of each copper connection is. When you’re rolling entirely new cables, you’re dealing with new infrastructure, but for existing infrastructure it’s a matter of finding out just how bad things actually are. FTTP had its own version of this with asbestos-laden pits it was leasing from Telstra prior to the election, although that’s a hurdle that would have also hit a lot of an FTTN rollout as well.
So what state is the copper in? Anecdotal stories abound of water-drenched cables held together with shopping bags, and while I don’t think that’s true for the majority of the network, there’s no doubt that problems with the existing infrastructure will result in further delays for a full and proper launch of FTTN services. nbn(tm) takes a slightly different view, but then they would. Still, even within the nbn end of year report is the admission that they don’t know the entire state of Telstra’s copper network. Call me cautious, but I would have wanted to know that before I spent billions on it. Just me?
Karina Keisler, nbn(tm)’s Executive General Manager of Corporate Affairs tweeted out while I was writing this that:
— karina keisler (@karinakeisler) August 24, 2015
I’m pretty certain those words were chosen carefully, because a launch to a limited subset is quite different to making a product generally available. FTTN isn’t going to be easy to roll out, and it’s not going to come quickly.
Some of the same issues apply to HFC cable as well. There, nbn(tm) has to manage the DOCSIS 3.1 upgrades as well as (presumably) manage some small scale rollouts to cover the weird blackspots that permeate HFC areas. It’s anecdotal, but I’ve known of a number of areas where Telstra and Optus’ HFC cablers ran down one street but not another in a given suburb, or stopped short a few houses of the end of the block. It’d be very odd to declare those properties as part of the FTTN rollout, but that means more cable needs to be laid, tested and implemented. The plan is to introduce services sometime in the next year. I’m one of the lucky ones, in that I’m in an HFC area, and again any upgrade there would be nice, but I’m not fooling myself that everyone has a connection like that. Given the shared nature of cable connections, I’m also wary of promises of higher speed, especially as NBN’s own figures show data consumption in Australia has skyrocketed since the wider introduction of media streaming services such as Netflix, Stan and Presto.
Plenty more Australians are limited by horribly degraded ADSL or even dialup connections, and that needs fixing sooner rather than later.
If nbn(tm) is meeting its targets and making broadband better for all Australians, that’s not a bad thing. It’s not the same thing, however, as picking up the NBN political footy, kicking it between the goalposts and declaring the grand final over.