Can NBN withstand the pressure test?

The Coalition government's under increasing pressure to drop FTTN and a recent Senate Select hearing into the NBN heard from a range of organisations about why the NBN needs to be built with the future in mind. In The Australian the Senate hearing events are unpacked.

Read the full article below.

The Coalition government’s decision to shift the National Broadband Network (NBN) rollout from Fibre to the Premises (FTTP) to Fibre to the Node (FTTN) is coming under sustained pressure. A litany of leaks and ongoing complaints about the FTTN service has put NBN Co in damage control mode.

The NBN rollout cost blowout and the increasing delays are also weighing on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull as he gears up for a bruising election campaign.

The cost of the NBN rollout has risen from the $29 billion that Turnbull promised when in opposition to an estimated cost of $56 billion that was reported by NBN Co late last year, an increase of about 100 per cent. Ongoing delays to the rollout mean that Turnbull’s promise that everyone would have a minimum of 25 Mbps by the end of 2016 will not be kept. The NBN rollout is now not likely to be completed until 2020.

A public hearing of the Senate Select Committee on the NBN, held on March 4, saw the latest set of broadsides delivered by critics of the current NBN plan and fortunately most of it steered clear of politics. Instead the discussed revolved around the challenges of providing the nation with improved broadband and how the NBN would be used.

An academic roundtable, that I was part of, put forward a case for why a FTTN rollout was the wrong decision and that it would be prudent to shift back to FTTP or to put fibre past premises which is known as Fibre to the Distribution Point (FTTdp). FTTdp provides the opportunity for a shorter copper connection to the home using G. Fast or for fibre to be run into the premises by NBN Co or self-installed as has happened in some cities in Europe.

Emeritus Professor Rod Tucker highlighted why Australia should look to an all-fibre access network when he said “it is true that Australia’s broadband capabilities are falling behind the rest of the world. We are currently about 49th in the world and, by projections that I have been looking at, it is possible that we could hit 100th in the world, even with the NBN coming on stream. We need to be thinking about the future.”

Other key concerns with FTTN was that the cost and delays with the rollout when combined with the poor performance of FTTN did not justify continuing with the FTTN rollout especially when the great majority of nations and major telecommunication companies around the world have adopted FTTP using the third generation NG-PON2 which provides gigabit or 10 Gbps connection speeds.

The roundtable also identified the need for a third satellite to be ordered now due to the anticipated congestion that will occur by 2020 on NBN Co’s satellites. How the NBN will aid in the provision of online health and education was a focus for discussion and how improved digital delivery of health and education will benefit rural and remote areas was highlighted.

As a member of the roundtable, I highlighted the need for NBN Co to rollout a national wholesale Wi-Fi network to go some way towards providing everyone with “universal access” to digital services, especially as many of the socially and economically disadvantaged, including homeless and itinerant Australians, cannot afford mobile cellular but are likely to have Wi-Fi enabled devices.

Internet Australia fires up

Internet Australia, the peak body representing internet users, stepped up the pressure on the government’s decision to rollout FTTN by highlighting a report released by the UK Institute of Directors calling for households and businesses to have access to internet speeds of 10 Gbps by 2030. The report identified that 78 per cent of UK company directors believe that significantly faster broadband speeds would increase their company’s productivity.

Internet Australia CEO Laurie Patton remarked that connection speeds are a factor as to why there is a need to build an all fibre access network. Patton stated that “people are watching television on it and 4K will come and 8K will come, and we are already hearing examples of people finding it difficult to do other things on the internet because of the congestion.”

“On both sides of the House there are people I am well acquainted with who are traipsing around the world looking at how we are going to compete as a hub for innovation and, as Paul [Brooks] just related — the story in Singapore — we keep talking about Singapore and Israel. They are building broadband networks that will leave us behind. The sorts of things it [the NBN] is going to be used for that are really going to be important are for health and education, particularly in regional areas.”

Patton summed up Internet Australia’s position when he said “You can rely on fibre. It is fit for purpose, and it will be fit in 15 years’ time. That is why we say, ‘Let’s build it now.’”

In a video conference from New Zealand representatives of Chorus New Zealand, a national wholesale broadband provider that was spun out of Telecom New Zealand when it separated in 2012, identified that between 2014 and 2015 the cost of connecting premises using FTTP had fallen by about 29 per cent to $3,367 while NBN Co’s FTTP installation cost per premises remained above $4,350.

Chorus Network Strategy Manager Kurt Rodgers stated that in the “half-year results, released a few weeks ago I believe, our guidance for FY16 is a cost per premise past of between $1,700 and $1,770” which has reduced the total cost per premises to between $3,287 and $3,357.

To highlight what Chorus has found as the New Zealand FTTP rollout has progressed, Rodgers said “Our experience, and the experience we gained from talking with other players, for example Verizon overseas, is that it is always expensive at the start.”

The health potential

NBN’s potential to revolutionise online health was outlined by Professor Leonard Gray who stressed the importance of the NBN to provide connection speeds, reliability and the capacity necessary to ensure that “people feel like they are really engaging with their health professional in a way that makes them comfortable; otherwise, they come to the view that this is a second-rate experience. When it is configured properly, I can tell you, older people actually love the experience because of the massive improvement in access it gives them to professionals that they cannot otherwise enjoy because they cannot travel that easily.”

The opportunities that broadband provides health professionals is an area where there is a need for further investigation, especially how health funding is allocated and according to Gray, “what we do not understand is how to get it right so that you manage the risk of expenditure blowouts and you capture the opportunities without turning it into a kind of financial disaster. I think that is a big challenge we have to work on in the next few years — to imagine the future and figure out how to fund it. I know others are thinking about this but I think that is exciting.”

When asked if the current Medicare funding arrangements are actually mitigating against innovation at this point in time, Gray responded “to some extent, yes.”

Compression and congestion

On the media front, Stan Entertainment and Presto / Foxtel provided an insight into how streaming was affected by existing network connection speeds and capacity. The CEO of Stan Michael Sneesby stated that streaming services used adaptive bit rate technology and “what that technology does is adjust the quality of a streaming service downward to make up for low bandwidth availability.”

“What that equates to for the consumer is around the low end, like 720p high definition.

The low end of the high-definition stream is what the average consumer across our network is experiencing today.”

In an apparent effort to support the government’s FTTN and HFC NBN rollout Sneesby claimed that “today you require around 25 megabits per second to support a single 4K stream. The technologies that we are currently looking at are expected, within that time frame of three to five years, to drop the requirements for 4K to around 12 megabits per second. So we are expecting to see compression technologies on our side meaning we can deliver a 4K stream to the household for around 12 megabits per second rather than 25 megabits per second.”

Rather than providing improved quality over the next five years, similar to France where 4K streaming is set to occur at 70 Mbps, it appears that Australians will have to get used to the poor quality video streaming provided by companies like Stan and Presto today.

Another problem identified during the discussion was the “last mile congestion during peak times” that occurs typically between 8pm and 10pm when according to Sneesby “from the early evening hours to the later evening hours there is a 50 per cent increase in that incidence of degradation, and around a 30 per cent increase in those consumers who are experiencing what we call buffering, which is effectively pausing in their video during that peak time.”

The Foxtel Executive Director of Broadband, PMO and IT Andrew Lorkin responded “pretty much” when asked if the most pessimistic estimate is a doubling of streaming data usage every 24 months over the next five years.

The public hearing provided the Senate Select Committee to hear from a range of people from a diverse range of organisations. But is the growing evidence on the ground and the current headaches with FTTN convince NBN Co to ditch its copper fixation? One can only hope because it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the shift from FTTP to FTTN should be reversed to provide Australia with a future proof network that would ensure we can use the network to improve the lives of all.

Mark Gregory is a senior lecturer in the School of Engineering at RMIT University.

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