The NBN: What It Is and Why It Matters

It feels like we’ve been hearing about the god damn NBN for so many years now, but in that time has gone through so many different changes that it’s hard to know what it was, what it is now and why it’s so important.

According to the Akamai Q4 2015 rankings, Australia doesn’t even make the top 10, or even 20 countries ranked by internet speeds. The US is ranked 20th, the UK 23rd and we’re all the way down at 60th, with an average speed of 7.6 megabits per second.

To put that into perspective, South Korea took out first place with an average speed of 23.6 megabits per second.

For a country that wants (and needs) to become a world leader in innovation, the internet is an extremely important utility required to get us there. Plus, Netflix buffering is a real and serious issue that must be stopped.

What is it?

The National Broadband Network, more commonly referred to as the NBN, was proposed in the lead up to the 2007 federal election by the Labor opposition as a “super-fast” upgrade to the rather average telecommunications infrastructure already in place. The Howard Government’s Broadband Advisory Group first suggested replacing this “increasingly obsolete” copper network back in 2003.

Without going into too much detail, our telecommunications system was largely based on copper wire, which was great, until it became superseded by optic fibre, which is cheaper, more efficient and a shit load faster. The Rudd Government’s original plan was to deliver ‘Fibre to the Premises,’ (FTTP) meaning they would run optic fibre all the way to every house.

At the time, the estimated cost of the network was around $15 billion.

During the 2013 election, the Liberal Party proposed a ‘Fibre to the Node’ (FTTN) alternative which would be cheaper and quicker to implement. A ‘node’ is basically a junction box that services a few hundred people in a neighbourhood. Fibre optic cable is laid to the node, and from that point, shitty, old, outdated copper wire runs to each individual home. This creates a bottleneck at the node, as copper wire is unable to handle the volumes of data that optic fibre can.

Combining this with fixed wireless and satellite technologies Malcolm Turnbull called it a Multi-Technology Mix (MTM) NBN.

And speed is the biggest issue with this plan. An FTTP solution would allow for speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second, (remember that our national average is 7.6 megabits). FTTN on the other hand, would allow for a piss-weak 25 – 50 megabits per second.

For perspective, and to make you all thoroughly jealous, Japanese telco Nuro offer a 2 gigabit plan that allows download speeds of 256 megabytes per second. That’s not even their quickest, either, they have a 10 fucking gigabit plan. It would take longer to transfer data onto a USB drive than it would to download the same data from the internet. Vibes.

Labor’s plan was to cost $45 billion and be completed by 2021, while Liberal’s FTTN plan would cost $29.5 billion, completed in 2019. After the election, the Liberal Government’s plan blew out to $41 billion, and again to $56 billion, along with a delay in completion, pushing it back to 2020.

Why it matters

While we won’t know if Labor’s plan would have encountered as many hurdles as the Coalition’s, the fact is we are now receiving an outdated, slower solution that relies on old technology, costing more than Labor’s FTTP and delivered only a year sooner.

Countries like the UK and Germany, who implemented FTTN over five years ago, were already extending their networks to FTTP in 2011.

The whole point of this upgrade is to improve our telecommunication infrastructure, but by the time it’s finished, it’ll be even more out of date than it already is, compared to other developed countries.

And while it seems that an upgrade from FTTN to FTTP would be an easy next step to make when the time comes, it would come at significant wastage, according to this article.

“FTTN isn’t really a pathway to later upgrades to FTTP. Most of the systems deployed for FTTN will not be reused, and so would be wasted. FTTP uses about 1/3 the number of street cabinets as FTTN, and those cabinets are about 1/4 the size of FTTN cabinets (Think esky versus refrigerator). FTTP nodes also don’t require electrical power, unlike FTTN cabinets. All of the DSL systems that go along with FTTN are also wasted.”

Speaking to Business Insider, Laurie Patton, CEO of Internet Australia echoed this fact.

“Millions of dollars of ‘sunk costs’ will have been wasted.”

No doubt the Labor party will be using this as an election tool, so it will be interesting to see how they counter the Abbott/Turnbull Government’s shambles with their own policy.