The NBN We Had To Have

Image of a large wooden spool of fibre optic cable.

In the wake of the 2013 federal election there has been considerable activity on social media discussing whether a coalition victory is a mandate for their version of the national broadband network.  It's useful before I continue to summarise the NBN policies of both the outgoing ALP government and the incoming coalition one.

At its heart the Internet is similar to the postal service. Both create the illusion of information being taken from one place to another in a single journey by tessellating several legs of the journey together using different methods. When you take an envelope to the post box, it's picked up by a person in a truck who takes it to a centre for categorisation and distribution before it's further forwarded to other centres including more sorting facilities, perhaps an airport or sea port, then finally to a delivery centre before another person brings it to your correspondent's house on a motorbike. Internet data is the same. Your computer sends information to a local aggregation centre in your community and it is then sent between aggregation points by selecting paths that bring it closer to you in the most convenient manner (or sometimes in the way that is cheapest to those participating in the delivery,) Connections between hops on the Internet journey differ in type the same way as planes, motorbikes, foot traffic and trucks participate in postal mail.  The Internet is run with copper telephone lines, coaxial cables, microwaves, radio through the air, and pertinently radio frequencies, lasers or light shone down fibre optic cables made of glass.

The ALP's plan was to replace the whole shebang with fibre optic cables to provide up to 1Gbps of speed to effectively everyone (except particularly remote areas which are to be serviced by fixed wireless) by 2021 at a cost of $44.1b.  Effectively like replacing every leg of the postal service with supersonic jetpacks; the highest possible performance that current technology can feasibly deliver at a cost to match. 

The coalition's plan is to replace most  of the shebang with fibre, but when it comes to the final leg of the journey - the bit that connects your actual house to the first aggregation point in your community - the coalition only propose fibre where there isn't anything yet (so new buildings) or where the copper infrastructure is in such bad shape it needs to be replaced. Such a policy would deliver minimum speeds of 25 - 100Mbps by the end of 2016, 50 - 100Mbps by the end of 2019. sidestepping the question of upload speeds. Finished three years earlier, not as good if we focus on the metric of outright speed, three quarters of the price at $29.5b. 

That's really the two policies.  There are additional points of difference such as the coalition's plan requiring additional cabinets to be installed around the country to terminate the fibre and the ALP's plan requiring a device installed in your house to terminate it, also the approach with industry is different with the ALP's plan intended to produce a national monopoly wholesale network and the coalition's leaving the door open to competition from Telstra and Optus, but that's basically the red corner and the blue.

So now the coalition will form government, what will we get? 

Probably what we always would've got. 

The ALP's proposal was never going to happen. Even if you thought the ALP and NBN Co could successfully transition the policy build post Stephen Conroy's junkyard dog leadership, even if you thought they could cope with the relentless rent-seeking from contractors and middle-men seeking to win work and farm it out at a profit, even if you thought that a cable plugged into every premises in the country within a decade and within the budget was feasible, the coalition wants to do it differently and to be prevented from trying to do it differently, the ALP had to win every election in the fourteen year period from 2007 to 2021.  If you think that is feasible I have a absolute harbour-front concert hall I'm willing to sell you for an absolute steal. We were never getting this much fibre.

Of course the coalition's policy is drastically unlikely as well.  The coalition's NBN plan relies heavily on the idea of VDSL which as a technology relies on something called vectoring  to deliver the types of speeds it wants to achieve.  The problem with that is vectoring is a good technology at fixing one sort of problem - connections that are impaired by interference from neighbouring connections - and if your Internet sucks for another reason it won't help.  If your Internet is going pretty well, vectoring doesn't really make it go faster. It also requires an additional pair of copper wires to be used when copper wires are in short supply in many, many metropolitan telephone exchanges.  The implementation of VDSL in those exchanges that do  have spare cables can be tricky, it involves a change in procedure and record keeping by technicians who are used to listening for dialtones on pairs, and if an elderly man with a history of stroke needs a pair for his fixed telephone service and they are all used up with VDSL vectoring, who wins out? His life threatening condition or your elimination of crosstalk interference?  How does the coalition meet speed targets like the ones they've set under these circumstances? We were never getting this little fibre.

As with most things, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Nationalising broadband or providing a national stimulus to it was going to involve investing heavily where it's easy to do so and making compromise and walking back promises where it was either very hard or prohibitive. The recent production of a web petition - useless because Internet petitions are inadmissible to parliament - doesn't change that. Christmas has gone and we didn't get a Lamborghini. The technology mix will be what the experts at NBN Co can reasonably achieve within the business limits they have and that was always going to be the case.

On this side of the election we've learnt a lot. We've learned we can get overly involved in discussions about the technology that delivers the policy. Plenty of technology advocates have learned that knowing how a thing works doesn't make you an expert in its application as public policy. Journalists of all sorts have gone either red or blue when dipped in the situation and will stay coloured that way in our minds. Hopefully from this point forward we'll learn what the best broadband for Australia is, and we can start focusing on the million other public policy problems that aren't solved by high quality broadband.

Image: Mikecogh