Australia’s National Broadband Network

The other day, the Git was asked by a friend to sign a petition to lobby the new Coalition government to implement the Australian Labor Party’s National Broadband Plan. The Git took a quick look and figured that since there is no difference whatsoever between the Coalition’s plan and the ALP’s plan for where the Git lives, why would he bother. My friend insisted that it was the best of all possible plans and he was well pleased with it since it had been rolled out where he now lives. So, the Git decided to investigate what he was being asked to endorse…

What my friend Tim has is a fibre to the premises (FTTP) Internet connection. What the Coalition wants to implement is fibre to the node (FTTN). This latter runs optical fibre to a splitter that separates the signal for delivery over the existing copper network for the last few metres. This, the Coalition tells us is much less expensive than the ALP FTTP network. Under both plans, like everybody else in the country who has one, the Git loses his existing ADSL connection. This was supposed to be happening next year, but every NBN worker in Tasmania was sacked a few months ago. While 93% of households will be provided a connection to a fibre-optic network, 7% of us will be “given” either satellite, or wireless broadband. Given is in scare quotes because politicians don’t ever give us anything; they take from us and then expect us to be ever so grateful for giving some of it back even when it’s a pittance.

Politicians are well known to be absolute liars, hence the joke: How do you know when a politician is lying? You can see his lips move! In this instance, neither the ALP, nor the Coalition are being honest about what the public is getting from their respective plans. Now don’t get me wrong here; fibre-optic cables are better, much better, than copper wires. But a computer network is much more than copper wires versus fibre-optic cable.

There’s latency to consider; this is the delay between sending a request across the network and receiving a response. Satellite is woeful in this regard as the signal path out to the satellite and back to Earth is ever so much longer than signal paths along Earthly cables. Shoot ’em up gamers like my son Thomas and his friends could never tolerate such delays; they wouldn’t be in the game. The Git doesn’t know what the latency difference between his current ADSL connection and the NBN is, but it can’t be much. A traceroute to my server in the USA showed the first 9 hops within Australia, totalled 296 ms. Going outside Australia, the hops were much slower: 1,621ms over 7 hops. That is, 85% of the latency was due to connections outside the country and therefore appears not susceptible to improvement by any alteration to the infrastructure inside Australia. The Git asked his friend Tim to do a traceroute from his FTTP connected computer, but has not acceded to this request.

Much is made of the speed of the NBN while little is said about the cost per GB. Currently, the Git has unlimited (no cap, no shaping) 1.5 Mb/s ADSL1 for $AU29.95 per month, so it is capable of providing a maximum of ~500 GB data per month. This amounts to $AU0.06 per GB. The Git’s district will not have FTTP, or FTTN, but fixed wireless instead. [It’s worth noting here that the Git initially misunderstood things and assumed we would be forced onto mobile wireless at an even higher cost than outlined here]. A 15 GB @ 12 Mb/s plan costs the same $29.95 as our current spend, but is shaped to 128 Kb/s after the 15 GB is used up. This would mean we would have access at a mere 8% of our current speed for much of the time. Worse, there’s only 5 GB available during peak hours; 10 GB at full throttle must be taken between midnight and 7 am. I can’t really see me waiting up until after midnight to catch up on a TV episode; my usual bedtime is 9:00 pm and never watch TV in the morning. This plan imposes a limit of 55 GB per month, a mere 11% of our current bandwidth! Instead of $AU0.06/GB it’s $AU0.55/GB and amounts to a mere 3 hours per month at full speed.

In truth, we do not download 500 GB per month — nowhere near it. We have however had at least one month exceed 60 GB, though the maximum in the last 12 months was 30 GB and many months we only consume 5 GB or so. Nevertheless the NBN will be a very retrograde step for us.

While the pipes that deliver will be faster, the implication that this will automatically lead to faster Internet is by no means certain. As I pointed out above, most of the latency in the system occurs outside Australia. It’s also the case that ever so much of what one wants is also served from outside Australia. The Git is an unashamed player of Syd Meier’s Civilization V. You cannot play the game unless you have a Steam account which is accessed via the Internet. While the initial install was from a DVD, as soon as the Steam account was activated, the program insisted on downloading all the latest patches. I have no idea of the size of that initial install, but it currently sits at 6 GB after two major upgrades. The time for that initial install was two weeks! If it had “filled the pipe” it should have taken around 9 hours had it been the full 6 GB. The size of the pipe doesn’t matter a tittle unless the server at the other end is capable of providing data at a suitable rate.

And that brings the Git to another bone of contention. The ALP NBN plan is said to be superior to the Coalition plan because it will deliver faster access: up to 1 GB/s versus 100 Mb/s. The magic words here are “up to” because like the Coalition plan, the ALP plan is a shared node system. It’s called GPON  and splits the 1 GB/s into separate fibre paths to individual premises. While NBN Co claims this will be limited to a maximum of 32 users on a subnet, GPON can be split up to 128 ways. At 32 users per 1 GB pipe, each user is potentially limited to considerably less than the 100 GB/s that FTTN can deliver. Not that there’s any guarantee that the Coalition claims will necessarily withstand scrutiny. The Git had other things in mind while investigating this little saga.

One of the main selling points for the ALP’s NBN plan is that it will create a level playing field: everyone gets 1 Gb/s. Except as we just saw — no they don’t. Some users will be allowed P2P connections so they will always have full access to an unshared 1 GB/s. One suspects that these “business users” will generally the ones who put most into the ALP campaign funds!

One might think that the people involved in the planning of such major  enterprises as a NBN would take a lesson from history. Australia got into ISDN telecom technology much later than the rest of the world. While it is true that what was devised here was technically superior to what was implemented in Europe and North America, it was delivered late when it was already obvious that ADSL was about to become reality. Worse, it required equipment built for the very much smaller Australian market at much higher cost than purchasing off-the-shelf gear from Eu or USA. In  other words, it was largely an expensive flop, aka a waste of taxpayers’ money. The NBN is, sadly to my mind, shaping up to be more of the same.

According to Simon Hackett, and ever so many other network savvy commentators, the NBN is delivering unwanted technology at a huge cost. Instead of terminating the optical fibre connection at the premises with a single, cheap ($AU15) Ethernet socket, it is connected to two customised for the Australian marketplace boxes. The first of these contains four Ethernet connectors and a router. These are only for use to connect to multiple Internet Service Providers, this is not a router to direct network traffic around the user’s network. Now I don’t know about you, but the prospect of having one provider for TV, one for movies, one for web browsing and one for social networking when they can all be handled by a single ISP at a far lower cost seems more than ludicrous. If such a box might, in exceptional circumstances be required, then surely to goodness such a user could be expected to purchase an appropriate device to plug into the cheap and cheerful connector that is all the average (and even not-so-average) punter needs.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, there’s another expensive redundant box that the NBN provides “for free”. It’s a plain old telephone socket emulator that you can plug a wired telephone into. My son Thomas’s generation think plain old telephones are quaint and can’t imagine having a use for one; they use mobile phones and the kind of plans they are on, it wouldn’t make economic sense to have the additional financial burden of a wired telephone that they have no particular use for. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the NBN Co has an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) for the plain old telephone service socket because electricity does not flow down optical fibre cables as it does down copper wires. Oddly, the UPS doesn’t maintain the Ethernet sockets.which might have actually been useful! A further stupidity here is that among all the people I know with fixed line telephone services only one has a telephone that does not require mains power: the Git. Not that it’s used very often; the Git keeps it for troubleshooting purposes.

So, not only do you get a “free” UPS from NBN Co, you still need another UPS for your telephone if you want to avail yourself of fixed line telephone services during a power outage! It doesn’t seem top have occurred to these bozos that for the few who want such, a dedicated device with a single UPS would suffice as an option and given the cost of UPSs and batteries, much cheaper.

By the time the Git’s voyage of discovery had reached this stage, nothing would have surprised him about the stupidity of the people involved in this debacle. But yes, there’s worse! When GPON “splits the signal” for each of the 32/64/128 [delete whichever is inapplicable] users, it doesn’t actually split the signal. Each of the users gets the whole kit and caboodle, albeit each user having a decryption key that allows him or her to make sense of only their own slice of the signal. While the 128 bit encryption is secure now, we have seen lower levels of encryption fall to brute force hacking as compute-power has inexorably increased per Moore’s Law. Within ten years the Git is sure there will be script-kiddies eagerly perusing their neighbours darkest Internet secrets and perhaps this is what the ALP wants and why GPON was chosen over WDM-PON where you only ever get to see your own signal, not everyone’s.

Lastly, there’s an oddity that Simon Hackett pointed out in his recent talk. The NBN cash flow figures indicate that the cost of NBN access is going to increase over time. Previous technology innovations have always started off expensive, followed by a relatively sharp fall off before gradually decreasing to a steady level. ADSL technology is already at the steady as she goes level and FTTP (at wholesale) is priced below ADSL2 — for now. Over time, NBN Co expects to increase that wholesale cost to well over what the by now defunct ADSL2 would be costing.

You may have noticed there’s not much comment here about the Coalition NBN plan and there are two main reasons for this. First, the story seems to be that whatever it is, the Git loses what he has and it’s to be replaced by wireless with lower bandwidth at a very much higher price and slower for some of the time. Under analysis this was the inevitable outcome of the intentions of the ALP and the Coalition see no reason to change this. Second, the Coalition plan is no more advanced the the ALP plan was when it was announced several years ago. It took several years and much prompting to have the ALP flesh out what the NBN was actually going to consist of. We now know that it was a political decision to be honoured in the breech, rather than a carefully thought out, sensible plan of action to deliver something of great value to the Australian public. The extra costs of the NBN Co mandated NTU beyond the needed $AU15 Ethernet port are unknown to me, but are unlikely to be less than a couple of hundred dollars including installation. Now $AU200 multiplied by 10 million households is $AU2 billion, a sum that would go a long way to assuage the fears some of us have for being provided adequate health care.

Spending $AU2 billion of taxpayers’ money on completely unnecessary equipment looks and smells awful like a corruption investigation is called for.


3 thoughts on “Australia’s National Broadband Network

    • Actually I have no idea what the NTUs are costing — it’s a guess. I seem to recall that the “free” digital set-top boxes for pensioners program was costing several hundred dollars per pensioner when a DSE set-top box was retailing for $50; the $2bn is a very conservative estimate. So where would you prefer to see these billions spent, Deadman?

      • I discovered that the NTU costs $AU600, so the money being siphoned off into the pockets of the ALP’s mates and matesses is $AU6 billion. Not a trivial sum. I haven’t counted the NTUs installed in business premises.

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