The NBN finally grew up (beyond politics)

For a few years, newsfeeds, politicians and thousands of amateur opinionists provided a near-constant commentary on Australia’s National Broadband Network (NBN). On March 31st, 2015, it came of age, but I heard negligible public comment. The NBN has outgrown its political-plaything status, and is now actually poised to start delivering on its promises.

So what’s the big news?

NBN Co launches Fibre to the Building technology (link) 

So, what?

Well, let’s step back a bit, and look at some of the benefits originally promoted:

  • High speed Internet access for all Australians
  • Tele-health, e-health, including video consultations
  • Tele-commuting, ie work from home (or where-ever)
  • Improved access to government and educational services online
  • Online business interactions

Nice.

In terms of delivering those benefits, and achieving economies of scale, ubiquity is vital. Covering 10% of Australians might make a service useful. Covering 90% is very useful. The last 10% is where the real value lies. The premise of “virtually all Australians” being connected is incredibly potent, hence the word “national“.

There was much debate (especially between political parties) over Fibre To The Home (FTTH) vs Fibre To The Node (FTTN). In short, the then government insisted that only FTTH would be sufficient for future needs. Without the speeds of a fully-fibre connection, a doctor providing a video consultation wouldn’t be able to see when a patient is trembling.

Most of regional and rural Australia wasn’t to get fibre at all, but a patchwork of fixed-wireless and satellite services. Fixed wireless was initially announced to deliver 12Mbps/1Mbps throughput. Wait a minute, that’s much less than FTTN, and FTTN is insufficient, right? Satellite would be even slower. Also, wouldn’t these be the people with the greatest need for tele-health? How will the doctors see their patients trembling?!

Some readers might want to point out the FTTH acronym is outdated; I should now say “Fibre To The Premises”. But here exactly is my point:

Prior to April 2015, the NBN has not had the equipment, nor the installation processes, to deliver to:

  • blocks of units
  • business premises with more than one occupant
  • shopping centres

In other words, since the first customers were connected at the end of 2011, for more than 3 years, NBN has been primarily focused on one thing:

Houses in Suburbia

To my mind that means:

Politics trumping utility

Anyway, that was then. This is now. Early in 2014, trials began for Fibre To The Basement equipment, leading to the March 2015 announcement. Now, NBN can actually be delivered to a block of residential units, a block of business offices, a small mall or other situation where multiple small businesses share a building. Suddenly, a much bigger slice of Australia is reachable, or will be reachable as the infrastructure is put into place. Hooray!

Another political artefact

At a crucial time in establishing the NBN, Australia was faced with a hung parliament. In order to gain control, the Labor Party did a deal with the independent member for New England, Tony Windsor. Have a look at this NBN rollout map, overlaid with electoral boundaries at that time. Oh look, there’s some little towns with wireless!

NBN vs Electoral boundaries

Barraba and Delungra are covered, Bingara and Warialda aren’t.

Another positive development

In the face of earlier arguments, NBNCo looked to expand the range of technology for delivering the “last mile” connectivity. This is a good thing. Utilising more existing infrastructure (HFC), and FTTN options, means ubiquity can be achieved more quickly.

So…

The NBN is expanding. It has come of age and can now begin its serious work. It will still take several years to get anywhere near the ubiquity that justifies the approach, and I wonder how many of its opportunities will actually be taken up. Ask me in 10 years.

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