Broadband Mythbusters: The NBN Reaches Kiama

Kiama on the NSW south coast is the second mainland launch site for the National Broadband Network (NBN), and the first within striking distance of a capital city. Despite clear evidence of progress, a trip to Kiama demonstrates that the biggest challenge the NBN faces is getting people to understand what it does and why it exists.

Here's an unusual way to embarrass yourself: work for Lifehacker, show up at an NBN launch event, and discover that your RSVP has been misplaced. In a week when there has been a bucketload of largely ludicrous reporting about the NBN being "hacked", it can be hard to convince the person at the door you're not taking the piss. But I manage it eventually.

This turns out to be surprisingly useful preparation for the event itself. There's a sense of excitement in the air (or as much as you can manage in a room full of government officials in suits in a cold room on a Friday morning). Kiama mayor Sandra McCarthy in particular can't keep the smile off her face ("it's just a wonderful, wonderful day for Kiama," she proclaims), and even the often dour Senator Stephen Conroy seems in a happy mood.

Smiles aside, a good proportion of the event is devoted, one way or another, to clearing up the many misconceptions that still seem to linger whenever the NBN is mentioned. Given that you're reading this on a technology-centric site, I suspect I don't need to convince you of the potential benefits of having faster broadband available on a national basis.

But lots of people still need the whole thing explained to them, either because they think it's a waste of money or because they think wireless might do it better or because they think the pricing is too high or because they're just opposed to it because talkback radio is. This NBN launch — like the earlier one in Armidale, the one next week in Brunswick, and future launches in Townsville and Willunga — is as much about dealing with those issues as it is with letting the local community know that NBN options are quickly becoming available in their area.

The event itself follows a fairly predictable format: speeches from notables, a faux "switch-on" ceremony a brief photo opportunity for TV cameras that don't want footage of speeches, and then a doorstop for media with the Kiama surf enticingly positioned in the background. It's not the ideal environment for trying to get a message across, given that TV crews are obsessed with getting "interesting" shots and the questions from non-tech reporters make it clear that they don't know a lot. But NBN Co and government officials alike are certainly trying to educate them. Let's look at some of the issues where that needs to happen. Again, this might not be news to Lifehacker and Gizmodo readers, but it's apparently news to a good chunk of the rest of the world.

ADSL is a really lousy alternative in regional areas. Kiama is only a couple of hours from Sydney and a popular commuting choice given that it's on the train line, but that doesn't extend to its current broadband options. "Our area has suffered from poor coverage and limited availability under the ADSL and copper wire system, so the rollout of the NBN will fulfil a great need in terms of access for our community," Mayor McCarthy noted. Treasure Wayne Swan also wanted to hammer home that point: The NBN is so important to many of our regional communities who have not been able to fully participate in aspects of our national life."

The NBN doesn't have anything directly to do with mobile networks. At the doorstop, a regional news reporter wanted to know how the NBN would help with the problem of bad mobile signal on the south coast. NBN Co head Quigley patiently explained that the NBN had nothing to do with mobile services — "there are three carriers who do that" — but that many mobile users routinely switched their phones onto their home Wi-Fi networks to get better browsing and apps access. I have a sneaking feeling that grab won't make the nightly news, but it's a point that needs to be made.

It isn't just about faster connections in your home. Kiama Council is planning a range of uses for faster connections, including setting up hubs (the first being the local library) where citizens can get free access; broadcasting local council meetings via broadband; and offering online workshops explaining key council functions such as development approvals and food safety management. Those options don't make sense if affordable high speeds aren't available to both citizens and the council itself, and it's evident that this hasn't happened with Australia's existing telecommunications infrastructure.

It's not a large scale test to see how the network itself works. The initial rollout in Kiama includes goes past 2,350 homes and has just 9 test customers during the pilot phase, which runs until October. I bet a bunch of newspaper reporters are busy right now highlighting that fact and trying to suggest that this means each customer is effectively being subsidised for millions of dollars.

As NBN Co CEO Mike Quigley explained, that's not the point of the rollout: "It's really not a technology trial. We know the technology works. What we're testing is how we set up our systems and processes for wholesalers will work." (There's no winning in these situations, I suspect. If pilot projects weren't run, the newspaper headlines would proclaim that billions of dollars had been spent on a system that was being rolled out without any testing.)

There's still a lot of building to do. Treasurer Wayne Swan noted that as of the end of June, the NBN has passed 18,423 homes. "There's a long way to go but we've come a long way in a short period of time." Conroy did suggest that final tender winners to build the main NSW and Queensland networks would be announced shortly, which should speed the process up.

There will be a range of NBN pricing packages. Again, this isn't news: we've already seen pricing from Internode and Exetel, and the major ISP players (Telstra, Optus, iiNet) still have to announce national deals. However, so many people apparently freaked out when they saw the Internode pricing that everyone involved is constantly having to reiterate this point.

Having excess capacity is not a bad feature of the NBN. In a spiel he's clearly having to use a lot, Senator Conroy contrasted the building of the NBN with the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. In 1932 when it opened, an eight-lane bridge looked like overkill, but that ensured the potential for future growth. It's no different with broadband, as those of us who can remember working on dial-up modems can attest.

The NBN did not get hacked. Inevitably, a reporter asked for a comment on the non-existent NBN hack. Quigley had already spelled it out in words of one syllable: "The NBN was not hacked, it has not been compromised and our security was not breached. In spite of the somewhat hysterical headlines, we at NBN Co have not lost track of the vision of the NBN: to provide high speed broadband to all Australians no matter where we live." The fact this is still being discussed demonstrates how slow both the media and the general public are to dismiss the first version of a news story they hear, no matter how inaccurate or widely disputed.

We don't need to know all the potential high-speed apps to justify the investment. As Swan put it: "One of the criticisms of the NBN is that we can't accurately predict the future. That's precisely why we must invest in the NBN, so we can tap the unknown possibilities." I don't imagine that road builders anticipated that pizza delivery vehicles would eventually find them useful, to cite a trivial parallel example.

People with rusted-on political views are likely to continue opposing the NBN on principle, and no amount of technical discussion is going to persuade someone like Alan Jones who simply doesn't understand how fibre networks function but doesn't let that stop him ranting about them. It's a pity though that so much energy goes into re-explaining these basics, rather than turning our imaginations to what we could do once we've got better connectivity everywhere. That's when things will really get interesting rather than just shrill and repetitive.


Comments

    Yep Angus, you're right. No surprises here. Still a lot of hot air, massive spending at taxpayers expense and still not one single valid justification for it. Nope, not one.

    One enormous white elephant coming up!

    For comparison $14b of private investment is what it costs for the yanks to get national broadband coverage.
    http://goo.gl/VnYo

      I'll take this comment seriously when it responds to what's actually in the post. And we'll start with the obvious point: so what's your method for getting faster broadband to areas like Kiama which have not seen those options appear in the current environment? That's one justification your comment ignores entirely.

      I'm always up for debate on the issues, but people who describe the NBN as a white elephant without any actual argument aren't looking for debate.

        I don't understand Greg's comment. Was he trying to be sarcastic?

        The only reason I left a comment here is that the entire article looks like a copy/paste of government spin. A lot of feel good comments trying to justify the waste.

        "what’s your method for getting faster broadband to areas like Kiama"

        You can't be serious. What's wrong with ADSL2? What is it that the NBN can do that ADSL can't? Sure, it's faster, but what does the average user need the extra speed for? The only answer I've heard so far is that we're hoping that maybe some time in the future someone might invent a use for it.

        If anyone can give any specific answers as to why we really need it, as against want it, let's hear them.

          Obvious reply to that: does Kiama have ADSL2 as an option? Local response wouild seem to be "no". ADSL and ADSL2 are not the same thing, and there are plenty of metro cases were ADSL is the only option. Telstra's approach of only switching on ADSL2 after a rival did so first in many areas also shows conclusively that saying "what we have now is adequate" is a non-argument.

          Again, I'd want specific arguments to be convinced. So far you've said nothing. To answer your "what does NBN offer" argument:12/1 guaranteed and fibre-level upgrades. ADSL offers neither. Counter arguments need to be factual, not "this is spin" non-factual hype.

          See my reply to Andy to see what is wrong with ADSL2.

            Sure Kiama and many other parts of Australia don't have ADSL2. But that doesn't justify $43B. Why not upgrade the exchanges and give them the same level of ADSL2 service that metro areas currently enjoy? It would be a lot cheaper. Delivering broadband to as many homes as possible is something that everyone agrees on. But at $7000 per home the NBN is grossly excessive. The government knows it's a hard sell, that's why there was never going to be a cost/benefit analysis. They also know that there are no examples or case studies of real benefits coming from homes around the world that already have NBN speeds. And they further know that the only way to get the majority of people to use it is to rip up and dismantle the existing network. The existing network does work perfectly well and is overall very reliable. Why on earth would you spend extra money to destroy it?

            A lot of people have cited "future capacity" as a reason for building it. The problem with this argument is that nobody knows what the future will bring. One thing that is for certain is that technology will evolve and quite likely we will see major improvements in wireless technology. Something that would be vastly more useful that FTTH alone.

              Two quick points: one thing we can be sure of in the future is that people will demand higher speeds. That's been the consistent experience throughout the Internet and across the world.

              Upgrading existing exchanges to ADSL2 isn't always possible, as many have no extra space in them for equipment. So there'd be very expensive rebuilding involved in that scenario. And Telstra has shown itself quite unwilling to allow other providers in or to build that capacity under the current model. Legislating to force that would also have involved massive expense and with much less capacity for future expansion than fibre currently offers. (Other commenters have also noted that ADSL2 isn't invariably available in metro areas either.)

                My exchange is a metro exchange enabled for ADSL2+. I'm not doubting that speeds would be great if you lived 100 metres away from the exchange but the thing is not everybody does. I'm pretty much on the end of the line, 7 km away. Do we need more exchanges dotted around everywhere just so this copper network actually works? Dropouts daily and 2 Mbps speeds doesn't sound very good for metro does it?
                What would you suggest for this exchange? Upgrade it? To what? FTTH has to be the next step. It is actually future proof, only limited by the equipment at each end.
                And don't tell me wireless is the answer, I was on wireless for years before ADSL2+ and it was even worse.

                So there aren't any examples of real benefits, so what? If the whole world worked like this we'd still be on dial-up. There's no benefit going faster than that because no one else can and so no point in upgrading. This is an upgrade to a whole country here, something that Australia can do first instead of waiting for benefits to come first.

                Do you suggest we install fibre later, when we really need it? When there will be even more homes to connect to the network? Or maybe that we should leave our system of unreliable copper and overloaded wireless to be upgraded by itself, creating a patchwork of fibre, copper and wireless serving the entire country?

              Don't waste your breath, Greg. Fiscal responsibility is not Labour's strong point, and we shouldn't expect a reasoned conversation on the topic.

              The money spent on the NBN will be a laughable waste – technology moves too fast to commit $36 billion (and more when you consider existing households will have to pay $2000 to utilise the faster speeds). Seriously, if the government had any intellect, they’d be either using this money on meaningful infrastructure and government wages (police, teachers, nurses, etc), or perhaps not tax the bejesus out of the middle class.

              Read this: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/wireless-challenge-to-future-proof-nbn/story-fn59niix-1226104623595. "A technology guru who has been described as the Thomas Edison of Silicon Valley claims to have developed a new wireless technology that could one day rival the download speeds on the National Broadband Network. The new technology, called DIDO, allows internet users to access download speeds up to 1000 times faster than possible on conventional wireless networks, without any fall in speed as more users get on to the network."

              And if not this, then something else. There are better (and cheaper) alternatives on the horizon. Bet on it.

                A few points: the Dido stuff is entirely theoretical at this point, as many Gizmodo commenters have pointed out: http://www.gizmodo.com.au/2011/08/dido-tech-from-quicktime-creator-could-revolutionise-wireless-broadband/

                Given that the technology hasn't been built yet, it's also tricky to argue that it would be any cheaper.

                I notice that "something better will come along in the future" is rejected as a justification for the NBN, but then used as a reason for not having the NBN when an alternative comes along.

                  I think almost everyone would agree that providing ADSL2 would be a fraction of the cost of FTTH and that it would meet current needs. A sensible approach would be to make a modest investment now that gives everyone access to a reasonable service. Then as and when there is an unmet need for more assess the available options at that point in time.

                  The future is increasingly about wireless for the simple fact that people want access to the internet where they are. Not just at home. There are constant advancements being made to WiMAX, LTE, 4G, and DIDO. To pay so much for a fixed line service is just plain dumb. And to then apply the cringeworthy term "future proof" to the NBN is plain wishful thinking. Nothing in IT is guaranteed to be relevant in 5, 10, or 20 years time.

                  In response to Angus' comments. LTE is cheaper. http://goo.gl/IfWtp. DIDO shows a lot of promise and as Wordsmith points out there will be others.

                  Also, "hoping that maybe some time in the future someone might invent a use for the NBN" is very different to “something better will come along in the future”.

                  Wordsmith - you and Greg seem determined to push wireless as an alternative for wired. It's all very well for a upcoming wireless technology to offer NBN speeds .. but that technology is 5-10 years away and you're comparing it to NBN's speeds today. NBN will have moved from 2.4gbit GPON to 10gbit or even beyond.

                  Let's compare spectral density shall we? A wireless tower covering 1000 homes might cost 5 times less than running 32 X 32-split GPON networks around the streets. It also provides 500 times less bandwidth.

                  Wireless 2011 = Wired 2002. Sure, there's a small percentage of people/places getting 10mbit today on 3G but the average user gets closer to 1mbit.

                  Wireless 2020 will be Wired 2011. Sure, there'll be some people on 100mbit wireless but most people will get 10mbit. On the other hand, NBN will offer 1000mbit and the average user will be on 100mbit.

                  Claim all you like that we don't need the extra speeds, but our bandwidth demands are rising fast and will continue to do so - just like they have for the last decade or two.

                  Copper is approaching it's limits, and we can either put in short term improvements that are not especially cheap - or we can put in longer term solutions. Rubbish fibre all you want but private enterprise is already using exactly the same GPON technology to provide Internet to homes all around in this country.

    Good sum up of issues Angus. Well done! :) Can't wait for it to come to the Gold Coast :)

    The problem is with 50% connecting at 12/1Mbps, is the remainder a large enough market to attract the innovative hi-speed app developers?

    Agree with Greg. No cost benefit vs other options. You can talk all you want. Where are the comparisons of all the options?

      Comparison:
      Just over 20 km from Sydney CBD
      On current network:
      Paying $70 a month for ADSL2+ with 50 GB quota. Seems overpriced? That's because it's Telstra. Why is it Telstra? Because Telstra is the only one that will do it to this area. And that's only after speaking directly to someone at Telstra. Try to sign up online and they reply the line quality is inadequate.
      So no other ISP will provide ADSL2+ to this area unless you've already signed up to Telstra.
      And for that $70 a month we get speeds of 2 Mbits/second maximum.

      On NBN:
      Pay an amount per month, get 100Mbps speeds guaranteed with any ISP we want. Possibly being cheaper than what we have now and with a higher download allowance.

      Our area did try to get Telstra to upgrade this area and let us get ADSL2+ and Telstra just said it wasn't worth it for the amount of people here. And that's why we can't just leave the current network in place and expect it to be upgraded, there is no financial incentive for companies to do that.

    "NBN, unjustified waste of money"

    Myth busted!

    I'm currently in Stockholm, staying in an apartment with 100mbs connection as standard in every room. I didn't know I was waiting so long to upload photographs. I didn't know I was waiting so long to upload videos. Ask me 12 months ago if I thought I needed 100mbs connection and I would have said no. This is the messaging problem NBN faces at the moment. Nobody knows what's possible until they experience it. Ask people 30 years ago if they wanted/needed a mobile phone, and the same would be true. Ask most people in Australia now if they need a high speed broadband network, and they'll say no, because they don't really know or understand what it actually is. They need an advertising or information campaign along these lines, I reckon. Putting it in the context of other technology improvements in people's lives wouldn't be that hard.

    Don't people realise that the NBN is the best and worst idea ever? Break the NBN down to two parts - Supply and Distribution.

    Distribution - Australia needs to get rid of copper, so the Governments spending on fibre is justifiable.

    Supply - this is where it gets hairy! If the NBN Co. has control of the methods of supply, you create a worse off monopoly than Telstra currently holds. Currently ADSL2 is supplied through ISPs own dslam infrastructure within Tesltra interchanges. The NBN essentially removes the ability for ISPs to push their own infrastructure and therefore has blanket control over the market.

    What I would call for is the ability for ISPs to push their own infrastructure, so that they can compete by ways of "first to provide gigabit". THAT is competition which drive development.

    This is just the Government introducing the next Tesltra! And think for a second, how will it benefit them?

    So, if distribution is provided the whole original reason for the NBN can be met. Introduce the supply chain under the same heading and sign a sneaky deal with Telstra and you're back to where you started.

    This argument was never about speed or availability of current technology - that is unquestionable! It is about the fact that we are all hung up on something that our we've been defending for our ISP friends for ages. Just because they put a price on it, doesn't mean they love it. The Government is on a good think, just killing competition through supply control is going to get messy.

    After is all said and done, there will still be a speed cap to outside Australia. Streaming iView is one thing, but getting HD content from Netflix is going to be something else.

    This is a serious question. Why, with the currently released pricing plans, do you have to pay more for faster speeds? Why can't we all just have one speed - the fastest?

    Without being told why, it just seems to me they're putting in these false bottlenecks so they can skim a little more off the top.

    I think the NBN is a great idea. The fact that it's prohibitively expensive if you want top speeds (NBN top speeds) is just plain stupid. Maybe it's a bandwidth issue? And if it is, how long before we hit that limit anyhow?

    @speed limit protectionism

    I asked this question elsewhere, however nobody was able or game to reply:

    How will the NBN be in areas like Stony Crossing NSW, Picola VIC, Glen Aplin QLD...?

    Sure its fine if your family income is $150K+ per year, but what about families with $50K or less who have enough trouble scraping their mortgage or rent?

      It could probably be less than what most people would be paying at the moment. Getting rid if of the Telstra tax (line rental) could save between $20 - $30 straight up and not everyone would need 100 mbit straight away. 5, 10 or 15 mbit connections could be the mainstream like what 256 kbit connections were 5 years ago.

    Live in the Kiama Downs area, put in to be part of the Telstra trial, no response yet. Heartily sick of professional Liberal spin doctors on these sorts of blogs. Looking forward to going from 8 kms an hour to 80-100 km an hour.

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