On ABC’s Q&A this week, Christopher Pyne said the Coalition’s multi-technology NBN was fast enough for households to watch “five movies simultaneously”. Disregarding the irony of an innovation minister apparently missing the point of the national broadband network, the position is optimistic at best. Here’s why.
Fibre cable image via Shutterstock
According to Pyne, Australians just do not need the lightning fast speeds of fibre-to-the-home, as the former Labor NBN model preferred. In an ideal world where everyone gets a perfect 25Mbps connection, his claims might stack up (based on Netflix’s connection speed recommendations and 5Mbps per stream). The problem is that 25Mbps is far from constant or universal.
25Mbps (some of the time)
NBN’s charge to give Australians access to 25Mbps internet speeds actually refers to wholesale speeds, which it sells in a range of speed tiers. To meet its service level agreements, NBN must hit a stated peak speed just once in a 24-hour period.
That’s right: it’s contractually obliged to deliver its service speeds … just once a day.
We can assume NBN will generally deliver above and beyond this minuscule requirement, but the company was not able to provide us with any data on its performance here.
The broadband chain
For the sake of argument, let’s just say NBN is delivering speeds as promised. There’s still a range of variables sitting between NBN’s actual speeds and the speeds at which Aussie Josephine is able to stream cat videos on YouTube.
Firstly, there’s network capacity. Depending on the type of connection, if every household in Josephine St streams Game of Thrones simultaneously, the network can get congested, resulting in slower speeds for some. Josephine may have trouble loading her cat videos.
Fibre has lots of capacity; copper and other technologies being used in parts of the NBN rollout, not so much. NBN will decide which technology to roll out in Josephine St based on what’s already in the ground. As far as Josephine is concerned, it’s pot luck what she’ll end up with.
Network congestion tends to affect end users at peak times in the evening, when everyone is home and using their internet.
If Josephine’s internet service provider hasn’t purchased enough bandwidth from NBN, or it doesn’t have sufficient backhaul capacity, these problems are going to be more prevalent.
We saw this last year when Netflix arrived in Australia and iiNet failed to allocate sufficient capacity for the surge in data usage. The result was widespread service disruptions for many of its customers.
Finally, if Josephine’s modem is a bit crappy, that may also affect her internet speed. Meow.
The connected future
Not even Christopher Pyne really believes the NBN is being built to foster antisocial families who stream movies in separate rooms.
As Labor frontbencher Anthony Albanese shot back on Q&A: “the NBN isn’t about movies, it’s about our economy and how it functions”.
What happens in five, 10 years time, when all of Josephine’s household appliances are connected, her car drives itself and she works from home hosting global meetings via video uplink?
“It’s misleading to argue what people are going to want in the future from the internet on the basis of what’s required today,” says Rod Tucker, laureate emeritus professor at the University of Melbourne and a member of the NBN’s initial advisory panel under former Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd.
“That sort of argument would be the same as when electricity was first installed into homes, and only provided for a few appliances and light fittings,” Tucker says.
“As technology develops there are more and more uses for it in the home — and it’s the same thing with the NBN.”
Research firm Gartner predicts the amount of “things” people connect to the web will leap as much as 30 per cent in 2016 alone, rising to 21 billion in 2020. Further down the line, who knows what uses we’ll invent for the web.
Studies show average speeds of 100Mbps may be needed as soon as 2020, Tucker says.
25Mbps is so yesterday.
According to the NBN, “most end-users” will eventually have access to speeds of 100Mbps.
It’s not all about speed
According to telecommunications consultant Paul Budde, securing broadband infrastructure for the future has nothing to do with how fast five cat videos will load, and everything to do with network capacity and reliability.
“Smart cities” of the future will draw on a constant flow of data to give citizens better services such as transport and security, building sensors into traffic lights and providing people with Wi-Fi on the go, he says.
“You cannot have a driverless car system if you can’t drive between 10.00am and 4.00pm because the network is down,” he says, pointing to Telstra’s recent network woes.
Budde says patchwork technologies like fibre-to-the-node, which uses legacy copper and is preferred in the current NBN rollout, won’t in the long run be able to sustain the onslaught of data needed to run a strong digital economy in the future.
“The problem with the current fibre-to-the-node rollout is there is no guaranteed quality,” he says.
“We should be talking about a fibre-to-the-home network, and it needs to be a 1GB network.”
In the current rollout, only about half of us will be connected with fibre-to-the-home or the next best option, hybrid-fibre coaxial (think Foxtel cables), by 2020.
Budde thinks Pyne was “quite deliberate” when he “missed the point” about the NBN being used for streaming multiple videos.
“Turnbull knows very well what is needed — he is technically literate — but he’s been quiet on the NBN when talking about innovation policy, which indicates he understands very clearly what’s required [instead] for true innovation,” he says.
Labor has yet to unveil its election broadband policy, although opposition leader Bill Shorten has said it will include “more fibre” than the Coalition’s model, without “ripping up” everything the government has done with its multi-technology rollout.