The discussion around the Coalition’s NBN plan has so far centred on how it measures up to Labor’s existing plan. But perhaps it’s time for a new benchmark.
The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) provides guidance on what we should expect from a next generation access network by specifying minimum requirements for upcoming mobile and fixed access networks. The requirements are discussed, analysed and eventually turned into international standards after technology solutions are agreed upon. In some situations the agreed technology solutions may not become commercially available for up to a decade.
With that in mind, how does the Coalition’s NBN plan provide Australia with a next generation access network?
Next-gen network building blocks
Data connection speeds of 1 Gbps or higher is one of the key requirements for next generation mobile and fixed access networks.
In 2007 the ITU’s Radio-communication Sector (ITU-R) defined a new global standard called International Mobile Telecommunications-Advanced (IMT-Advanced) with a minimum data connection speed of 1 Gbps. The Australian 4G mobile network is about two or three revisions away from achieving the IMT-Advanced requirements – “true 4G”. You can learn more about 4G and the evolution to “true 4G” here.
The next generation fixed access networks will utilise optical fibre rather than copper, because connection speeds of 1 Gbps or higher can only be achieved for very short distances over copper. FTTP access networks may use either active components (electricity required) or passive components (electricity not required). There are positive and negative arguments for either approach and the Australian NBN is currently being built using a passive optical network that has improved survivability and will provide data connections speeds of 1 Gbps or higher from 2014.
Technology selection for the NBN is not the only difference between the Coalition and Labor. Putting aside arguments of cost and time to completion there are other equally important matters that Labor and the Coalition have yet to publicly address including NBN connections to vehicles and increased competition across all segments of the telecommunication industry.
NBN connections to vehicles
The current NBN legislation prevents NBN connections to anything that moves – trains, buses, cars, planes, boats, caravans and so on. This is the worst telecommunications related decision by any government since the failure to split Telstra retail and wholesale in the 1990s.
The three mobile network operators (Telstra, Optus and Vodafone) have been careful not to publicise anticipated growth in network connections to vehicles because this would raise public awareness that they have been the recipients of the biggest gift ever made by an Australian government to a group of publicly traded companies. The size of this freebie is likely to be $10 billion per year in 2021 and grow annually.
The decision to exclude NBN connections to vehicles fails two tests – it is anti-competitive and anti-bush.
The NBN satellites can be used for connections to inter-state planes and trains with minor software upgrades. What about Australia’s fishing and trucking fleets? What about gray nomads travelling around Australia in their caravans and motor homes?
The possibility for low cost NBN connections to vehicles was one trade-off made to appease Telstra, Optus and Vodafone that should never have happened and must be reversed. Which political party will make this commitment?
The current NBN legislation attempts to restrict infrastructure competition in the access, transit and aggregation networks.
In Australia we have single providers for road, rail, water and electricity networks but we also have three separate mobile cellular networks and two HFC networks. Three mobile phone towers side by side is a common feature of our landscape and two HFC cables run on the same power polls.
Why do we have overlapping telecommunication networks that could be shared like our roads, rail, water and electricity networks?
A goal of the NBN legislation was to prevent infrastructure duplication in the fibre era – an era where a small bundle of optic fibres should meet the data needs of a neighbourhood for 100 years (though what our data needs will be in 100 years we can only guess).
However, unless the infrastructure duplication and competition provisions in the legislation align with potential current and future telecommunication products the result will be a reduction in competition. The current NBN legislation fails to ensure there will be successful competition in the telecommunications industry over the decades to come.
Near the end of this decade a company might utilise the NBN fibre to build a Fi-Wi access network. Fi-Wi will evolve over time and there is a strong possibility that spectrum in the 600, 700 or 800 MHz bands will eventually become available for public Wi-Fi.
Utilising spectrum in the 700 MHz band, for example, a future public Wi-Fi network could provide low cost high speed connections (1 Gbps or higher) over distances of up to 30 km. If you site the Wi-Fi access points with the fibre access nodes or fibre distribution hubs (splitters) you can create neighbourhood, town or city Fi-Wi access networks. The IMT-Advanced standard includes the requirement that future mobile cellular devices have the capability to smoothly transition into and out of public Wi-Fi networks. Already Fi-Wi is being seen as a low cost method of reducing black spots in mobile cellular networks and it is certain that Fi-Wi will be utilised more widely in the future.
To look at this proposal from the other perspective there is no reason why future mobile cellular and Fi-Wi networks should not utilise the NBN as this would remove the significant cost of duplicating national transit and aggregation networks and also increase the opportunity for new mobile cellular or Fi-Wi providers.
Fi-Wi access networks could be rolled out in regional and remote towns by local operators or councils and this would increase competition nationally. Fi-Wi will eventually become a means to connect vehicles to the network and where Fi-Wi exists mobile devices will also connect.
What this means is the mobile cellular operators should not demand nor expect immunity from competition – yet they appear to have successfully achieved this with advantageous provisions in the current NBN legislation.
Curtailing competition as an underlying principal for the NBN should not occur and will only damage Australia moving forward. There is a need to look at the technologies that will be available in twenty years and to prepare legislation to ensure that every technology is utilised fully to reduce consumer costs and improve national telecommunication networks.
Already there are about 50 or more companies with significant investments in fibre infrastructure in major urban areas. There are alternative wireless and satellite providers for regional and remote Australia.
The NBN should be built using a public ownership business model that encourages competition by reducing consumer costs, offering better products and increasing capacity. Customers are doing their bit by significantly increasing data usage and annual spend on devices that access the network. It is vital that the telecommunications industry be offered the opportunity to look at the NBN as an opportunity for increased competition, and this may include innovative telecommunication products that utilise infrastructure that piggybacks onto the NBN.
Mark Gregory is a Senior Lecturer in Electrical and Computer Engineering at RMIT University.