Don't chuck NBN fibre out with Labor

Malcolm Turbull’s copper trial has poor applicability to the suburbs, where every household is the potential birthplace of a small business. By throwing out fibre broadband Australia could quash a generation of entrepreneurs.

If you want an example of the old adage ‘oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them’, look no further than Malcolm Turnbull’s demonstration of ‘NBN speeds’ over a copper network serving a large Sydney apartment block.

The Australian reports that Turnbull’s trial shows how residents in the building have seen download speeds of 93Mbps and upload speeds of 40Mbps based on VDSL2 technology – “not the souped-up vectoring protocol advocated by Mr Turnbull”. So even faster speeds will be possible using more advanced vectoring. 

But what this trial really shows is that existing tower blocks and chic inner-city apartment complexes – including plenty of crumbling art deco dwellings – probably should use copper for their ‘last mile’ connection to the fibre NBN network. 

Running new fibre through these complexes can be very expensive. But more importantly, copper that is dry, protected and not very long gives a bloody good digital signal with minimal voltage/signal loss. 

Why is that relevant to most of Australia? It isn’t.

While our political, cultural and even business elites enjoy living in inner city apartment complexes, the overwhelming bulk of the Australian population live in the ’burbs.

In suburban streets, copper loops are much longer, in some cases wetter, and in many cases degraded. A friend recently described to me how, when Telstra technicians came to open up the ‘pit’ in front of his 1950s house to correct a fault, there was no pit there at all — just buried wires. 

In the electorates that matter most in this election, western Sydney and south-east Queensland, the Rudd Government is losing the election. 

Malcolm Turnbull doesn’t have to win those seats over with his broadband plan – which is just as well given their dispersed urban morphology – but Kevin Rudd has to try not to lose them by making sure they understand the advantages of light-based fibre connection over longer distances, rather than an electrically-powered copper system.

Rudd, and his new NBN salesman Anthony Albanese, are clearly not holding the imagination of those voters (Wipe-out: Rudd's 'dreaming' in Queensland, September 3).

Over the years that Stephen Conroy held the communications portfolio, businesses somehow failed to understand what he was offering them. Because Conroy was such a head-kicker, and had so stubbornly refused a cost-benefit analysis of the scheme for political reasons, businesses have not been made aware of the productivity gains and potential for innovation that an end-to-end fibre network would bring. 

One example given to me last year by a top-end web developer illustrates the point. 

When a major web-based application is developed for, say, a bank, developers test the product over multiple bandwidth connections. Sometimes, different versions of the product are offered, but usually a compromise is found – a product that works well across most of those bandwidths. 

With fibre connections, the 100Mbps/40Mbps type speeds become irrelevant, as there is excess bandwidth (for today’s applications at least) for all customers (or rather, the 93 per cent Labor planned to connect with fibre). 

The bank or telco can therefore start creating the applications it really wants to run over the web — involving, for instance, much heavier use of on-demand or live video — and create them for a single bandwidth, which is effectively ‘unlimited’. 

That saves a lot of money on the development side, as well as offering more scope to improve customer service or other online offerings. 

The rollout of the NBN has been slow to start, and it is shameful that the latest version of NBN Co’s business plan “won’t be ready” before the election. Yes — and the “dog ate my homework” too. 

But even if the $2,000 per capita investment in the NBN were substantially higher (and it might have been if the 2021 completion date of the scheme was achieved) it would unlock great productivity gains for the Australian economy. 

Robert Gottliebsen is right to highlight today the potential of cloud computing for boosting productivity (The technology do or die for CEOs, September 3), but the customer side of that equation needs to be given more prominence. 

Creating advanced services for customer who have, effectively, no limit on bandwidth and an uncongested network that ‘works every time’ between business and consumer will lead to all manner of business innovation.

To foster a truly entrepreneurial culture in Australia, it’s important to recognise that every household is the potential birthplace of a small business; one that will want to use the cloud and untrammelled connectivity to communicate with customers. 

Asking a nascent small to medium-sized enterprise to stump up $5000 for a fibre connection — and then telling them that their customers don’t have fibre — is a good way to put the brakes on a new generation of entrepreneurs. 

The all-fibre NBN is a precious baby that looks likely to be thrown out with the Labor bathwater. That’s not just a pity. It’s an historic opportunity – to be truly ahead of the world for once – lost forever. 

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