Giving up on broadband equality?

The Coalition's NBN pragmatism risks fostering greater inequity between those who have quality access and those who don't.

One of the biggest global challenges in relation to the development of national broadband networks is equality. We all recognise how critical broadband is for the development of digital infrastructure but what's equally essential is to ensure that everybody enjoys the same level of quality and affordability. This is a major challenge and as a rough measuring stick approximately one-third of the people in developed economies would miss out if there were not a requirement for equality.

We see some of the problems related to this issue arising in other countries. The digital infrastructure is essential for commerce, healthcare, education, government services and M2M services such as smart grids. Governments would find it hard to sell their e-health, e-government and e-education programs just to those who enjoy access to good quality infrastructure. Nevertheless this is exactly what is happening in countries with a patchwork of broadband islands. A structure of this kind severely impedes the development of the digital economy.

Furthermore, if there is no broadband equality people who are missing out on good quality broadband would be greatly disadvantaged economically – for example, the people living in regional towns and communities on the outskirts of larger cities. Lack of affordability would severely affect the more vulnerable sections of society.

Speed isn't the issue 

The major new inflection point in the digital industry is that from now on more devices than people will be connected to that infrastructure – internationally we are talking about trillions of devices and sensors. The infrastructure needs to be sufficiently robust to handle this gigantic computer network, which must be able to process and analyse massive volumes of data in real time. This includes monitoring, data gathering and real time analyses of the environment, sustainability, biodiversity, traffic, infrastructure, weather, people movements, national health (epidemic monitoring) and so on. Many of these ICT systems need to be nationwide and require nationwide networks with a minimum level of quality and capacity.

These requirement have very little to do with the speed of the network. Far more important for such services are capacity, robustness, affordability, security, privacy and low latency.

Because of the difference in population density the overall architecture of the network can be designed in such a way that it does not require the same technology everywhere. Built-up areas such as cities need technology that has the capability necessary for concentrated requirements; rural areas, on the other hand, do not have a concentration problem and so different technological requirements apply there. In other words, you don’t need to replace every copper-based ‘dirt track’ in the country with a four-lane FttH highway to achieve the outcome needed for the abovementioned requirements.

The best fibre solution for capacity 

Internationally it is accepted that, capacity-wise, the best technology is Fibre-to-the-Home (FttH). It will future-proof the abovementioned requirements (at least for the next 20-30 years). Some people argue that we do not need such robust infrastructure, but let us go back five years, to a time when we had not even heard of smartphones and tablets – or ten years, when most people were still using dial-up to access the internet.

It is not difficult to envisage that developments like these will not stop, and that they will only accelerate over coming years. The last thing we want is to have to dig up the country again in five or ten years’ time because we decided in 2013 to go for the cheap option.

The cheap option that is proposed by the Australian Opposition is Fibre-to-the-Node (FttN). This technology still relies heavily on the ageing copper infrastructure and the proposed extended use of the cable TV network on the ageing coax networks.

No guarantee of equality 

Among the many other problems that this cheap solution brings with it is that there will not be a guarantee of equality. As we see in the UK, for instance, the quality of their broadband patch network – as measured in network speeds – varies from 2Mb/s to 80 Mb/s. The quality is a matter of the luck of the draw, depending on where you live and what the quality of that ageing network is. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link and the copper and coax parts are the weakest links in the broadband network. These parts would severely hamper the future-proofing of the network, and they will eventually have to be replaced in any case.

While copper and coax can be used in a transitional situation, such a transition needs to be part of the more future-proof plan, which will stipulate what the situation will be when the time comes for the copper and coax elements to be replaced.

Thinking beyond copper

For that reason most countries have abandoned FttN as a ‘final solution plan’ and have replaced it with a long-term all-fibre strategy. What has been missing so far from the Opposition is a plan beyond copper. At face value at least their FttN plan is presented as their end solution.

Obviously, for the reasons mentioned above, such a plan – or rather the lack of it –  is unacceptable for the national services and applications in healthcare, education, etc that could be delivered over a proper broadband network.

It is essential, before technical decisions are made regarding the various technologies that can be used in infrastructure, to first establish what it is needed for. Only once that is established the technology around it can be designed. By all means take into account what is available now and how that can be used within such an overall plan; but making any technical decisions – especially decisions about infrastructure that requires long-term planning – without even knowing what it is needed for is reckless future planning indeed. 

Paul Budde is the managing director of BuddeComm, an independent telecommunications research and consultancy company, which includes 45 national and international researchers in 15 countries.

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