Ready for a NBN referendum

A Coalition win in September will kill any chance of having an affordable fibre to the premises NBN. Are we happy to live with the alternative?

A recent fracas between ABC journalist Nick Ross and the shadow communications minister Malcolm Turnbull has again highlighted the vicious, divisive nature of the public’s perception of the NBN. Ross subsequently wrote a detailed article comparing the differences between Labor’s NBN and the Coalition’s alternative. The resultant commentary on the article has reinforced the fact that the NBN is now primarily a political contest, not a debate.

But are these online slanging matches between industry experts actually of any value? Or do they simply bolster existing prejudices? What’s worse is that while we pontificate on the technical efficacies the Coalition just might get away with pulling a fast one on the general public  

The Coalition may have restrained its tone but let’s not forget that its stated goal was always to demolish the Labor NBN. Turnbull was first charged by Tony Abbott to "destroy the NBN.” There is no evidence that the Coalition won’t do this post-election.The Coalition will not, and cannot, allow any of the major Rudd/Gillard initiatives to succeed. Abbott has irretrievably bound the Coalition for the next decade to the rhetoric "the worst Government ever". The Federal election will be a referendum on this assertion and one of the inevitable consequences of this will be any network but Labor’s NBN.

If the Coalition assumes power at the next election, there will never be an affordable universal optical fibre to the premises (FttP) network. To maintain their partisan position, the Coalition will have to "save" Australia from all that "waste", "inefficiency" and all those "great big new taxes". Stopping the NBN Co deployment fits in nicely with that narrative.

However, what they won’t like to draw any attention to is their track record on minimising waste, which doesn’t engender confidence.

The recent exposure of the lack of a tender process for the JSF, the 60 per cent blow-out in development already, its poor performance and project delays/cost-overruns point to how the Coalition really makes its decisions and how it actually regard budgets.

Committing $35 to $50 billion to a high-risk, questionable outcome project without even a working prototype or finalised design somehow doesn't need a "cost benefit analysis", or even an expert technical analysis. This isn't a theoretical premise but instead a firm, practical demonstration of the Coalition thought process in action. How the Coalition can criticise the NBN project and decision process with a straight face is a magnificent example of political double-speak.

Stuck with an interim solution

Stopping the NBN Co’s full-fibre rollout now and embracing expedient "interim" solutions almost guarantees that we will never have a FttP network.

The interim solutions mantra again sits well with Turnbull’s narrative and the recent emphasis on Hybrid fibre-coaxial (HFC) is a good example of how the Coalition risks leaving the public with a “good enough” solution.

Let's consider the HFC option and a number of arguments against basing a fast broadband service on HFC infrastructure.

Coaxial cable is a shared infrastructure; it doesn't scale past a handful of subscribers. Meanwhile, internet traffic is bi-directional, point-to-point and the networks are designed for unidirectional broadcast. It's the worst fit possible.

The “Shared Everything” model is the worst of all worlds, saddled with complex protocols with poor error recovery. Congestion or fault equipment can lead to zero throughput while maximum speeds are limited and then shared.Shared bus networks are terrible in operation, with a single equipment failure capable of taking out the whole network and like wired-in-series Christmas lights painfully slow (expensive) to diagnose.

Ethernet only took off when 10-base-T - with switches and dedicated twisted-pairs per device, not shared coaxial and bridges - came along. The initial LAN competitor to Ethernet, IBM's Token Ring, also failed because of limited throughput due to single shared resources. The original Ethernet, the "Aloha" radio network around the Hawaiian Islands failed due to signal-noise, congestion and faulty transceiver blocking everyone.

Compared to nothing, cable internet is a terrific option but at scale it's a complex, expensive, failure-prone and power-hungry alternative even when compared to ADSL1.

Turnbull is presumably cognisant of these facts and while the Coalition promises to eventually bring fibre to the areas services by the existing HFC network one wonders how a long a wait it will be for the public.

"Political trumps the technical"

The lack of trust in the Coalition’s promises espoused here may strike some as too cynical or biased but I think the evidence that "the political trumps the technical", especially in Australian Government, is overwhelming and undeniable.

Does Sydney have its second airport? Or a good second Harbour crossing or the Parramatta to North Shore rail link? Every state has its own list of "perennial projects - useful large infrastructure that the public (voters) want that never gets built, despite many political promises over decades and decades.

If Australian voters throw out Labor in the 2013 election, then the NBN Co rollout stops and all momentum for change is lost. Labor won't be able to revisit the idea for decades and the Coalition, as the self-styled "prudent" financial managers, will never justify that it has called "a colossal waste of money". All the arguments put forward now about "we could upgrade to full Fibre later" are technically true, but will never be done due to politicking.

The Coalition argument of "the market will provide" is fatuous and wrong. If the telcos were ever going to roll out a FttP network, they would have started it in the last 25 years.

Whatever network we end up with, we are stuck with for the next 50-100 years. I hope the electorate is fully cognisant of the choice they're making in the 2013 election and the consequences.

This is an edited version of a blog post originally published on February 26. Steve Jenkin has spent 40 years in ICT in wide variety roles including large and small software projects, 7 years writing real-time Exchange software in a Telco and Admin, Software and Database work on PC's Unix/Open Source software and mainframes.

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