The Coalition government’s vision to provide Australians with a second-rate broadband network provides NBN Co’s engineers with an interesting challenge. Is it possible to overcome the network's limitations?
A challenge of this kind cannot be undertaken without some consideration of external factors that might impact on possible outcomes and we need to remember that a lot can happen between now and the time when the new fixed broadband network is completed. The National Broadband Network’s (NBN) transition to a multi-technology mix (MTM) has been the focus for NBN Co this year and for now there is no way back to the all-fibre dream of the previous government.
The MTM NBN is not the revolutionary step to an all-fibre network that Australia will need by the end of this decade to be an active participant in the global digital economy. Initially, as with all new networks, consumers will be relieved to have something better than they had before, but this euphoria will quickly fade as more people jump on board causing congestion and reduced performance. The driving force behind our future digital economy is small to medium enterprises (SME) and we should expect that SMEs will be desperate for something better long before the end of the decade.
Don’t look back
NBN Co’s recent announcement of the rollout plan up to June 2016 has been promoted as a major step forward by NBN Co’s chief executive Bill Morrow. The plan to add an extra 1.9 million premises within 400 towns and cities to the NBN is positive at a time when NBN Co’s progress can only be described as glacial.
Morrow has been given the unenviable task of selling the world’s largest lemon to Australians and appears to be spruiking the line that Australian’s don’t care that they’re being provided with a network that will see Australia fall further behind our competitors in the global digital economy. As a political appointee Morrow is sticking to the script.
The communications minister Malcolm Turnbull has been very careful to keep the lid on the telecommunications portfolio and careful media management has been a signature of Turnbull’s time as minister.
However, at some point in 2015 the government is likely to introduce into Parliament changes to the NBN-related legislation and we should anticipate the government pushing the line that the MTM NBN is now a fait accompli so there is no point opposing the legislation.
But NBN Co’s decision to introduce the MTM NBN into Tasmania could see Senator Jacqui Lambie taking a very negative view of the Coalition’s NBN plan to provide Australians with an expensive broadband network that will have the distinction of needing to be replaced before the rollout is finished.
And what happens if there is a change in government in 2016 or 2019? At the very least about 1.9 million premises will be connected to the MTM NBN by the next election and if there is no change in government in 2016 we should expect NBN Co to be well underway with the rollout by 2019.
The MTM NBN will utilise a range of technologies including:
Satellite coverage for about three per cent of Australians with a connection speed of up to 12/1 Mbps.
Fixed Wireless coverage for about four to seven per cent of Australians with a connection speed of up to 25/5 Mbps by 2016 and possibly up to 100/40 by 2020 with technology upgrades.
Fibre to the Premises (FTTP) coverage for about twenty per cent of Australians with a connection speed of up to 1000/400 Mbps.
Hybrid-Fibre Coax for about 15 per cent of Australians with a connection speed of up to 100/8 Mbps and if a DOCSIS 3.1 upgrade occurs at the end of the decade then HFC may provide a connection speed of up to 1000/400 Mbps by about 2025.
Fibre to the Node / Fibre to the Basement / Fibre to the Distribution Point coverage for about 55 per cent of Australians with a planned connection speed of up to 100/40 Mbps by about 2020 however this may change if a decision later this decade is made to utilise new technologies such as G.Fast, which may provide a connection speed of up to 1000/400 Mbps over about 80 meters of copper. Prior to the last election the government committed to at least 25/5 Mbps for all premises by the end of 2016 and 50/x Mbps for 90 per cent of fixed line premises as soon as possible.
Monetising the NBN
The most significant challenge for NBN Co is to monetise the NBN and there is more involved in this activity than rolling out a network and waiting for customers to connect. Growing revenue by offering flexible new, innovative and updated products should be a key focus for NBN Co in the years ahead.
NBN Co has confirmed that it is in discussion with Australian airlines to use its satellites to provide in-flight Internet access for airline passengers. The opportunity for NBN Co to grow revenue with this product will face competition from mobile cellular operators that might introduce a “high-speed 4G LTE-based in-flight connectivity service for airlines”.
Another key feature of the NBN that should provide many opportunities is the growing fibre network stretching into every corner of the nation. As the NBN is rolled out about 90 per cent of premises should be within 800 meters of fibre and what this means is that NBN Co can utilise a range of wireless technologies to provide connections to premises and anything that moves including trains, vehicles, boats, and planes.
Wireless is likely to become the dominant technology used to connect billions of embedded computing devices to the Internet in what has become known as the Internet of Things. NBN Co’s fibre network should be utilised to provide wireless products that will facilitate rapid growth of the Internet of Things in Australia and at the same time provide a revenue stream that will grow over the next decade.
NBN Co’s fibre network is now being used by the mobile cellular operators to grow their networks and the opportunity exists for NBN Co to offer new mobile cellular operators with the infrastructure needed to quickly rollout out a network around the nation or within a particular area. TPG bought mobile cellular spectrum in the 2013 Digital Dividend auction and a new mobile spectrum auction may occur as a result of the government’s current spectrum review that could recommend that FM radio spectrum be reallocated and the digital television spectrum be pared back. If TPG were to pick up more spectrum then it is possible that TPG might decide to enter the mobile cellular market either nationally or within urban areas.
Rollout of large public and private Wi-Fi networks is finally occurring after many years of stagnation in Australia. NBN Co should be a major provider of Wi-Fi infrastructure and products that can be shared amongst service providers including mobile cellular operators. As Long Term Evolution-Advanced mobile cellular is rolled out later this decade seamless handover between Wi-Fi and mobile cellular will become possible permitting mobile cellular operators to offload data onto Wi-Fi networks.
Telstra Wi-Fi utilising existing payphone infrastructure is an example of how Wi-Fi can be quickly rolled out around Australia and the challenge for NBN Co is to move quickly to offer Wi-Fi products to retail service providers and other mobile cellular operators so that Wi-Fi infrastructure duplication is minimised and NBN Co captures what will be a growing market.
NBN Co has the opportunity to offer high-speed microwave links to business to supplement existing links or for new connections. Microwave is an often forgotten technology that provides considerable flexibility especially in challenging terrain.
Bonding - putting it all together
There comes a time in every networks lifetime when consumers demand more than the network can provide. For example back in the days of dial-up internet connections intrepid users having exhausted the capacity of their dial-up connections learnt that it was possible to utilise the second telephone line provided to most premises to obtain a second dial-up connection and that by connecting both dial-up connections to a personal computer they could load balance traffic across both dial-up connections.
This early example of connection bonding at a time when dial-up was no longer meeting expectations is being duplicated today by high-end Internet users that have two bonded ADSL2 connections, again using the two copper pair going to most premises. The two ADSL2 connections might go to the one retail service provider or to different service providers to provide a degree of redundancy.
SME internet connections that utilise bonded connections are quite common today and many organisations utilise ADSL2 as a primary connection and mobile cellular as a backup connection in case the ADSL2 connection fails.
The challenge for NBN Co engineers is to develop low cost bonded connection products that might incorporate fibre, one or two FTTN or HFC connections, Wi-Fi from the nearest node, mobile cellular or fixed wireless from the nearest NBN Co tower, satellite, microwave and so on.
Not only will a bonded connection solution provide consumers with redundancy when fixed and wireless or mobile cellular connections are bonded but it will also provide consumers with increased connection speed and capacity.
There has been considerable criticism of the MTM NBN and much of this criticism has centred on the low connection speeds and high congestion of FTTN networks found around the world when compared with the all-fibre networks being rolled out by nearly all of Australia’s key competitors. Connection bonding can reduce the effect of Australia’s decision to build yesterday’s network.
NBN Co should consider products that offer bonded connections to the NBN as this will provide consumers with an upgrade path when FTTN or HFC no longer meets consumer expectations and provide SMEs with additional Internet connection capacity and connection reliability through redundant connections.
For NBN Co to take advantage of the revenue and customer satisfaction opportunities provided by connection bonding there would need to be a focus within NBN Co on rapidly expanding into wireless products including Wi-Fi, mobile cellular and microwave to supplement the fixed wireless capability. NBN Co has every opportunity to monetise demand for flexible new, innovative and updated products and Australia will benefit if NBN Co moves quickly.