Why the BT model won't work for the NBN

Malcolm Turnbull may be keen to take some pointers from British Telecom, but the UK experience provides an unconvincing alternative for Australian broadband.

The Coalition has provided further insights into its plan for the future of the NBN if it wins the election in 2013.

According to the shadow minister for communications, Malcolm Turnbull: "If you want to look at an example, British Telecom offers… 76Mb/s down, and.19Mb/s up… That’s the same approach that AT&T took in the US… and it’s a proven one."

In a separate article I analysed the situation in relation to AT&T. In this one I'll look at the situation in relation to BT.

Together with our British colleagues, budde.com conducted a study on the broadband situation in the UK. Our report shows that because of the lack of vision and clear strategies, compounded by unclear targets, there has been little progress on whatever plans there are. The future looks more like a stop-start one, with different views from the government, the House of Lords, the EC, BT, Ofcom and the competition. This is not a good start for the launch a national plan. Australia had simliar bickering between 1997 and 2007 and we shouldn’t return to that situation.

This puts into question whatever good elements there are in these British plans. It is easy to come up with all sorts of plans, targets and technological solutions, as Australia did in over 20 submissions to the Liberal government at that time. As was also the case of the situation in Australia at that time, the value of the current UK broadband discussions are very limited as there is no vision, no clear strategy and no cost benefit study attached to them. This is the key reason why the British plans are in disarray, without any clear views on how to progress to come even close to the outcomes which the Australian Opposition is claiming that they will produce.

Similar to the AT&T example, what is happening in the UK provides an unconvincing alternative for the Opposition’s plans for Australia’s broadband. Much to the contrary, these two examples provide evidence of a serious lack of cohesive national policies, regulatory difficulties, inadequate broadband delivery and undeliverable targets. True, they are cheaper but that is what you get for your money. It would be a significant step backwards if Australia were to adopt the AT&T or BT model.

What our report shows is that to follow the BT example is worrying on a number of fronts. It would condemn Australia to the same outdated physical infrastructure which the UK is to be lumbered with. It would inhibit the ability of people to utilise the full potential of fibre-based networks, restrict business opportunities and drive talent and commerce to countries which have adopted FttH as part of an infrastructural investment to last for decades.

The UK’s flawed NBN program lacks vision: it is short-term, and by being largely dependent on the commercial deployment of a single telco it has been hampered from the start. Since there is no long-term vision, the government has opted to build a cheaper network without focussing on the broadband needs of the digital economy, e-health, smart grids, e-education, e-government, M2M and so on.

The program fails in the following key areas:

– It relies on an inappropriate regulatory regime which risks recreating a private monopoly provider in much of the country;

– It will leave large areas of the country with only the most basic service, which will retard consumer use of all but low-end services;

– The dependence on last century’s copper network dramatically reduces available data rates, resulting in only a small fraction of premises being able to access anything close to the advertised maximum 76Mb/s;

– There has been no ‘cost benefit’ study, something the Coalition has been so adamant about. To use the Opposition’s own words, without such a study no government investment should be made.

In the Australian market, FttN poses considerably greater burdens, and additional costs, given the need to deploy a far greater number of nodes to serve customers (70,000 ). Furthermore, because of the long distances required to be covered in Australia, and the lower population density at the time when the copper network was deployed (in the 1960s and 1970s) the overall quality of this network is worse than the one operated by BT.

When KPN in the Netherlands began building out FttN it found that the network was not as cheap as originally envisaged. It may look like you are bringing fibre in a 1:100 split, so you could potentially save a great deal of money. However, the company discovered that it had to go all the way through residential streets to get to the concentration points. They often passed 70 per cent of homes on a route. These homes could have been provided with a fibre drop at the gate or even the home at marginal cost. FttN is always perceived as dropping at the curb at one end of the street, but the actual aggregation point may be half way down the street, and fibre fans out from there.

It is no wonder that KPN early on stopped most of its FttN rollout in favour of deploying FttH.

Limited objectives

Another fundamental reason why Australia should avoid emulating the UK is that the latter’s broadband strategy is unambitious. It aims to deliver a base-level universal service complemented by broadband at up to 24Mb/s to 90 per cent of the population. It is to be achieved by following the coat-tails of BT’s own FttN build. This is poor policy making, for rather than being guided by its own assessment of the long-term socio-economic benefits to be derived from the country’s broadband infrastructure, the government is limiting itself to the commercial priorities of a single telco. Firstly, BT is concerned with its shareholders rather than the UK’s broadband requirements at large. Secondly, the company is sure that its shareholders will baulk at the cost of a large-scale FttH rollout, and so trumpets that cheaper FttN will be sufficient for its customers. This is understandable, since the company will be unable to monetise the national social and economic benefits of an FttH network: only a government – representing the whole nation – can monetise these benefits.

FttN may make sense in a copper-only environment, but the prime reason it makes sense is from the perspective of an investor who wants to slow down capex for a few years. Also, by relying on copper for the last mile, FttN will rapidly run out of capacity. Furthermore, FttN adds an extra contention point and queue, reducing the performance of applications sensitive to loss and latency.

FttN is well suited for a vertically integrated copper-based vertically integrated telco/monopolist, but it does not make sense in an open network environment such as is in place in Australia.

The UK government’s own financial contribution is derisory for the scale of work intended. It aims to invest only £830 million directly to finance infrastructure in large areas of the country where BT will not venture, with additional top-up funds bringing the total to about £1.3 billion. This is not a costing model to admire: national infrastructure requires proper commitment, with the expectation of rewards for the nation far into the future.

Regulatory measures in place in the UK also risk recreating in the fibre age the same monopoly which BT for long enjoyed in the copper age. Rather than an open-access fibre network, their broadband plan, through restrictions placed on processes such as virtual loop unbundling and access to poles and ducts, favours BT over all other operators. It also prevents ISPs from having a free hand in offering services to customers. These are restrictions which consumers in all markets, not least Australia, should be concerned about.

This fact alone – the enormous regulatory differences between Australia and the UK – makes it even more unacceptable to use the UK and BT as an example for Australia to emulate. The new market structure in Australia requires a totally new way of thinking: burdening this innovative new approach with an outdated infrastructure technology based on vertically integrated telco models simply does not make sense.

No plan, and a lack of long-term vision

The assessment of the House of Lords in a recent Select Committee report is that the UK government is unrealistically promising that the country will have the best broadband connectivity in Europe, when it is certain that nothing of the kind is possible under the current arrangement. Many other countries in the region are busy furnishing their citizens with 100Mb/s broadband scaleable to 1Gb/s. These countries rightfully view broadband as a key infrastructure asset for which they are making long-term investments.

If the Opposition wants good examples of future proof (FttH) broadband plans it should look for examples in the Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands, France and even Estonia and Slovenia. Or, closer to home, countries such as Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore.

The UK has no plausible post-2015 plan to enable it to catch up, and so it risks remaining a third-tier internet economy with a broadening gap between the social and business potential of its own limited infrastructure and that of its commercial competitors.

Part of the difficulty is that neither BT, which has a vested interest in extracting capacity from copper, nor Ofcom, which lacks vision and the willingness to show leadership, appreciate the increase in consumer demand in coming years.

This has been a common phenomenon, but from about 2005 some of the more progressive countries saw the writing on the wall, and they are now the global leaders in fibre networks. Annual growth in data use tells us what has happened in the past, but consumer demand from both the fixed-line and mobile sectors is moving so rapidly that it is impractical to estimate demand, and thus the strain on infrastructure, beyond the next few years.

The key, then, it to prepare national infrastructure for what cannot be anticipated, in the knowledge – from past and current experience – that it is preferable to have a capable network in the first instance than an inadequate one which entails additional cost, patches and delays as that network comes under increasing strain.