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Why the NBN is already past its use by date

Has the NBN rolled past your door yet? And if it has, are you confused about Fibre to the Node or Fibre to the Premises or why Australia is even sending data through its old copper telephone wires and cable TV connections? Or does that even matter? Experts say compared to the rest of the world, the NBN is slow and already out of date.

Under the current NBN plan, different suburbs in different cities and towns are being delivered different maximum internet speeds. And getting maximum speed (close to 100 megabites per second) comes at a much higher cost. Slower NBN plans cost less but deliver speeds comparable to the former ADSL2 and broadband services. Confused? Comparison site Finder says there are more than 1500 NBN plans nationwide, coming from more than 30 individual providers.

Former prime minister Kevin Rudd launched the NBN in 2009 calling it the largest public works program in Australian history. But the NBN has become a political plaything and fallen victim to changing governments and finger-pointing from all corners of politics.

'It is hard to claim NBN is future-proofing Australian internet speeds.'

Dr. Longxiang Gao,
Deakin University

Take Mr Rudd’s comments from an October interview with the ABC’s 7.30 Report, where he slammed former prime minister Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull after the current PM labelled Rudd’s NBN a ‘white elephant’. Here’s his response blaming the Coalition government for changing horses midstream, unreliable bandwidth and poor speed on the ground:

‘What we launched as the National Broadband Network was fibre optic to the premises nationwide … So what did Abbott and Turnbull then do? They turned it on its head and made it fibre optic not to the premises but to the node: that mystical point somewhere in the neighbourhood. So, in other words, they changed the model completely.’

Deakin University lecturer in computer networks Dr Longxiang Gao says the NBN is currently struggling with rollout and deployment delays that translates to ‘user[s] having a low willingness to use high-end service because of expensive charges.’

‘It is hard to claim NBN is future-proofing Australian internet speeds,’ he says.

Here, Dr Gao conducts a ‘stocktake’ on the NBN, explaining what you need to know, how it compares across the world and providing his verdict on where it will deliver on the promises of Labor or the Turnbull Coalition that inherited and changed the NBN.

How future-proof is the NBN? Can it be upgraded to meet future needs?

Whether the NBN is a short-term solution dressed up as a long-term response to society and business’ needs for the fastest internet speeds possible is a judgement based on your opinion of the technology.

As Dr Gao explains, the current NBN is based on Fibre to The Node (FTTN), which is an old technology. Other countries that have installed to the node or a similar system are now replacing it with what is called Fibre to The Premises (FTTP). The Rudd-Labor original NBN plan was based on the Fibre to the Premises technology. Following cost blow-outs and a change of government this was changed to FTTN.

FTTN runs high-speed fibre optics to boxes on a street corner before delivering internet to the home via copper, and was always going to be a short-term fix, Dr Gao argues. The performance of FTTN is really dependent on the location, or put simply, how close a home or business is to the boxes and has a very slow upload speed.

‘There is huge uncertainty beyond the next decade, with the rapid growing digital economy and the coming era of big data. The investment in FTTN would be largely wasted when the inevitable upgrade to FTTP is required.

Are current NBN speeds already out of date?

The first Australian houses and businesses were plugged into the NBN in October 2014. But since then the statistics haven’t lied about the network’s speed – whichever way you come at them.

Theoretically, NBN can support download speeds up to 100Mbps but practically, only 13 per cent of NBN customers have signed up to this more expensive high-end speed. Most Australians who use the NBN have instead signed up with affordable 25Mbps, which is lower than the world average speed.

According to the recent Speedtest Global Index, the world average download speed is 40.11Mbps. Singapore has the highest download speed at 153.85Mbps, while Australia is only 26.21Mbps ranked at 53rd.

Dr Gao’s opinion on Australia’s internet speed is plain: ‘The current NBN speed is already out of date.’

How does the NBN compare internationally in terms of value, potential for upgrade and speed?

What do Latvia, Malta, Moldova, Estonia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bermuda, Czech Republic, Trinidad and Tobago, Kazakhstan and Belarus all have in common? Yep, they all ranked higher than Australia on the recent Speedtest Global Index. Even New Zealand, which slipped two places in the rankings is still in the top 20 with a download speed of 63.8 Mbps, easily twice the speed of Australia.

It’s therefore unsurprising that Dr Gao describes the competitiveness of the NBN as quite low on a global scale.

‘Australia lags behind,’ he says. And not just on speed and technology, but also on cost. According to Numbeo, Australian internet plans with a speed of more than 60 Mbps, rank as the 7th most expensive in the world. Cheaper than Qatar and South Africa but more expensive than Norway and Canada.

What are the biggest limitations to the NBN?

Speed is the single largest factor limiting the success of the NBN according to Dr Gao. The simple design of an NBN system connected via the ageing copper wire network through a FTTN system means it is not able to achieve the current top download speed of 100Mbps for many customers.

Recently the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has begun ordering consumers be compensated by telecommunications companies for falsely promising higher download speeds than are possible. More than 40,000 Telstra customers and more than 8,000 Optus customers have been promised compensation.

Speaking about the compensation directive to Optus, the ACCC’s chairman Rod Sims said ‘worryingly’ many affected Optus FTTN customers could not even receive the maximum speed of a lower-tiered plan.

‘This is a concerning trend we have seen throughout the industry and we are working to fix this,’ he said.

While not excusing the conduct of any companies if they acted outside of the law or made false promises, Dr Gao says authorities are in an awkward position as it is very hard to achieve the top download speed of 100Mbps due to the network’s infrastructure.

Interested in the technology behind the internet and how people connect? Consider studying information technology at Deakin.

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Dr Longxiang Gao
Dr Longxiang Gao

Lecturer in Computer Networks, School of Information Technology, Deakin University

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