Broadband battle

Which NBN plan will result in consumers getting the best network?
 
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01 .Competing plans

NBN-update-lead

Constructing a national broadband network (NBN) is a nationbuilding project on the scale of freeways and railway. Like most grand schemes, it requires vision and promises benefits to consumers into the future. 

Anthony Albanese is now the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy. His department told CHOICE that the Rudd Labor government sees the national broadband network as essential infrastructure, like electricity and water.

It's clear that the NBN is one of the election battlegrounds and voters are faced with a choice between two different plans:

  • The federal government is building a fibre-to-the-premises network for most premises around the country.
  • The Opposition plans to build the network with fibre-to-street nodes and then connect to the phone network for the last section for most connections. Users who want fibre to their premises will have to pay for the fibre connection and that could run into thousands of dollars.

While both sides of politics agree the network is needed, the scope, timing and cost of their respective plans are different. 

There's also been criticism of both plans. The NBN rollout has been criticised for delays and the use of contractors. Yet others say those who benefit from maintaining the copper network and supplying ADSL technology present obstacles to a complete fibre rollout.

Snapshot of the current NBN

The federal government has been building a broadband network using fibre for the majority of premises around the country, and fixed wireless or satellite for the rest.

  • The NBN is being built by NBN Co, a government enterprise like Australia Post.
  • You won’t need to pay phone line rental on the NBN with some providers.
  • The NBN Co has fixed wholesale prices until 2017.
  • Internet providers such as Telstra, Optus and iiNet will sell plans with different connection speeds and data allowance.
  • To compare plans, see nbncompared.com.au.
  • It may be some years before you can get the NBN, depending on where you live. Find out when it will reach your street on the rollout map at the NBN website.
  • A connection box will be installed on the outside of your house for free.
  • There were 48,600 users as of the end of March 2013.
  • Internet speed, reliability and e-services will benefit from the NBN.
  • The government’s NBN website nbnco.com.au has more details.
  • The ACCAN's NBN consumer guides can help answer any further questions.

The two NBN plans at a glance

Labor

Fibre to the premises (FTTP)

  • Network cost: $43bn
  • Timeline for completion: 2021
  • Speed (download/upload): from 12Mbps/1Mbps up to 1Gbps both ways

Coalition

Fibre to the node (FTTN)

  • Network cost: $29.5bn
  • Timeline for completion: late 2019
  • Download speed: 25-100Mbps/No upload speed provided publicly  

Compare the speeds of the FTTP and FTTN networks at howfastisthenbn.com.au and howfastisthenbnreally.com.au.

 
 

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The competing Labor and Coalition NBN plans are based on the same technology – fibre cables to deliver the internet – but there are significant differences between the scope of the networks.

Labor

In technical terms, Labor has a more ambitious plan to run fibre cable all the way to the home or premises (FTTP); it will cover 93% of dwellings in more than 1000 towns and cities across the country. It is already building satellite and fixed wireless connections for remote areas. 

Anyone living in a rural area will know that fast, affordable broadband has been a long time coming, whereas city dwellers already have relatively fast broadband in most areas. The NBN currently being built will help rural consumers catch up with the services and convenience of broadband.  

Tony Windsor, the independent member for the federal seat of New England in northern NSW, has been a supporter of the NBN because of the benefits he says it can bring to rural and regional Australia.  

“It could be a paradigm change for people in rural areas,” he argues. “It can negate the issue of distance and scale of providing internet services for people living in the country. It can bring the benefits of cost effectiveness of doing business in the country with the lifestyle benefit of rural areas.”  

Coalition

By contrast, the Coalition’s plan is to run fibre to a node (FTTN), or street box, in most areas, while continuing to use the copper phone line (as is done now with ADSL) or pay TV hybrid fibre-coaxial cables to connect the internet to the house. It will continue with the satellite and fixed wireless plan for remote areas.  A second stage, at some future time, would see fibre extended to the premises eventually.

Malcolm Turnbull, the Coalition's communications spokesperson, claims “the important thing about the Coalition’s policy is that we have not mandated one single technology and are committed to investing as efficiently as possible to maximise benefit to end users of the network.”  

The maximum speed over the network will be lower under this plan. It promises a minimum download speed of 25Mbps by 2016 in all areas of the country, and 50Mbps by 2019 for 90% of wired connections.

It’s planning to use “vectoring” - which can potentially minimise interference between signals on different pairs of wire in the cables that run from the phone exchange to households - to improve speed over the phone wires. However, the plan makes no mention of upload speed, and the Coalition hasn’t said whether upload speeds will increase.

Under the Coalition plan, individuals who want to connect fibre to their premises from the node would need to pay for that connection themselves. The cost has been estimated at several thousand dollars, but it would depend on the distance and physical environment.

CHOICE verdict

Every day there are more reasons to use the internet, and this is driving our need for a fast, reliable country-wide broadband network. In the future, more critical services will be accessed online, and equity demands that all households be capable of connecting to a reliable, fast network at the same time. This can only be achieved with a complete fibre network.

A partial fibre network that relies on copper wires severely limits speed and capacity and leaves the network unfinished and reliant on ageing technology. Fibre that runs to a node requires a large number of powered boxes that will feature prominently on the streetscape. It will also mean that money must be spent on maintaining the phone lines, and eventually running fibre the last distance and replacing street-level node boxes.

A complete fibre network is technically superior and will be able to handle data demands - which will soon move beyond a zettabyte a year globally. It will foster innovation and underpin critical e-services, which are needed to manage growing expenditures such as health.

Choice spoke to politicians and experts to get their take on the competing visions for our national broadband network. There's general consensus that we need a fast, reliable broadband network that will outlive the copper network and take us into the future.

Technical experts agree that a complete fibre network is technically superior and is the best way to create a network that will foster innovation and new e-services well into the future. 

NBN_Headshots_Anthony-Albanese Department of broadband, communications and the digital economy 

"Labor’s NBN is a world-class communications system, which will serve Australia’s broadband needs now and into the future. Australians will have a clear choice at the next election – fibre under Labor, copper under the Coalition."


NBN_Headshot_Malcolm-Turnbull

Malcolm Turnbull MP, Shadow Minister for Communications and Broadband 

“Our plan will ensure people are able to access better broadband sooner and much more affordably. It is prudent to invest money today where it will be most productive – and, if upgrades are needed in 10 or 20 years’ time, to utilise the advances in technology to ensure investment is most efficient.” 


NBN_Headshot_Scott-LudlumSenator Scott Ludlam, Greens spokesperson for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy 

“Labor’s proposal is vastly superior to the Opposition’s part privatised patchwork, which will require the installation of up to 80,000 powered cabinets and entrench a two-tier telecommunications network.” 


NBN_Headshot_Tony-Windsor

Tony Windsor, Member for New England 

“I think it’s the most defining piece of infrastructure we’ll see this century. It is an economic booster and cost arguments are ludicrous when you consider potential savings from e-services and innovation.” 


NBN_Headshot_Paul-BuddePaul Budde, independent telecommunications analyst 

“It’s a vision thing and if your vision is to provide infrastructure for e-health, tele-education and the economic and social benefits of this, you'd have to agree that fibre to the home (FTTP) is the ultimate technology.” 


NBN_Headshot_Mark-GregoryMark Gregory, engineering academic at RMIT and columnist 

“A FTTP network would facilitate innovation, ensure that Australia can compete in the worldwide digital economy and ensure that regional and remote Australia are not left behind.”


Q&A with Mark Gregory, engineering academic at RMIT and columnist

Do we all really need fibre?

Yes. We need increased download speeds, less traffic shaping and far better backhaul capacity in Australia to provide improved quality of service for the applications that we use now and into the future.

How do you measure the cost?

The cost can be projected forward to 2020, 2025 or 2030, because fibre will last well into the future.

How useful is a fibre to the node (FTTN ) network?

The copper infrastructure is at the end of its life, and any FTTN network would require maintenance costs and vectoring technology. The FTTP network has a 100-year lifespan, whereas the copper network was a 50-year system that is already beyond end of life.

Should the FTTP NBN use existing networks to save on cost?

This should only be an interim measure while FTTP is being built. It could utilise fibre networks that go to dwellings, fibre that connects to internal VDSL or ethernet, such as in some of the large apartment and office buildings in major cities.

How long will the copper wires last?

Experts say the copper network is already 10 years past its projected life. It could last decades but the maintenance costs will increase over time. Already, the cost is more than $1 billion per annum.


Fibre is like a freeway for moving the internet quickly and reliably – and a complete fibre network puts almost everyone in the same lane. By contrast, phone lines are like a patchy road built last century. 

Fibre is faster because internet data is sent as pulses of light emitted from a laser along fibre cables, whereas copper wires transmit electrical currents that slow with distance and can suffer interference.

Optical fibres can be bundled together as cable, and carry a signal as light further and with less disruption than copper wire. Current technology means that speeds of 1TB per second is achievable and this could go higher with further developments.

What will it cost?

The cost of plans on the NBN will be about the same as ADSL plans today, and most consumers won’t have to pay for extra phone line rental. Wholesale NBN prices are set by NBN Co and are fixed for five years. The retail prices will be determined by internet providers and include data limits.

Data allowances will be more generous and currently range from 40GB up to 1 terabytes (TB) per month to recognise that people will use more data on the faster, more reliable fibre network.

Is Australia going it alone?

Around the world, Australia is one of a number of countries building a fibre network to the door. 

  • Canada and NZ are also building FTTP.
  • In Asia, Japan, South Korea and Singapore are building FTTP networks. 
  • In Europe, the UK has a FTTN network and is working towards FTTP. France and Germany are building an FTTP network, along with the Scandinavian countries.
  • The Middle East, Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are going FTTP.
  • In the US, Google has built a fibre network, but there is no national FTTP network underway. However, it is estimated their copper network will be retired by 2018.




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