Jumping on the band(width) wagon
The change in government means a fundamental shift in attitude to broadband. You would be probably a political neophyte for this to have passed you by. On the one hand, we have a Labor policy that sees symmetrical high bandwidth coming to each home, while on the other, we have the Coalition’s asymmetrical lower bandwidth being delivered to each home.
Symmetrical bandwidth means approximately equal upload and download data rates, while asymmetrical would see much lower upload data rates than download data rates.
Why is this important, and why should we bother to debate it? We need to start with the fundamentals of what this bandwidth does for us.
It’s all about how we move information. Before the age of electronic communications we moved information by moving a physical object. This may have been a person who relayed the information, or perhaps a letter with the information encoded onto it. Electronics enables us to move information without needing a physical carrier. This is perhaps the most profound change of our age.
It all started with the era of the telephone. Since then, the history has been one of a swinging pendulum, or changing bandwidths. Early systems were low bandwidth; individual to individual. These were exemplified by the telephone and the telegraph where the rate of information flow was symmetrical back and forth between the users.
Next was the broadcasting era. This was characterised by information flow from a server to many individuals. There was no return link from the individuals back to the server, and hence zero upload bandwidth. User equipment was simple; it had no computing power, and could be mass produced. Users simply accepted what information was delivered to them.
This was followed by the internet era. It was enabled by freely available computing power for the individual. This allowed the individual to communicate back to the server.
The Internet is a misnomer that relentlessly cascades through our politics. It is actually a set of services that is enabled by a communications infrastructure and the computing power available freely to us. It is not that communications infrastructure itself, although it is often thought of as such in our political discourse.
That infrastructure is characterised by high bandwidth delivering content to the individual and low bandwidth delivering requests for that content from the individual to the server. These services are largely a kind of interactive broadcasting.
The next era will be that of rich interactivity. The pendulum is rapidly swinging back to more symmetrical information flow. It is moving away from the broadcasting paradigm to one where individual users will deliver as much content as they receive. The post-internet era is rapidly approaching.
What does all this have to do with a change of government? In essence, the symmetrical bandwidth NBN of the previous government addresses the post-internet era, while the fibre-to-the-node solution of the current government only addresses the current internet era. The new government has shown little evidence that it understands this distinction.
Having said this, it’s my feeling that what eventually transpires will not be quite so black and white. In the long term, I believe the reality that fibre-to-the-home is the best and cheapest solution, will enter the thinking of the Coalition Government. If only they will find the political courage to admit it.
Just as building a fibre-to-the-premises solution has proven to be challenging, so too will making a fibre-to-the-node solution work. For example, it has been estimated there will be 60 000 or more ‘nodes’ scattered around our streets and suburbs. Each of these will have active and complex electronic devices in them, drawing power. These devices would need maintenance and care.
Tongue-in-cheek, we may need to build a new power station just to power these devices. On the other hand, a fibre-to-the-premises solution would only use passive electronic devices in its hubs and switches requiring no additional power and minimal maintenance.
Already it seems the Coalition is ‘changing its tune’ on the NBN. In a recent statement the Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull indicated the rollout of fibre-to-the-premises will continue until a review of the NBN is completed. Informed opinion would suggest that such a review will be negative about how NBN Co has operated, as opposed to what NBN Co is building. No doubt there will be some ‘tinkering’ on what is actually rolled out. Perhaps some changes to the number and use of the ports in the premises, with very inexpensive upgrade paths in the future.
In another ‘softening’ Turnbull said, ‘‘For example, this will allow NBN Co to trial the latest VDSL technology to deliver superfast broadband to homes and businesses in multi-dwelling units, such as apartment and office blocks’’. This is certainly a more appropriate use of VDSL, or very high bit-rate digital subscriber line, than applying it to weather-exposed copper access systems in the street. However, it is still not symmetrical bandwidth.
It seems clear to me that we will ultimately get fibre-to-the-premises. However, the political dust needs to settle and the Coalition needs to find a way to backtrack on some of its rhetoric without losing political face. This cannot come soon enough, as many countries around the world are ahead of us, and still more are snapping at our heels.