The NBN Debate Will Never Be Over

The NBN Debate Will Never Be Over

Opinion: “Let’s quit fussing around.” The chief executive of the National Broadband Network company hopes that we are “past that” annoying war over fibre to the node versus fibre to the premises, and that we can all as a nation just concentrate on getting everybody connected to the NBN. But it’s not that easy.

NBN / shouting images via Shutterstock

The magic number is 7.7. That’s the net promoter score that NBN says shows FTTN customers are equally as happy and as likely to recommend their services to friends as FTTP customers are. And, if satisfaction is the key metric you’re concentrating on (and it’s not a terrible metric, when you’re talking about the majority of the Australian public who just want to watch YouTube and read NineMSN or the Daily Tele website), then FTTP and FTTN are equal — and one costs significantly less.

That argument, though, is not a technological one. The technological argument of FTTN’s importance — it’s rolling out faster, and it’s fast enough for Australians in 2016 — is another key line of reasoning in NBN CEO Bill Morrow’s call for an end to the broadband wars, as reported by the AFR. When you have a goal of connecting a nation to the Internet, doing the job more quickly is a great goal, but feels shortsighted when you’re using parts of the network that already exist and just re-branding them with a fancy logo.

[related title=”The National Broadband Network” tag=”fttp” items=”8″]

Morrow: “[MTM] does it faster, it does it cheaper. Yeah, there is a bit more pain in the neck maintenance with it, and if we ultimately need to get fibre closer to everybody’s house we will need to go back and retrofit again … but the logic here is that you don’t spend what you don’t need to. Consumers right now just aren’t willing to pay for anything more than 25 Mbps, so why would we build it with fibre today?”

This isn’t a reasonable conclusion to the debate, though. We’ve had a taste of fibre as a nation, and the most technologically savvy and politically outspoken citizens of the internet are pushing hard for a return to the pre-MTM days. If you believe Morrow, consumers aren’t willing to pay for anything they don’t need right now, but that was the entire point of the National Broadband Network — future-proofing Australia’s communications in as many locations as possible, building a world-class network that wouldn’t need constant upgrading and maintenance. (That copper network, in the future, will cost millions to fix.)

We’re seeing early reports from residents that congestion on FTTN nodes is cutting speeds massively during busy periods — from a real-world 85/35Mbps with 12ms latency (on a 100/40Mbps plan) in off-peak times to 3.5/5.5Mbps with 130ms latency during peaks. That’s 13 times slower during busy times. And, yes, this way well be a problem at the retail service provider (RSP) end rather than with the backhaul from node to exchange, but it’s a poor reflection on the network itself — no matter whose problem it is.

NBN itself doesn’t see FTTN as the be-all and end-all for its MTM network, for what it’s worth. It is investigating fibre to the distribution point, commonly known as fibre to the curb — as a middle point between full-cream FTTP and skim FTTN. It’s investigating DOCSIS 3.1 for the cable network. It is readying the Sky Muster satellite for service, and further developing fixed wireless to connect rural customers over 4G. These are important developments, and are technologically advanced, but it’s the debate over Australia’s already-served-by-ADSL streets in cities and towns — areas already with decent internet — that the FTTN versus FTTP debate is focused on.

FTTN gets more people connected to the NBN faster, sure — that’s laudable. But FTTP does the job once and for all, without worrying about the future. And when copper, the last mile of FTTN, is being re-rolled around the country, and it’s government policy that Telstra says is forcing it to do so, spectators look on with incredulity — when fibre has been used in the past for almost exactly the same installations, and is genuinely future-proof where copper is not, they are right to be annoyed and upset on behalf of those customers who will be stuck on an older technology and disadvantaged, comparatively, in the future.

That is the reason that so many FTTP zealots still exist; the ghost of the fibre to the premises network — partially built, not abandoned but scaled back massively — with its consistent per-user performance with no widespread report of peak-time slowdowns, with its unbeatably low latency, with its reassuring network construction of a fibre-optic cable all the way to your doorstep, is always going to be part of the debate. Even if it’s not as easy a discussion in the NBN corporate boardroom right now.