Screenshot of the final layout of myNBN.info before it becomes part of finder.com.au

An announcement

Today, I have some very exciting news to share. First, that myNBN.info is now part of the finder.com.au family. And with that, I also step into the role of Publisher for Broadband and Internet TV at finder.com.au.

When I created myNBN almost three years ago now, my objective was to help Australians track the National Broadband Network rollout in their area by making a website that was accessible and easy to understand. Amazingly, over 800,000 Australians have done exactly that using the website.

That’s why I’m very excited about this next phase for myNBN. As many of you may know, last year was a very busy year for me. Not only did I have a full load at university, I also had various websites to manage, freelance jobs to complete, and a part-time job at finder.com.au. Oh, and I possibly also have a personal life :)

By moving the site to finder.com.au, I hope to streamline my own workload, and also allow the site improve, expand and grow by leveraging the skills and expertise of the team at finder.com.au.

I will still continue to be intimately involved with the site as the Publisher for Broadband and Internet TV at finder.com.au. We’ve already planned user experience improvements, while also maintaining the detailed information that myNBN is known for.

There are also plenty more exciting projects ahead in the roadmap to look forward to!

I would like to say a huge thank you to everyone who has supported me on this adventure thus far, especially those who have donated in the website’s early days. It’s been a real pleasure working with everyone!

Kenneth Tsang
(jxeeno)

myNBN is now located at finder.com.au/nbn-tracker

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Fibre networking at an NBN Point of Interconnect

NBN: Dimension-based CVC explained

Price signals to more high capacity plans and less network congestion

The NBN pricing discussion has hit full swing again.  The company responsible for building the National Broadband Network, nbn, has just pushed ahead with its proposed “dimension-based” discount on its controversial “Connectivity Virtual Circuit” (CVC) charge.

CVC is a virtual charge imposed by nbn to service providers in order to bring traffic from the “NBN network” to the service provider network (and vice versa).  This bandwidth is shared amongst all of the users on the same provider’s network aggregated at the 121 NBN points of interconnect.  You can read more about the threat of the CVC charge on nbn’s success here.

The newly introduced dimension-based discount sees greater discounts for service providers who purchase more hand-off capacity between the “NBN network” and the service provider’s network on a per-user basis.

The discounts being implemented will range from $0.50 to up to $6.00 per Mbps of CVC, depending on the average amount of CVC purchased per user.

Band-aid to solving two problems

Congestion

This discount is a very significant signal to service providers.

CVC “skimping” is a known problem for many NBN customers, whose Internet connection can grind to a halt during peak hours due to insufficient CVC bandwidth.  Especially with its widely unpopular Fibre to the Node network, NBN simply cannot afford to have negative perceptions about the performance of its network — whether it is provider-induced or indeed, NBN-induced.

This discount not only encourages ISPs to buy more CVC (reducing skimping and improving performance), it will also encourage ISPs to sell higher-speed or higher-capacity plans.  More on that in a bit.

But first — why will it solve congestion? Simply because in many cases, it is cheaper for providers to purchase more bandwidth (thereby decreasing congestion) than to retain their old per-user allocations.

Take an example service provider who provisions on average anywhere between 583 to 600 Kbps of CVC bandwidth per user.  It becomes cheaper for the provider to purchase more CVC than to use the existing bandwidth allocation:

CVC provisioned per user

CVC rate per Mbps
(with dimension-based discount)

CVC rate per user
(A) x (B)

583 Kbps

$16.25

$9.47
(same as 601 Kbps)

600 Kbps

$16.25

$9.75
(same as 619 Kbps)

601 Kbps

$15.75

$9.47

619 Kbps

$15.75

$9.75

Despite purchasing more CVC (601 to 619 Kbps), the CVC rate per user is either cheaper than or is equal to the old CVC rate thanks to the discounted rate.

Higher capacity / speed plans

This discount also encourages providers to sell more higher value plans.

A provider who exclusively sells low capacity plans will naturally have a lower amount of CVC-per-user provisioned.  This means their CVC discount is less, costing them more on a per Mbps basis than a provider who sells a more diverse set of plans.

In contrast, a provider who sells more high-speed or high-capacity plans will have a greater CVC discount. This allows them to sell all of their plans marginally cheaper than the exclusive low capacity provider, even if they’re allocating the same CVC per user.

Thus, providers who diversify and increase the customer base to have more high usage users will benefit the most from these pricing discounts.

So what’s the target CVC-per-user?

Looking at the price modelling, it’s evident that nbn is targeting around the 1 Mbps and 1.25 Mbps per user mark.  It offers the largest and most generous discounts at the 1150 Kbps mark, shaving a whole $1.42 per user by simply increasing the CVC-per-user by a mere 1 Kbps.

Reverse engineering NBN’s 2016 half-year results by combining ARPU and AVC speed tier breakdowns — we can estimate that the current CVC allocation per user across all providers is around 800 kbps.

Importantly, however, this excludes the initial 150 Mbps of CVC that NBN provides for free to service providers at each point of interconnect.

AVC Tiers (Mbps) Percentage (HY2016) AVC+UNI Cost (ex GST)
12/1

33%

$24

25/5

45%

$27

50/20

6%

$34

100/40

16%

$38

Avg AVC/UNI Revenue per user

$28.19

Price component Revenue per user per month
ARPU (HY2016)

$43.00

Avg AVC/UNI Revenue

-$28.19

Avg CVC/NNI Revenue

$14.81

Estimated Avg CVC^

~835 Kbps

^ excluding initial 150Mbps credit per provider per CSA. Assumes an NNI cost per user to be ~20¢.

Of course, the way that NBN constructs its product means that providers will always want to purchase more CVC. Whether or not they can afford it is another problem.

Going forward, NBN must maintain an open dialog with service providers to ensure that the pricing is adaptable to the bandwidth demands of Australians.  Whether it’s a complete rethink of the pricing structure or continual discounts — this pricing model is vital to the success of the network.

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NBN technician splicing fibre in a van

DOCSIS 3.1 coming to nbn at the end of the year

Company to retrospectively replace end user equipment to enable higher speeds using new cable broadband technology

The company responsible for building the National Broadband Network, nbn, has updated its Integrated Product Roadmap — revealing that it will be upgrading its HFC network termination device (NTD) to the DOCSIS 3.1 standard in the fourth quarter of 2016.

nbn is still yet to officially launch their HFC product, which is still scheduled to launch in June 2016. Last month, the company revealed at a Senate Committee hearing that they still have not signed construction contracts for the HFC rollout and the initial launch will be limited to a pilot area in Redcliffe, Queensland.

Initially, nbn will utilise DOCSIS 3.0 technology to deliver services to end users. Since HFC is a shared medium, traditionally, cable networks have heavy congestion and severely reduced speed during peak hours.

DOCSIS 3.1 promises to increase capacity through increased spectral efficiency, thus easing congestion.

In-flight satellite consultation in June

NBN will also be consulting with its service providers over “a mobility solution” which will include “a wide range of applications” including in-flight Wi-Fi connectivity, emergency services and health and education.

This consultation comes as Qantas announced it will team up with ViaSat to trial in-flight Wi-Fi services by utilising the NBN satellites on select domestic flights.

Detailed analysis of the proposal conducted by jxeeno blog found it would likely have minimal impact to existing satellite congestion due to the short periods of time a plane flies over a particular NBN spot beam.

Enterprise satellite consultation in third quarter

Separately, nbn will also be consulting on the delivery of enterprise services over its satellites. While the roadmap provides no further detail on this consultation — at the last Senate Committee hearing, company executives had alluded potential use of NBN satellites in the defense department or other enterprise applications.

NBN Mobile Backhaul and TV over fibre delayed

Initially slated for launch in the first quarter of 2016, nbn has delayed the launch of the NBN cell access service (mobile backhaul over the NBN) and its inclusion of TV signals over fibre in new developments till May this year.

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Lightning Broadband: what is this shenanigans?

Is this supposedly magical wireless technology really going to supersede the NBN?

Over the recent weeks, a company branded as “Lightning Broadband” has been making waves in Australia.  It’s claiming that for $120 per month, it can deliver an unlimited 100 Mbps connection to residents using its wireless network.  But exactly how does the company plan to build its wireless network?

If you read the “technical explanation” on its website, you’ll realise that it doesn’t make sense.

The company is claiming that it uses fibre to connect to their DC.  It then says DC, in that case, means a DC-HSDPA (effectively 3G technology).  In the following paragraphs, it then goes on to explain that it doesn’t use HSDPA — but rather 24GHz microwave backhaul links followed by 802.11ac over the 5.8GHz band for the final hop to the customer.

However, if you read between the lines and interpret DC as its usual meaning of a data centre, it makes more sense.  The company is effectively using the fixed 5.8 GHz band to transmit a Wi-Fi signal to the end user.  This removes the need for hefty mobile spectrum licences that typical carriers like Telstra, Optus and Vodafone pay to secure their spectrum slice.

How much bandwidth does that give?

In Australia, the majority of the 5 GHz band can either only be used indoors or is subject DFS (Dynamic Frequency Selection) as this band has potential to interfere with radar signals.  The 5.8 GHz slice (5745-5825 MHz) is the only band that doesn’t have these limitations and is what Lightning Broadband is claiming to use.  This effectively gives a single 80 MHz continuous band for the last mile transmission.

The leading data rates and speeds of the 802.11ac standard (256-QAM, MCS 9, Guard Interval of 800ms) gives a maximum theoretical throughput of 390 Mbps.

As for real world performance?  One of the leading “point-to-point” Wi-Fi hardware providers, Ubiquiti, claims its NanoStation M5 (5.8GHz) Wireless Bridge & WiFi AP can deliver 150 Mbps. With a beamwidth of anywhere between 42 and 60 degrees, you’ll have to share the same 150 Mbps bandwidth with everyone on the same sector as you.

Not exactly lightning speed as soon as you have a dozen or so people on the network during peak times — especially when you’re selling an “unlimited” plan.

Nonetheless…

Lightning Broadband has nothing to worry for now. It’s not intended to be a mass-market product, with large number of customers. The spectrum bandwidth simply won’t support it (because, physics). But kudos to them for the concept and to help consumers get connected while the NBN is still rolling out.

At the end of the day, it can only exist in very specific areas — outer metro areas with a tall building with a willing management who will let you install your equipment on the roof. But as soon as you have some other company else do exactly the same thing in your area, you’re screwed.

This type of technology has been used for years by regional and rural folks to relay mobile broadband from a shed to get a decent mobile signal.

So no, this is not going to make the NBN redundant. But it’s a good interim solution to help a small number of users get connected while it’s still being rolled out.

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NBN Fixed Wireless Antenna (close up)

NBN expands 3.4GHz Fixed Wireless trial

15 existing towers in NSW, VIC and SA retrofitted with new radios

The company responsible for building the National Broadband Network, nbn, appears to have expanded its trial of the 3.4GHz band to deliver fixed wireless to outer metropolitan fringes.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has updated its Register of Radiocommunications Licenses.  It has replaced the Scientifically Assigned licenses, first assigned at the start 2015, with fixed site licenses on existing towers.  The towers now listed in the register include:

The current rollout, which currently relies on TD-LTE technology delivered over the 2.3 GHz band, has mainly been limited to regional areas where nbn holds the licence for the frequency.  Mobile provider Optus owns the licenses spectrum in areas closer to capital cities.

The ACMA was ordered by then-Minister for Communications, Malcolm Turnbull, to allocate the 3.4 GHz spectrum to nbn to enable the company to complete its fixed wireless rollout.  The so-called 3.4 GHz band encompasses the 3425-3492.5 MHz and 3542.5-3757 MHz spectrum allocations.

In March 2015, the nbn company had engaged NetComm Wireless to develop fixed wireless equipment for the new band.

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Inside an NBN node at Umina Beach

NBN: 5 drop outs daily “acceptable” on new FTTN network

Leaked internal documents detailing the fault resolution process on the FTTN/B network suggests a nightmare process awaits millions of Australians

A leaked document from the company responsible for building the National Broadband Network (nbn) has revealed insights into the fault ratification process for its Fibre to the Node and  Basement networks.

The freshly leaked document, first published by technology publication Delimiter, is the latest addition to a string of damaging leaked documents from within the company within the last few weeks alone.

5 drops out a day? That’s “acceptable”

Australians shouldn’t expect their current unexpected drop-outs to be fixed after upgrading to the new Fibre to the Node network.

On page 21, nbn describes how it plans to diagnose a user experiencing drop-out issues on the Fibre to the Node and Fibre to the Basement networks.

A user experiencing on average 2.4 resync events (colloquially known as dropouts) per day as being connected to a “stable” connection. It goes on to explain that connections experiencing up to 5 dropouts a day as being “risky” — yet “nbn regards risky [connections] as acceptable”.

NBN considers 5 drop outs per day as "acceptable"
NBN considers 5 drop outs per day as “acceptable”

The company suggests putting risky connections into a lower sync speed by assigning them to a “stability” profile in the hope of reduced drop-out rates.

Modems must be approved, or faults cannot be logged

The NBN company is insisting that end users must use an approved modem, certified to be working by an NBN service provider, in order for a fault to be lodged.

Despite the requirement of an approved modem, nbn has refused a freedom of information request to provide a list of modems that are approved for connecting to the NBN network to the public. Nor can members of the public request models of modems to be tested for registration.

This forces all end users to purchase the low-end, consumer-grade modem approved by their service providers such as the cheap sagecomm [email protected] modem line-up preferred by some major carriers. The flaw in this is that many sagecomm modems have a ton. of. security.exploits.

$50 No Fault Found charge if problem is beyond the network boundary

Unlike on its fibre network, nbn will charge end users $50 for a “No Fault Found”call-out fee for the FTTN and FTTB network where the technician identifies no faults on the line or if the fault is within the end user’s house (for example, a bridge tap inside the home).

This fee, similar to one currently charged by Telstra, is set to discourage end users from lodging faults and risk paying a $50 No Fault Found charge if a fault is not identified.


So here we are again, folks:

  • It’s okay for this new $56 billion dollar network to drop out 1, 2… maybe 5 times a day — that’s totally acceptable!
  • You’re after a modem that’s higher quality, possibly enterprise-grade, instead than the cheapo modem your service provider sold to you? Not only will we not tell you what modems you can get, you can’t even get new modems approved if you wanted!
  • Finally, think you have a fault? Think again — we can slug you $50 if you complain about the network and we don’t find anything wrong with it!

What a wonderful broadband network this is going to be!

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LTSS Base Station: Sunset

Shallow dive: West Coast Tasmania NBN doesn’t make sense

There’s something unusual about the way NBN is planning to service the West Coast of Tasmania.

The company is preferring to place over five thousand Australians onto an already oversubscribed network with a single point of failure 36,000 km away from Earth in favour of a fibre network without a redundant loop. Supposedly, this is more redundant.

The company originally planned to roll out a fixed line network (presumably Fibre to the Node) as well as fixed wireless in and around the townships of Queenstown, Rosebery and Zeehan. The plan was to utilise an existing fibre that already services the towns to deliver the service.

The company has since backflipped on these plans, claiming that a second fibre path is required to provide fixed-line services and such costs would be “too expensive” to build.

These are townships with existing fibre and microwave transit network, they already for 3G/4G mobile networks, plus ADSL or ADSL2+ Internet.

Does NBN seriously think dealing with issues with the satellite 36,000 km away from Earth’s surface is easier to fix than a single fibre spur network that already currently services those towns?

Could NBN consider using satellite or microwave network as the second, redundant path in case the main fibre breaks?

For a deeper dive into the topic, read my longer form piece on the situation in West Coast Tasmania.


What’s a “Shallow dive”? Shallow dives are a content format I’m trying out. Essentially, they are shorter, more concise pieces to either summarise detailed analysis pieces I’ve written — or briefly write about topics that I don’t yet have the time to analyse in detail.  Think of them as a TL;DR of the original piece.

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LTSS Base Station: Sunset

Detailed analysis: How will Qantas’ on-board Wi-Fi impact NBN satellites?

Geospatial analysis of the daily Qantas flight paths and NBN satellite beam coverage shows how NBN’s satellite network could be affected.

Qantas has recently announced that it plans to offer a Wi-Fi service on board its A330 and Boeing 737 fleet from early 2017 by utilising capacity on NBN’s recently launched Sky Muster satellite.  However, many Australians living in rural and regional Australia have raised concerns that the Qantas service will cause further congestion on an already limited service.

The company responsible for building the National Broadband Network, nbn, had completed a review of satellite capacity in its Fixed Wireless and Satellite review where it identified 31 beams around Australia that would be oversubscribed or severely oversubscribed once a take-up rate of 65% is reached.  As a result, the company will introduce strict Fair Use policies to significantly limit the amount of data to 150 GB (priced at a premium) that can be used by each customer on a 4-week rolling average basis.

Consequently, the Qantas announcement has infuriated many who are within the satellite footprint.  An analysis of flight paths taken by Qantas domestic flights using their A330-200, A330-300 and Boeing 737-800 fleets all fly through at least one congested or severely congested satellite beam.

Key findings:

  • 334 Qantas domestic flights utilise the A330-200, A330-300 and Boeing 737-800 fleet on the day analysed.
  • Every flight flew under at least one oversubscribed or severely oversubscribed beam.
  • 58% of oversubscribed or severely oversubscribed beams will have minimal impact, with at most 2 planes flying under the beam at any given time.
  • The Sydney-Brisbane and Sydney-Gold Coast routes travel entirely within severely oversubscribed NBN Satellite beams (34, 29, 25, 20).
  • The Sydney-Melbourne, Melbourne-Canberra, Sydney-Canberra and Townsville-Brisbane routes travel entirely within oversubscribed OR severely oversubscribed NBN Satellite beams.

Analysis: by congested beams

Over half (58%) of congested beams are not affected or minimally affected by the Qantas plan.  Of the 31 beams considered oversubscribed or severely oversubscribed, 5 of them do not cover any current eligible Qantas flight paths.  7 beams will have at least one flight under the path at some point, and 6 beams will have up to 2 flights under it at the same time (within a 10 minute time frame).

Unsurprisingly however, the beams covering areas immediately surrounding capital cities will have the greatest number of flights under it at any given time:

  • Beam 42 (Sydney Beam) is the worst affected, with up to 7 Qantas flights within a 10 minute time frame travelling under it.
  • Beams 47 (Melbourne Beam) and 20 (Brisbane Beam) come in second, with up to 6 Qantas flights within a 10 minute time frame travelling directly under each of them.
  • Beam 37 (Adelaide Beam) comes in third, with up to 5 Qantas flights within a 10 minute time frame travelling directly under each of them.

It should be noted though, that for the day analysed — the Sydney and Brisbane beams only had the greatest number of flights under it for a single 10 minute time frame (between 8:50am – 9:00am and 7:30pm – 7:40pm respectively).

Finally, by considering the average number of Qantas planes under a beam over a 24 hour period — we see that Beam 47 (Melbourne) tops out at 1.94 planes with Beam 42 (Sydney), Beam 20 (Brisbane) and Beam 41 (Canberra) following closely behind at 1.52, 1.45 and 1.22 planes respectively.

Beam* Max concurrent
flights under beam
(over 10 min period)
%age of time with
at max plane
under beam
%age of time with
at least one plane
under beam
Avg. number of
planes under beam
over 24 hrs
47 (Melbourne) 6 2% 67% 1.94
42 (Sydney) 7 1% 63% 1.52
20 (Brisbane) 6 1% 63% 1.45
41 (Canberra) 4 5% 58% 1.22
37 (Adelaide) 5 1% 49% 0.86
24 (Armidale) 5 1% 53% 0.83
48 (Omeo) 4 1% 51% 0.76
66 (Perth) 3 1% 51% 0.63
34 (Newcastle) 3 3% 40% 0.57
33 (Bathurst) 4 1% 33% 0.48
25 (Grafton) 2 3% 33% 0.37
46 (Ararat) 3 1% 28% 0.36
3 (Townsville) 2 3% 28% 0.31
15 (Wondai) 3 1% 24% 0.30
29 (Port Macquarie) 2 1% 26% 0.27
36 (Yorketown) 3 1% 22% 0.26
35 (Port Lincoln) 2 2% 22% 0.24
7 (Mackay) 2 3% 19% 0.22
11 (Rockhampton) 2 2% 20% 0.22
31 (Whyalla) 1 15% 15% 0.15
44 (Kangaroo Island) 1 8% 8% 0.08
63 (Guilderton) 1 8% 8% 0.08
16 (Maryborough) 1 6% 6% 0.06
2 (Charters Towers) 1 3% 3% 0.03
1 (Cairns) 1 3% 3% 0.03
51 (Geelong) 1 2% 2% 0.02
49 (Bega) 0 0% 0% 0.00
52 (Inverloch) 0 0% 0% 0.00
54 (Burnie) 0 0% 0% 0.00
56 (Hobart) 0 0% 0% 0.00
68 (Bridgetown) 0 0% 0% 0.00

* Beam name is based on a suburb/town/city directly under the beam and may not be the official name used by nbn

Analysis: by flight

Each flight and its flight path was analysed to see which NBN Satellite beam it flies under. The results shows that every single Domestic Qantas A330 and B737 flight flies under at least one oversubscribed or severely oversubscribed satellite beam.

The most prominent are the Sydney-Brisbane and Sydney-Gold Coast routes, which flies entirely within severely oversubscribed beams (that’s beams 34, 29, 25, 20).  Sydney-Melbourne, Melbourne-Canberra, Sydney-Canberra and Townsville-Brisbane routes fly entirely through oversubscribed or severely oversubscribed beams.

For the full analysis output, click here!

Concluding thoughts…

I find the results of this analysis somewhat inconclusive. Firstly, unlike domestic US services — the number of Qantas flights expected to get the Wi-Fi service is quite small.

With under 350 flights spread out geographically and over a 24 hour period, I doubt the planes would have a material effect on congestion. Currently, the worst case scenario seems to be up 6-7 planes flying under a single beam at any given time. However, in the case of the 7-plane statistic, it happens only once in a 24 hour period. The speed at which planes travel also mean that they will typically fly in and out of narrow beams within 10-15 minutes, meaning any impact should be distributed across multiple beams as the plane flies through the airspace.

On the other hand, the bulk of the flights will fly under already oversubscribed areas. This is especially true for the beams serving the areas immediately surrounding the capital cities, which are all severely oversubscribed (bar-Darwin). These areas also have the greatest number of concurrent flights, represented by the “average number of planes over 24 hours” statistic.

So, no. I don’t think there’s an immediate threat to congestion. However, it does set a precedent. If more carriers get on board… and if international flights get added to the pool as well — things could well change in the future.

NBN Long Term Satellite beams
Diagram showing NBN Co satellite beams and risk of congestion as determined in the Fixed Wireless/Satellite Strategic Review (FWSat SR).
Assumptions made in this analysis:

  • The flight data analysed was from Wednesday, 23rd Feb 2016.
  • Qantas will only install the Satellite-powered Wi-Fi solution on their A330-200, A330-300 and Boeing 737-800 fleet.
  • In all cases where the plane transverses an area with both a wide and narrow beam, the congested, narrow beam is selected.
  • Plane locations are calculated in 10 minute intervals.
  • Congestion (oversubscribed beams) are based on results in the NBN Fixed Wireless and Satellite Review.

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nbn™ logo (large)

Analysis: Is privatising the Multi-Technology Mix the best way forward?

With almost no competition to incentivise an upgrade to its network, can NBN’s monopoly Multi-Technology Mix keep up with user demands or will it become Telstra 2.0?

Infrastructure Australia released it’s “Australian Infrastructure Plan” report today. It’s contents are not exclusively about the National Broadband Network, however, it made a number of recommendations to the Government suggesting that the NBN should be privatised in the medium term.

A bit of background: the fibre monopoly

Since the conception of the National Broadband Network, there had always been a plan and provision to sell company once the rollout is complete. With the original “full fibre” plan envisaged by the then-Labor Government, selling or not selling the fibre network at completion wouldn’t materially affect competition.

Fibre at the premises level is a natural infrastructure monopoly. Much like how water supply companies do not build competing sets of pipes for competition, fibre is effectively a pipe with limitless upgrade opportunities by simply “swapping out the equipment at each end”. It is vastly inefficient to duplicate networks for the sake of competition, and the Optus and Telstra HFC “war” in the 90s was an excellent example of how broadband infrastructure competition can fail.

There is a case for small amounts of network duplication in inner metropolitan areas. However, it becomes hard to compete (at least within the fixed-line space) with a network that’s already built to the scale that NBN would have.

Selling, or even long term (99 year) leases of the fibre network based on geographical areas would have made sense. Like water companies, telco infrastructure entities wouldn’t spend too much time duplicating each other’s network. Upgrading networks to user demands would incur minimal capital expenditure, as it’s a matter of swapping equipment at two ends. Competition will continue to exist, but only in the retail/service delivery component of the network by Internet Service Providers.

The Multi-Technology Mix

But things changed. If you haven’t noticed, the NBN is no longer rolling out fibre to the majority of premises. The Coalition Government’s policy of a Multi-Technology Mix fixed-line network creates new challenges policy makers in the future will need to deliberate carefully before pressing sell in parliament.

On the upside, a Multi-Technology Mix is an effective way to drive infrastructure competition. However, it doesn’t work when it’s being built by a single entity — especially not a Government-owned enterprise.

No incentive to upgrade, unless split up and privatised

As a monopoly, investing large sums of money on upgrading technologies like VDSL2 over copper where upgrade paths is not as simple as “swapping out equipment” presents an ongoing burden for the NBN company. As user bandwidth demand grows, many telecommunications companies would upgrade and extend their networks to meet user demand. Or else, they would risk a competitor coming in to take over their market share. That’s what happens in areas with healthy infrastructure competition — such as Hong Kong.

But like Telstra before it, NBN wouldn’t have a business case to upgrade its networks — even if user demands skyrocket. The company would stand to lose money (at least in the short-term) by investing to upgrade its network, while it would keep a steady revenue if it just maintained the network as it is and not upgrading at all! Civil costs to push fibre out further into the field to meet user demand isn’t cheap, especially when it’s done in successive truck rolls (which is what the current policy is).

We can say that the current NBN policy focuses on short-term policy objectives — lowering the short-term capital expenditure costs, while risking medium to long-term operation costs — in other words, leaving it for policymakers of the future to deal with.

Privatising the Multi-Technology Mix by its technologies would make sense — provided the necessary regulatory instruments were put in place. Consider privatisation by splitting the NBN into a FTTx, HFC and Wireless/Terrestrial entities. These three entities could lend themselves to infrastructure competition in areas where there is sufficient network overlap. In metro areas for example, failure to upgrade the copper-based VDSL2 solution used by the FTTx entity would see the threat of an adjacent HFC footprint grow to meet user demand (and vice versa).

In regional and rural areas, the viability of infrastructure competition is not immediately obvious. Improvements in fixed wireless technologies could threaten the market share of the FTTx entity, but the fixed wireless network would need to grow substantially to be of real competition. In addition, wireless and terrestrial (satellite) solutions tend to be more expensive. So is it possible to create healthy competition, or would those areas have to rely on Government subsidies to promote upgrades?

Even if competitors are identified, each of these entity would need to have equal opportunity to grow its footprint into their competitor’s existing footprint. Having equal access to things like duct and pipe, Tier 1 and Tier 2 facilities, power and potentially many more aspects is crucial before any privatisation goes ahead.

Then there’s the issue of vertical integration

Looking at the current telco market in Australia, obvious candidates with enough capital for purchasing parts of a privatised NBN would be Telstra, Optus, the TPG Group and the M2 Group. Companies like Nextgen or Vodafone could still take a share.

But all these companies I’ve listed, bar Nextgen, already hold a retail front: Telstra, Optus, TPG and Vodafone are obvious by name. M2 owns Dodo and iPrimus.

Currently, the unique nature of NBN is that it is entirely wholesale only with no vertical integration, driving substantial retail competition in the service provider front. In my opinion, this needs to stay as is. Infrastructure companies should stay structurally separated from its retail front to ensure innovation within the “service” sector and ensures equal pricing regardless of who owns the network.


Conclusion

In a privatised world without a ubiquitous network of natural monopoly (like fibre), the only way networks will meet user demand is by infrastructure competition. Infrastructure competition requires network duplication (or at least the threat of) to stimulate investment to upgrade. So the question is: do we want this duplication? Isn’t it blindingly inefficient to have networks that do the same thing being built two or three times over just to keep with user demand?

I think we’ve put ourselves in another telecommunications policy nightmare in Australia. Time and time again, successive Governments — in their short sightedness — have failed to realise the consequences of their policy decisions. The NBN was meant to solve the issue of a lack of infrastructure investment that resulted from the privatisation of Telstra. It still could, but potentially at the cost of inefficient network duplication.

Yes, I’d still argue that a Fibre to the Premises model would have been the ideal model. It would have made privatisation easier, it would have been far more elegant. But what’s done is done.

Some would argue it’s a good thing. Infrastructure competition could work well for companies who have substantial capital while also owning large amounts of existing network assets.

Currently, TPG is the disrupter in the market. The rollout of inner-city Fibre to the Basement network is a good example of what healthy infrastructure competition could look like.

So yes, in conclusion, if done correctly — splitting and selling the NBN is probably the best way forward for Australia. But as Malcolm would say, “it’s not the way we would have done it”.

What do you think?

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NBN: no power resiliency policy for HFC Network

Unlike FTTP, FTTN and FTTB, homes and businesses in NBN’s HFC network will not be provided a power resiliency policy to deal with power outages on NBN equipment

The company responsible for building the National Broadband Network, nbn, has revealed that it will not be providing a power resiliency policy to the NBN HFC network — expected to be launched in the second quarter of this year.

In its draft Wholesale Broadband Agreement, released to Access Seekers for HFC Business Readiness Testing (BRT) today, the company states that it has “made the decision that a general power resiliency policy […] will not be implemented for the NBN Co HFC Network” as the “NBN Co HFC Network architecture is different to that of the FTTB/N Networks”.

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NBN’s FTTN and FTTB network benefit from having backup batteries installed within the node enclosures, enabling a certain degree of power backup for the active equipment located on the field. NBN’s Fibre to the Premises network is entirely passive in the field — meaning it is not impacted by on-field power outages.

The HFC network, which NBN will acquire from Telstra and Optus, will replace the majority of existing copper phone and ADSL/ADSL2+ services delivered over the copper network. This means that during a power disruption on NBN’s HFC equipment, homes and businesses could be disconnected any fixed-line phone or Internet connection until NBN and its power supplier resolves the issue.

This could be a significant concern for owners of security alarms, medical alarms and lift emergency phones which depend on a resilient phone connection — especially during emergencies.

I’ve written in some more detail in a previous post on the impact of power outages on nbn’s Multi-Technology Mix technologies.  You can read more about it here.

[Source: Draft Wholesale Broadband Agreement – Product Description (HFC BRT)]

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