Is cable the answer to our broadband woes?

Summary:Somewhere along the line, it became assumed that xDSL technologies -- which run over the last-mile of wiring so tightly controlled by Telstra -- were the only way forward for Australian broadband.

Somewhere along the line, it became assumed that xDSL technologies -- which run over the last-mile of wiring so tightly controlled by Telstra -- were the only way forward for Australian broadband.

This curious anomaly has of course set Australian broadband into complete disarray, and hindered the development of viable content delivery models.

What many of us may have forgotten is that there is already a perfectly acceptable technology for delivering triple-play services -- voice, TV and data over a single cable -- and doing it cost-effectively and at high volume.

It is, of course, cable. A decade ago, it was the whipping boy of the day as media beatups and outraged consumer groups caused so much trouble for Optus and Telstra that they decided it just wasn't worth the bother of rolling out a decent nationwide infrastructure.

The rollouts were terminated, leaving Australia with billions of dollars' worth of hybrid fibre-cable (HFC) network that fell far short of its potential just because people didn't like having another wire running alongside their already crowded telephone poles.

We're still suffering from that policy disaster. Telstra is stonewalling on network access while the government wrings its hands and funds competitors to build a competing network. All the while, consumers are suffering -- especially those in rural areas where there is effectively no competition whatsoever when it comes to broadband services.

Ian Fry knows this. As CEO of Ballarat based Neighbourhood Cable, he's the head of perhaps the only company that has been able to effectively use cable to offer data, voice and video services at commercial scale.

At a cost of just AU$65 million, Neighbourhood Cable has successfully run cable past nearly 20,000 homes in Ballarat, Mildura and Geelong and is now using Data Over Cable Service Interface Specifications (DOCSIS) 2 technologies to offer 30Mbps downloads (and 2Mbps uploads), as well as pay TV and VoIP services. DOCSIS 3, currently in the pipeline, will increase speeds over the cable networks to 100Mbps (Telstra has also reportedly begun trialling DOCSIS 3 but there are no clear rollout plans).

"We have a fairly good relationship with councils and local governments," he said. "The advantage of cable over ADSL is that we don't have degradation of service with distance. And with cable, you haven't got a lifespan on the network, because you know DOCSIS is always upgrading. No one else can provide triple play in these regions."

At a cost of just AU$65 million, Neighbourhood Cable has successfully run cable past nearly 20,000 homes in Ballarat, Mildura and Geelong and is now using DOCSIS 2 technologies to offer 30Mbps downloads (and 2Mbps uploads), as well as pay TV and VoIP services. DOCSIS 3, currently in the pipeline, will increase speeds over the cable networks to 100Mbps (Telstra has also reportedly begun trialling DOCSIS 3 but there are no clear rollout plans).

This all sounds good -- so why aren't we seeing more cable investment? Cable is far less expensive than fibre, can be laid underground or along existing phone lines, and is well understood from a maintenance perspective.

Cable is considered a basic service in the US, and infrastructure rollouts in Singapore and many other countries have favoured cable as the access technology of choice.

Australia's access technology of choice, on the other hand, is a decrepit copper network that the Telstra monopoly has been allowed to run into the ground.

It has become clear that xDSL is little more than a jury-rigged solution to a pressing problem.

Had the government taken a gutsier approach to the rollout of cable -- for example, by mandating shared access to a single cable infrastructure instead of allowing Telstra and Optus to waste their money duplicating services -- we would have a nationwide triple-play network more than capable of meeting our needs into the future.

Of course, such a heavy-handed approach would have run contrary to the free-for-all mentality the Howard government was hoping to introduce with its newly deregulated market. But only Telstra has benefited, since the decision to abandon cable for xDSL saved it countless capital costs.

Yet, still Sol Trujillo bleats about government favouritism. In a speech last week to an AIIA meeting in Sydney, Trujillo blamed a history of government incompetence for the current situation -- but then went on to say that "giving away a billion dollars ... won't deliver Australia a fixed high-speed broadband network for consumers."

No, it won't. But it's the best chance we have right now, after the rollouts of cable and ADSL were so categorically and completely stuffed up.

And I don't recall Telstra complaining about government funding a decade ago, when the government was still its majority shareholder and it enjoyed a regulatory monopoly that remains, in spirit if not in law, largely similar to the one we faced at the dawn of deregulation.

Both the government and Telstra are guilty of chronically poor infrastructure strategy (in the spirit of fairness, I should also mention Optus, who did also ditch its cable rollout).

The only companies that have been able to make a difference are those that have innovated despite this strategy, such as Neighbourhood Cable.

Couldn't Optus, or someone else with deep pockets, fund similar rollouts in other regional areas and just get on with the progress? The technology has been there for years; all we need is the will.

This piece was written before the announcement that Telstra may be upgrading its cable infrastructure.

Topics: Broadband, NBN, Optus, Telcos, Telstra

About

As large as the US mainland but with a smaller population than Texas, Australia relies on ICT innovation to maintain its position as a first-world democracy and a role model for the developing Asia-Pacific region. Award-winning journalist David Braue has covered Australia’s IT and telecoms sectors since 1995 – and he’s as quick to draw le... Full Bio

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