Independent MP Tony Windsor said famously in deciding to support Prime Minister Julia Gillard in forming a minority government in 2010 that "you do it once, you do it right, and you do it with fibre". Following the Coalition's defeat, newly appointed Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull set out to prove that doing it with fibre was not how the rest of the world was actually delivering better broadband.
It's true that Australia's National Broadband Network (NBN) is like no other project in the world, but no broadband investment in any one country is the same.
There are many factors that determine why a company or government decides to move away from a copper network to a fibre network. All have the same basic premise underpinning it: Provide faster internet services to the public to allow them to do more things online that have not been possible with the existing networks in place.
And whether it be fibre to the premises (FttP) or fibre to the node (FttN), you can find just about every sort of major fibre network rollout occurring in many countries across the globe.
Some are backed by governments, some are funded through the private sector, and some are a mix of the two. The reasons vary, and for all the differences that Australia's AU$37.4 billion network has with the rest of the world, there are many familiar reasons why governments and businesses have been pushing for faster broadband.
The method usually comes down to one factor: The economics. Australia's ambitious NBN was announced in the depths of the global financial crisis, when government investment in building infrastructure was seen as a good way to turn the economy around. In many countries, however, governments and businesses have opted for what they perceive as the cheapest option to get as fast speeds as they can out to as many people as possible, while still making it commercially viable.
FttN or fibre to the cabinet (FttC) involves replacing the copper network up to a certain point, either on each street through a cabinet or at one point up to a few kilometres from each premises. From there, the existing copper lines going from the cabinet or node are used to provide VDSL broadband services to each premises.
Although the speed on the copper is limited compared to fibre, based on the distance from the node or cabinet to each premises, the upgrade is considerably cheaper in the short term, as it doesn't require installing a new fibre line into each premises. For this reason, the upgrade can also take considerably less time to complete.
Speeds range up to a maximum of 80 megabits per second (Mbps) down, depending on the length and quality of the copper line. Anywhere farther than 300 metres from the cabinet or node sees a massive reduction in speed.
A new method of getting even higher speeds across the copper, known as vectoring, cuts down the noise on the copper line, allowing those higher download speeds of over 100Mbps with upload speeds of up to 40Mbps. A number of telcos have committed to introducing vectoring.
Generally, across the world, the deployment of FttN has been done by the owner of the network, and it is commonly run with just the one provider on the network. The introduction of vectoring makes it harder to have an open-access wholesale network in the way it is done today, with the telco accessing the copper line and putting its own equipment in the exchange. Alcatel-Lucent has said that it is possible to wholesale a bitstream service directly from the owner of the network, similar to how NBN Co wholesales its fibre product today.
FttP involves fibre at every step of the way, from the premises to the network core. This can be achieved either with a direct fibre for every connection or a passive optical network that shares connections through the use of a splitter at some point in the field, as NBN Co has rolled out with its Gigabit Passive Optical Network (GPON). The speeds on offer over FttP are much higher than anything on the copper network, and can travel a much greater distance. Higher speeds are constantly being pushed out on the fibre every day. Services available to end users currently sit at a maximum of 1 gigabit per second (Gbps).
Both types of network are common across the world. Network vendor giant Alcatel-Lucent told ZDNet that it has supplied equipment to more than 100 FttP networks across the world, including Verizon, France Telecom, China Unicom, and China Telecom. It has also worked on more than 80 FttN VDSL2 deployments with companies such as Telecom NZ, Telmex, AT&T, SK Telecom, and KPN. Alcatel-Lucent is deploying vectoring with Belgacom and Telekom Austria.
Chinese network giant Huawei told ZDNet it has been selected to roll out a number of national networks across the globe, including BT's mixed network, Singapore's FttP network, Telekom Brunei's FttP network, New Zealand's FttP network, and Malaysia's FttP network.
One of the main criticisms of reporting about the NBN from Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull is that Australia's project has not been compared to what is happening in the rest of the world. In this feature, ZDNet sets out to compare and contrast the NBN to the networks being rolled out in New Zealand, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada.
But first, we need to look at where the debate began in Australia.