Copper condition curtails cut-price NBN's great leap forward

Copper condition curtails cut-price NBN's great leap forward

Summary: Australia's new broadband strategy is designed to look cheaper than the much-delayed fibre rollout, but it won't fix the decades of neglect that relegated us to the back of the pack.


China may have landed a robot rabbit on the moon — well done, by the way — but here in Australia, it seems we've already gone way beyond that. Our entire telecommunications executive demographic has gone completely post-lunar, rocketing itself deep, deep into the derposphere.

If only we had the technology to fire them all the way into the sun, because after the glorious comedy that was the public hearing (PDF) conducted by the Senate NBN Select Committee in Sydney on Tuesday — all it needed was a laugh track — there was ample proof that they'd qualify for passage on the B-Ark. Most of them, anyway.

We had previously learned that NBN Co reckoned it would be impossible to deliver the broadband coverage and schedule promised by the Coalition government. In the very first hour of the hearing, we learned that it wouldn't guarantee the promised speeds, either. The discussion was "robust", as they say. There was blood in the water, and committee chair and former Communications Minister Senator Stephen Conroy was circling.

During the course of the day, we learned that NBN Co had downgraded its estimate of how many premises would be passed in its fibre rollout this quarter because of Christmas. Well, Christmas just sneaks up, doesn't it? There's no way they could have predicted that.

We learned that Telstra is willing to negotiate "in good faith", which is big of it, and that the company doesn't use the phrase "social responsibility", but rather "enabling social benefits". That seems to be the new Australian way: Everything is someone else's fault.

We learned that at Telstra, if the copper wire can deliver an analog voice signal, then that's good enough — and it's happy that the voice signals work 99.84 percent of the time.

"Voice is seen in the industry, quite frankly, as being a good proxy for the quality of the connection. So if you can get a good voice-quality circuit, then you would expect that data performance would be satisfactory. That is similar, because the data is digitised. The digital signal is less open to interference in much the same way," said Anthony Goonan, whose job title is, rather amusingly, "executive director, engineering planning".

"The notion that voice quality is a good proxy for data quality is ridiculous, but it explains a lot if Telstra believes it," tweeted Mark Newton, high-profile network engineer.

"If voice was a good proxy for data, then there would be no broadband blackspots: ADSL would work anywhere you could get a phone," he added.

It turns out that Telstra doesn't even keep track of data faults.

Chair: I just wanted to clarify that. Can I absolutely confirm this: There is no record kept of data fault rates? You do not keep a record? You are not required to —

Goonan: No, not specifically.

Chair: ADSL and DSL are all up to best efforts. It is basically up to 24 meg for ADSL2?

Goonan: ADSL2 is up to 20 megabits.

Chair: So if I had a service that consistently was delivering only 2 or 3 megs, that is not a fault?

Goonan: That is correct.

Chair: So if I am barely within 10 percent of the advertised "up to" target, it is not a fault?

Goonan: That is correct.

Chair: It is just my bad luck.

Goonan: That is a consequence of your location relative to where the network infrastructure is.

Chair: Or the quality of the network.

Goonan: Yes, that will play a part.

Chair: And the thickness of the copper.

Goonan: Yes.

Let's ignore for the moment the idea that advertising a thing but delivering only a tenth of a thing rubs up against the spiky parts of the Australian Consumer Law, no matter how lawyer-tricky your asterisks and footnotes are. I won't even mention the word "ethical", apart from just then.

Let's look instead at the committee's robust discussion over the state of Telstra's copper network — a core factor in the viability or otherwise of the Coalition plan.

Greens Senator Scott Ludlam noted that according to the union representing telco workers, the copper is in dire condition, with around 70 percent of the repairs protected with nothing but plastic bags. Workers even refer to it as the "Baghdad network". Yet, Telstra management hadn't even heard of that term, and was clearly under the impression that everything is just fine. So which is it?

"I am seeking the kind of evidence you will be providing as to the actual condition, not the speculative condition, of this asset, which we are apparently supposed to buy from you," Ludlam said.

Telstra executives didn't seem to have an proper answer to that. Indeed, after a follow-up question from Conroy, it turns out that they don't even have a current valuation for the copper network and its maintenance. That's quality corporate governance right there.

There was plenty more of this hilarity. But, for all the tribal-political arguments over technology choices, for all the serious questions about governance, and for all the questions as to whether the broadband review figures were cherry picked to support Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull's proposed solution or not — all of these things miss the big point.

Wasn't the whole point of the NBN to give Australia a world-class broadband network for the future?

As I've written previously, Australia is one of the richest nations on Earth, but when it comes to internet speeds, we've dropped from being in third place globally in the mid-1990s to 15th or lower in the mid-2000s, to somewhere down past 40th place today.

Even a rabbit knows that if you want to outrun the competition when you're already well behind, you have to run even faster than they run, not just match their pace. And you need is a clear idea of your intended destination.

Yet, the Coalition has put together a plan that, like all of its predecessors, fails to compare its intended destination with those of Australia's competitors — not where they are now, but a decade or two hence. And it fails to consider that no matter what the destination is, we'll need to run faster to catch up.

What silly bunnies.

If we fired the lot of these people into the sun, at least they'd have a clear idea of where they were actually headed. So would we. And there would be much rejoicing.

Topics: NBN, Government AU, Telstra


Stilgherrian is a freelance journalist, commentator and podcaster interested in big-picture internet issues, especially security, cybercrime and hoovering up bulldust.

He studied computing science and linguistics before a wide-ranging media career and a stint at running an IT business. He can write iptables firewall rules, set a rabbit trap, clear a jam in an IBM model 026 card punch and mix a mean whiskey sour.

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  • short term goals

    telstra heavily invested in the mobile markets leaving fixed line services to rot away to dust, I suspect it would take telstra 20-60 years to do a systematic check of their corroding copper network..

    if you look at the history of fibre optic in general it's been a known fact in telstra (AKA telecom australia) back as early as 1973 knew fibre was going to be end fixed wire solution by 1975-77 this was also known by parliament..

    a short term goal with end up showing it will cost more to deploy than it will cost to completely reboot the network with fibre..

    by the end of this year it will be 40 years since fibre was discussed as an end medium. by 2015-17 it will be gracing 40 years in federal Government circles..

    it been known since the 1993 opel report that we had 90,000 exchanges listed on the books 20-20+ years later how big do you think that total is going to be given the building booms of the last 20 or so years..

    My estimate on install puts a D/A install of $2.1 million for 17-24 nodes. the cost of $2.7 million to delivery FTTdp as a solution of a 300 premises service area d/a.. with an average service loop of 40km... in old scale 24miles..

    both of what i have described within this reply has yet to grace the idiocy of a 20+ year old failed telecommunications policy Turnbull and Co went to the election there no budget for either node or FTTdp deployment, FTTN as it stands now is only deployed at the d/a...

    also note: they have already broke the $29 billion budget they went to the election with it stands at 40.1 billion..

    you find where the exchanges level sits and how many d/a's each exchange covers using the $2.1-2.7 million you'll get the true cost fttx delivery by the lnp..

    current estimate puts ftth/fttp in at $750,000-$1,500,000 per d/a based on $2,500-5,000 based on 300 premises..

    min target cost for fttn/fttdp is $7,000-7,500 WITHOUT MODEM...
    Jason Howe
  • Testing

    Actually, for every connected service, it shouldn't be too hard to get a view of the quality of the copper out there. 10 years ago we had software that could tell you line condition, existing of any bridge taps, voice coils etc by using a standard dial-up modem. I simply can't believe that someone hasn't adapted that to getting the same information via a modern dsl or voice port. It won't help with dry pairs, but woudl certainly give more information than they seem to have now.

    Stil is right though - people seem to have forgotten what the NBN was all about. It was investing in a future proof, next generation national broadband network. Conservatives don't believe in goverment investment though, they believe that the free market will solve all. Unfortunately 20+ years of telco failure in this country has show this to NOT be the case in this sector.
  • I agree ...

    +1 for the the "firing the coalition into the sun" solution. Does someone want to start a petition up on
    • Too expensive

      Might have to wait on private enterprise to supply the rocket..... oh wait.
  • Why fire the coalition into the sun?

    It's a lot cheaper to "optimise" the shot and just shoot at em!
    Kevin Cobley
  • the question is...

    if this mob decided to visit the sun (which some of them would think was a really good way to claim the biggest travelling expenses in their careers) they would appoint a committee consisting of local car manufacturers to find the cheapest way of building a space ship, hire Solly and the cowboys to build it and then put it into a senate committee for the next twenty years... sounds about right...
  • Blasphemy

    How dare anyone question the viability of our copper services.
    The Mad Monk relies entirely on Faith in 'HIM' in fulfilling his promised slogans.

    Weren't the boats were stopped on day one?
    We'll be in surplus within the first year?
    Cheaper & faster NBN for all by 2016?
    Etc. Etc...
    And Finally all present & future disasters are the fault of all those heathen Laborite's.