Fibre isn't for everyone

Fibre isn't for everyone

Summary: Just a few days after the Australia Connected program was launched Communications Minister Helen Coonan was selling the initiative to the TV talk shows.Senator Coonan made a good defence of WiMax technology -- which, I should say right now, is great stuff and really shouldn't be lumped in with flaky and low-powered Wi-Fi.


Just a few days after the Australia Connected program was launched Communications Minister Helen Coonan was selling the initiative to the TV talk shows.

Senator Coonan made a good defence of WiMax technology -- which, I should say right now, is great stuff and really shouldn't be lumped in with flaky and low-powered Wi-Fi.

The turning point came when Senator Coonan was asked whether and why rural Australians shouldn't expect access to city-grade fibre-optic infrastructure. She launched into some pre-prepared defence of the wireless technology and then just finished with something like "you wouldn't build a six-lane freeway to the farmhouse".

Rural Australians have lived with third-world telecommunications for decades, and WiMax will fix that by freeing them from Telstra's whimsy. They can get decent Internet speeds, run high-bandwidth voice over IP that will do away with their tinny fixed line services, and get their pay TV and video on demand down the same pipe.

What I was really disappointed about, however, was that Senator Coonan refused to say the naked truth -- so I will do it for her.

Truly rural Australians -- those living outside of rural centres -- should not expect fibre Internet. Ever. This hot, dusty, mainly empty continent is just too large to even contemplate it.

This is not the fault of the government, and it's not the fault of Telstra. It is just the way things are, and the only effective solution for a quality bush broadband network will be the one that accepts this fact and works with it. Fibre trunks may reach major areas across the country, but WiMax will handle the branches and twigs.

Labor isn't bagging wireless because it's bad, but because they want people to confuse it with Wi-Fi (or perhaps they are confused themselves) and therefore assume that it's sub-standard. It is not. What Labor will never say is another truth: the business case for fibre to the farmhouse is about as solid as the business case for installing a 50-inch plasma TV and Media Centre PC in my bathroom.

This is not about social equity, as Labor wants to pretend. It is about comparing Australia with other countries, which have smaller geographies and more heavily populated areas where fibre rollouts do make sense.

It is not about foreign ownership, as Telstra wants to pretend: Telstra is a terrible corporate citizen and, as Coonan rightly pointed out, has many foreign owners itself. It is not even about disadvantaging Telstra, which understandably wants to replicate 100 years of copper-line monopoly into the world of Australian broadband.

The real issue here is one of expectations: Poorly contrived, artificially inflated and unrealistically maintained throughout 10 years of poorly executed telecommunications market deregulation.

Deregulation may have increased competition and helped spur some new services, but those changes came despite deregulation -- which has always assumed that Telstra was as Telstra should be -- and not entirely because of it.

The government assumed rural Australia would be well-serviced by entrepreneurs keen to exploit deregulation's opportunities. Those opportunities, however, never eventuated because the entire industry remained beholden to Telstra.

Now, we find even successful carriers won't touch the bush with a 10-foot pole. Consider Clever Communications, a profitable five-year-old carrier, is using WiMAX-class wireless technology to deliver up to 8Mbps connections to hundreds of customers across metropolitan Melbourne. Right now.

I recently spoke with CEO and chairman Keith Ondarchie, and asked him when Clever would be extending its low-cost wireless infrastructure to service rural areas.

"I would get at least one enquiry a week from partners looking to roll out into regional areas," he said. "However, until I've completed all of Brisbane and Sydney -- and then we're looking at Perth -- economics say I really shouldn't be looking at regional areas."

Wireless infrastructure is relatively inexpensive to deploy and manage -- so if a successful wireless carrier can't even contemplate moving into the bush, how can we expect Telstra or anybody else to cover the cost of fibre to the farmhouse?

It will never happen, not without government intervention that is. I can only thank Telstra's arrogant and petulant executives for making clear to Canberra just how important it was that they get involved.

It's too late to functionally separate Telstra's retail and carriage arms, so Coonan has finally done the next best thing by facilitating a wholesale wireless-and-fibre network that sidesteps Telstra altogether.

However it happens, this is the beauty of Australia Connected -- we have finally gotten past the idea that Telstra should control when and how broadband is rolled out.

Now, once we do away with the idea that fibre-to-the-farmhouse is some sort of divine right, we can finally get on with getting some decent, competitive, high-speed services to all Australians.

Topics: Broadband, Networking, Telcos, Telstra, NBN, Wi-Fi


Australia’s first-world economy relies on first-rate IT and telecommunications innovation. David Braue, an award-winning IT journalist and former Macworld editor, covers its challenges, successes and lessons learned as it uses ICT to assert its leadership in the developing Asia-Pacific region – and strengthen its reputation on the world stage.

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  • Fibre isn%u2019t for everyone

    here here david.
    you nailed it right on the head about this apparently touchy issue of rural broadband. As most Australian census's state that the majority of all aussies live in the major city's. It would take either a huge drop in equipment/fibre cost's to service every aussie in this far reaching land. The push should be fiber in major/realitivly minor city's and push a wiMAX based internet to the rest. Then at least when the internet get's quicker the wiMAX site could be upgraded to those who want the speed increase. Only my opinion but if labor want to triple the cost of their plan then as a voter im against it. But lastly on that issue of telstra. These guys seem to think that just cause they in Australia and they are formally government controlled/owned that they have the right to run all broadband here. If thats the case then that would leave us with inflated prices, decreased speeds(for the price) and poor service. telstra need a wakeup call and i think this is the start.
  • Fibre isn't for everyone

    Well done Paul - this would have to be the most clear cut article written on the topic.
    Being in one such farmhouse, I for one am not expecting fibre to my front door. Upgrading from dialup to anything that WiMAX offers will be heaven (10mbps would be good).
    My primary concern is whether the technology will reach us. Already we are too far from our ADSL enabled exchange (5.0km) and have poor line of sight from our local WiMAX provider (15km) due to trees. And I'm not settling for satellite when I'm just 15km from a major regional centre.
    Hopefully technology improvements can get around the tree issue and finally get us some broadband.
  • Can we separate ANY of Telstra?

    Great article.

    I wonder about your comment "it's too late to separate Telstra's retail and carriage arms".

    Is it too late to separate just the copper (and conduits/street cabinets) - nationwide?
  • wake up !!

    A comment like "you wouldn%u2019t build a six-lane freeway to the farmhouse" is so typical of someone with their nose glued to the rear vision mirror.

    I guess thats why the roads in this country suck too. Talk about driving Australia's future with the handbrake on. And it looks like poor old Helen has driven her Turbo Diesel up to the Opel Bowser & filled the tank with petrol.

    What we need is some road rage - time to open the drivers door, pull out the geriatric Sunday driver and car jack this puppy to FTTH for the masses.
  • Is suburban Perth "The Outback"?

    David says, "Truly rural Australians -- those living outside of rural centres -- should not expect fibre Internet. Ever. This hot, dusty, mainly empty continent is just too large to even contemplate it."

    Since I commute to Perth on the train for work, I always thought that I lived in a suburb of a capital city - but, since leaked copies of Coonan's map of who gets FTTN show that Bunbury isn't included, I guess I'm one of those "Truly Rural Australians" David's talking about...

    Not that, absent fibre-to-the-HOME, I would much mind Wi-Max, since I guess fibre-to-the-NODE would still leave me dependent on Telstra's dodgy copper wires into my home - and since the whole street loses their phone service every time it rains because our junction boxes fill with water and the lines are poorly insulated (Beleaguered Telstra techs, called out in the rain for the third time in a fortnight admitted that they cannot fix up the problem so that it does not happen in the future as that would be an "upgrade"; they can only only remediate each time we lose service as that is "repair")...

    Bring on ANYTHING but Telstra!!!
  • The Coonan plan is really the beast we should expect.

    Well said Paul. I should also say that I think that wireles services of some kind will ultimately take over from Fibre Optic as technology gets ever increasingly better and I don't think that rural Australia is getting a second best deal with the new Coonan plan.
  • WiMAX makes sense.

    Finally - some sensible informed comment on this issue. I do live in regional Australia, and I welcome the WiMAX deployment. Sure, I'd love FTTF (Fibre to the Farmhouse) but it would economic stupidity to even contemplate it. I'm more than happy using an effective wireless infrastructure that finally lets me bypass Telstra's greed and get on with business.
  • I fear it is too late

    The problem the government faces is that they didn't do the separation when they could justifiably single out Telstra for exclusion -- eg "we are majority stakeholders and we need to do what's right for Australia for the long term". Now that Telstra is technically just one of the many telcos providing service to the country, I think it would be politically difficult for the government to single out one private operator for special treatment in that way unless there were genuine monopoly concerns -- but Australia's market is a long-term duopoly. Perhaps 'difficult' isn't as much the right word as 'unpalatable'; there's just no reason for the pollies to stick their necks out on this one.

    Building a separate fibre network -- supported with loads of legislation to ensure open access to competitors like Telstra's network was supposed to have -- is really the only option from here onwards. The goverment hasn't been able to turn Telstra into a kind, caring, sharing type of company so it's finally decided to spearhead the effort to sidestep Telstra once and for all. This an expensive solution, but at least it's some kind of solution.

    I have to note that a large percentage of Australia's mobile phone towers (I can't reliably say all of them but I bet it's close) aren't actually owned by the carriers at all, but by speculative real estate companies like Crown Castle, which provides access to the physical towers in a long-term lease arrangement. In other words, pure economics dictated that the mobile industry separate retail business from infrastructure business a long time ago, and they seem to be doing fine. Sure, the mobile carriers put their own transceivers *on* the towers, but they all have equal access to the same underlying carriage mechanism (an analogue to Telstra's copper and local exchanges).

    The point: Australia's copper network, to which Telstra is clinging and driving into the ground at the same time, will eventually become old and decrepit -- particularly since, as the below reader's tragically oh-so-true comment about the rain-damaged phone service points out -- and even Telstra will struggle to keep up. By that point, the alternative local access network will hopefully be far enough along that Telstra will be coming to competitors' doorsteps with hat in hand, begging to negotiate access. Wouldn't that be sweet irony.

    In the meantime, the people disadvantaged by Telstra's refusal to upgrade the network can finally sidestep its copper using wireless that will give them the bandwidth they deserve.
  • Bunbury != Metro

    Since when is Bunbury a suburb of Perth. Bunbury is as much a suburb of Perth as Kununurra is.
  • pair gain?

    What about those people living in the cities still stuck on pair gain lines... where the exchanges are seriously overcrowded! Great - rural broadband... but what about the city! I can't even get higher than 28.8k dial up and I am less than 10km from Brisbane city centre!
  • WiMAX

    Let's face it. It's going to be some time before digital movies are travelling down into the mobile phone. Who really wants to watch movies on a pathetic little screen in any case?

    WiMAX will do me fine & I live in what is supposed to be metro-Hobart but I'm lucky if I can get 28Kbs per second thanks to Telstra's inadequate servicing of the split pair-gain lines in Lauderdale. They offer wireless at the incredible rate of 30bucks for 200 or 400 Mb download per month which in either case is miserable at best.

    I'd be happy with WiMAX. Bring it on now.
  • Everyone has the right

    Try and find any wireless service that is as reliable as a wired one. It won't happen, no matter how loyal one is to emerging wireless technologies there is no way of proving that a wireless service can be as reliable as a wired one for Internet services that require a continual connection, such as IRC and other chat protocols, video streaming, running servers, etc.

    The other issue is this. For a long time now, farms except those in the most remote areas are connected to electricity grids and the telephone network by copper wires. I accept that Government assistance by way of ownership of the utilities has been responsible for this and whilst the fact that the telecommunications sector is completely in private hands now, this just doesn't cut the mustard and does not help people who dedicate their lives to producing the nation's food supplies.

    Of course the issue of privatisation of Government-owned utilities like Telstra, OTC and Aussat cannot be practically reversed but it shouldn't be used as an excuse for not trying harder. If we can build a national telephone network with a population as low as 4 million and an economy the size of the average current weekly pay packet then we should be able to afford it today with 21 million and an economy greater than $1tr (that's one thousand billion dollars).

    Let's stop looking for excuses to give in and start looking for ways to do the Australian thing and make it happen. One thing I do agree on here is that Telstra is not a good corporate citizen, in fact they are far from it. They'll never change while the company is being run by a bunch of halfwits though.