Just how fast is fast, anyway?

Just how fast is fast, anyway?

Summary: There's something immensely gratifying about accomplishing the seemingly impossible -- particularly in IT, where pundits regularly proclaim that a particular technology has hit its physical limits.


There's something immensely gratifying about accomplishing the seemingly impossible -- particularly in IT, where pundits regularly proclaim that a particular technology has hit its physical limits.

Hard drive makers regularly overcome these limits as they shrink magnetic recording surfaces and heads, while CPU makers are using ever-shrinking wires and recently figured out that multi-core chips were even better.

Consider the Melbourne University PhD student who has patented a way to squeeze more bits down your phone line than ever. Implemented as a new algorithm in hardware at both the modem and exchange ends, the technology -- known as SCALE or SCAPE -- promises to boost speeds to the 100Mbps to 250Mbps range by resolving issues of crosstalk, that is, interference between neighbouring copper wiring.

Its inventor, John Papandriopoulos, is US-bound to work with Stanford University professor and broadband guru John Cioffi, known to many as the "father of DSL". Give it a few years to get off the ground -- and for Cisco, Nortel or Alcatel to buy it and integrate it into their technology, and we could see the technology on our desks in, oh, six years or so.

Well, when I say "we" I don't actually mean Australia. After reading about this technology, my first thought was "isn't this cool!" My second thought, a rather more sombre one, didn't take long to follow: "I wonder how long it will take for Telstra to roll this out."

After all, Telstra took years to let ADSL dribble into the market, is delaying ADSL2+ in many areas, and only recently upgraded its cable network to 30Mbps -- great if you're in a coverage area but useless if, like a majority of the population, Telstra's cable doesn't run down your street. Cable is a great broadband solution, but neither Telstra nor Optus are laying it any more.

Theoretically, a technology pairing DSLAM -- the equipment that goes into the local phone exchange -- and modem could be offered by any ISP. But with most of Telstra's competitors already struggling to roll out their own ADSL2+ equipment -- which will put them in a punishing price war with Telstra -- few will be rushing to replace or upgrade that gear to support SCALE/SCAPE.

Where the technology could prove beneficial, however, is in the political arena: as we learnt this week, the speed of broadband is a relative thing. Even as Senator Helen Coonan was crowing about Australia's rise in the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) broadband rankings -- from 22nd in the last ranking to ninth place now -- her counterpart Senator Stephen Conroy was slamming her selective attention to the report's composition.

He's right. Looking at the OECD data Coonan has used to make her claims, we see that Australian consumers are enjoying an average 12.1Mbps broadband service. Aren't you?

I'm certainly not; after recently moving to ADSL2+, my connection speed has dropped to around 900Kbps, or 0.9Mbps, because my speed is now subject to the whimsy of Telstra's copper local loop and the (apparently shocking) quality of the lines in my house.

I live in the metropolitan area, and millions of Australians would be in a similar situation. So why the big disparity between the OECD numbers and sad reality? The ranking, as Conroy points out, is based on advertised speeds for broadband -- not actual speeds. So while my plan is advertised as delivering up to 24Mbps, mileage varies considerably.

One thing did distinguish Australia in the OECD figures: although it's just one of 30 countries surveyed, its figure was derived from 48 different offers -- the highest single total of any country and 8.7 percent of the 552 offers surveyed.

In other words, Australia has more ISPs, offering more (potentially) high-speed plans, than any other OECD country. We know, but the OECD may not, that the reason for this is that most ISPs resell the same Telstra ADSL wholesale service -- theoretically capable of 8Mbps but rarely delivering it.

The broadband shell game is nothing new, but in an election season these spurious numbers are being given far more weight than they deserve -- and used as inaccurate and deceptive political collateral. The government forces ISPs to qualify their speed claims with the words "up to" to avoid false advertising, but I see no such disclaimers in Coonan's speeches.

What does this all have to do with our resident ADSL genius, Dr Papandriopoulos? Well, if it delivers even half of what it promises, his technology could become the ultimate political tool -- a way to boost Australia's advertised broadband speeds into the stratosphere.

I'm sure Telstra's 30Mbps cable has already done this, but can you imagine the political capital that would come if even a few ISPs were advertising 250Mbps services using Papandriopoulos' technology?

The result, of course, would be political sparring and an even more falsely inflated ranking of Australia's broadband. But after years of the same, we're all pretty much used to that anyway.

Topics: Broadband, Government, Government AU, Networking, Telcos, Telstra, NBN


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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  • There are holes in the stats

    I agree that using the "up to 24Mbps" speeds doesn't give an indication of our real speeds. Nor does presuming that because someone is on 256Kbps (57% of bigpond??) they can't get faster.

    The government has now used both those figures to suit them... neither of which has a real bearing on whether we need a faster network (or where it's useful), or on what costs the public will bear.

    To work out our broadband speed - ideally we need to separate out the speed possible from the cost. Short of putting everyone on their maximum stable speed temporarily, all I can think of is averaging the speeds of all the people who are already on full ADSL2 (and assuming they are fairly representative of the exchanges they are on).

    Anyone have THAT stat?
  • Life in the slow lane

    Ouch 0.9Mbps, definately need to get new lines and central filter in that house. If nothing else it means when FTTN does arrive you won't need to replace anything.

    Speed drops over distance from the exchange, but the area covered increases even more. Hence the larger the area fed by the exchange the lower the average speed customers get.

    Average speeds are meaningless, if 9 person gets 1mb/s and one get 24mb/s, the average is 2.4 but that doesn't paint the real picture.

    Another huge lie is where the exchange has ADSL but your line can't. Telstra dont' treat that as can't get ADSL, and so figures about who can get a service are meaningless.
  • So TRUE!

    David, Everything you say is just so true, but will that change anything...I doubt it.

    If anything needs to be done, Tel$tra WONT do it!!


    Because it will compete with their very lucrative but OLD Analogue systems and now of course their 30Mbps cable service, which is available to so very few, as you point out.

    I have cable just 2 houses away from me & across the street, but can I get connected..You guessed it...NO!

    You talk about Senator Coonan and her cherry picking the OECD data. You are correct of course. She does it ALL the time, depending on how well it raises her pedestal. If anyone needs the ACCC to take a stick to them, she does, for misleading the public every time she opens her mouth.

    But they wont, of course. Politicians can say & do anything that makes them a hero or suits their political agenda and she has a huge agenda about which she knows bu**er all about.

    One can only hope a change of government in 2 weeks will change the Telecommunications land scape in this country,...but I doubt it!!

    We've had a decade of pork barrelling which I suspect will continue into the future.
  • Speed and tables

    It's interesting to see a table, specially when it means something. The table (see link above) shows us great statistics, however don't think about using them. When we still lived in The Netherlands (7 years ago) we already had fibre going down our street. As was in most streets. We didn't have download caps We were already able to get higher speeds, using a choice of cable or ADSL, than what we have in Australia now. And yes, we live in a metro area in Australia.
    Looking at the table.....gee, Netherlands #22, Australia #9 !! We must be doing something wrong.
    I think this table isn't worth the pixels it's written in.
  • Just how Fast is it Anyway?

    "Who can you trust" to give misleading (cherry picked) data ? I think that has already been answered!

    The missing information concerns the network structure. Having ADSL or Cable is all well and good - but the Customer Access Network (CAN) technology has to connect to and through the Inter-Exchange Network (IEN) so that your Internet connection can get through to the server at the other end - be that a capital city, a town or internationally located. The ACCC and DCITA don't seem want to comprehend this.

    It is the IEN (which is in reality an Internet Protocol Network) that is one of the prime speed limits - not the CAN (using ADSL, DOCSYS Cable etc). The other prime speed limiter is Australia's highly congested International routes (all part of the IEN).

    Last year Telstra invested about $2.4 Bn in an ongoing equipment replacement program and installed new distributed Internet Headends to most capital city suburban exchange sites from a pair of super switches in each capital city - to replace the one centralised Headend and congested parent switch in each capital city.

    The dual high capacity optical fibre star network in this part of the IEN is the prime reason why DOCSYS Cable is now capable of about 27 Mb/s download (not upload). This IEN structure will be able to support considerable growth (at least 400% of extra terminal equipmnent, and the extra floorspace was provided), and the local terminal equipment can be both ADSL and DOCSYS cable. (No, I don't work for Telstra!)

    I am on DOCSYS cable and my typical maximum download speed is about 400 kb/s (not 12 Mb/s, not 27 Mb/s). This is faster than dial-up!
  • Re: Life in the slow lane

    The average of 24 and 1 is 12.5, which is almost 50% of the advertised speed. In reality though, I doubt anyone gets the full 24Mbits a second. However Telstra has stated that over half of their ADSL2+ customers get speeds in excess of 12Mbit/s.
  • If it's fast, you won't find it in Australia

    I am in a hotel in Rio de Janeiro using a free in-room internet connection, and the throughput I get here is better than with my optus cable in Brisbane that costs $60 per month. My broadband satellite link, at my "other place" out in the bush - provided to rural voters with a subsidy that must have cost a lot - has a 1300ms ping time, which makes it nigh on useless for anything interactive. A dialup modem is better for some applications.

    Broadband in Australia is not good, in fact it's pretty bad by world standards. I know, I travel a lot.

    I don't know where OECD got the data used for its global broadbad ratings, but I have my suspicions...
  • Compare apples with apples

    Australia is an island with horrendously expensive links to the rest of the world.
    Around 80% of traffic is international based on some examination of netflow records. Depending on where you get it from, this transit will cost between $250-$400 Mbps.
    Countries like the US and European countries have vastly cheaper IP transit, and due to geographic proximity can make much more benefit from peering at an IX.
    Countries like S.Korea use very little International data, so have a massive advantage in any comparisons.
    At the end of the day, we could build the fastest, cheapest access network in the world, but the petrol to drive this network (International data) will drive the price up.
  • DSL

    now that we have dsl in dinosaur land we're getting speeds up to 50 kbps!. a little slower with all the police phone taps. i just wish we could get rid of all the australian advertising on all the overseas sites (ringtones, election, when will you die? etc etc). we fought so hard for the rest of the worlds freedom so that we can pretend we live in a free country.