NBN: Like giving candy to babies

NBN: Like giving candy to babies

Summary: I have seen the NBN, and it looks a lot like Christina Aguilera. Or, at least, it looked like her when I dropped into Ericsson's Melbourne headquarters recently to see a live demo of their NBN solutions. Yet behind the streaming TV, one question lingers -- and not even the government seems able to answer it.


I have seen the NBN, and it looks a lot like Christina Aguilera. Or, at least, it looked like her when I dropped into Ericsson's Melbourne headquarters recently to see a live demo of their NBN solutions.

There, the video for her song "Candyman" that was on endless loop on the flat-screen TV Ericsson had set up, along with equipment including a conventional telephone and several notebooks and routers, to showcase how the NBN would work.

You would never have known that the HD video streaming onto the screen was, in fact, being routed not only via the swag of Ericsson fibre-optic gear assembled in the room, but over Ericsson's global network to a dedicated multimedia switch — which happens to be set up in Sweden. At least that's what they said, and I have no reason to doubt it.

(Credit: fashionfeen)

There were also live phone calls, including a call to Washington DC's weather line to prove the call wasn't prerecorded. Of course, voice consumes so little of the bandwidth coursing through Ericsson's six-figure-pricetag fibre switch that the demo, to be honest, came off as ridiculously over-engineered. My hosts were, to put it simply, struggling to find applications to use up the amount of bandwidth their fibre-optic PON(passive optical network) service was providing.

If you're not up to speed with the lingo, PON is the NBN's version of the copper loop. Basically a fibre splitter that splits a raw fibre-optic cable input amongst dozens or hundreds of premises at ridiculous speeds, PON customer premises equipment (CPE) will soon be making its appearance at every NBN-connected household. Tasmania will be first, thanks to its established role as NBN hothouse, but pretty soon the rollout will lurch and heave its way to a TV near you.

(Credit: Ericsson Australia)

Ericsson's SE400 multi-service edge router — or its equivalent from whichever vendor wins the NBN contract — will live in your neighbourhood, splitting up a fibre-optic trunk feed supplied by the larger BLM 1500(the equivalent of a copper-line exchange; envision dozens of these covering each capital city). Other equipment makers, of course, have similar products, and they will eventually all be pitted against each other in a big RFT free-for-all.

Whoever supplies the gear, the end result will be a network providing, among other things, the ability to access scads of high-definition video content — including Ms Aguilera and plenty of others. There will also be a crystal-clear VoIP telephony service. And, well, other things.

Really, there are many, many other uses for the NBN. Just don't ask Stephen Conroy or his department what they might be; they're making this stuff up as they go, too.

Really, there are many, many other uses for the NBN. Just don't ask Stephen Conroy or his department what they might be; they're making this stuff up as they go, too. DBCDE acting first assistant secretary Richard Windeyer admitted as much this week in conceding that even the department didn't have all the answers.

Eyeing the PON demo, the biggest question I had was not "how will this work?" — the technology behind the NBN is already well-established — but "isn't this overkill?"

Of course it is. The NBN will give us enough network headroom to last decades. Ericsson's technical specialists were talking about the ability for service providers to fence off 20Mbps or larger chunks of a household's incoming pipe as a dedicated service delivery pipe; you could have several of these running simultaneously and still have enough spare bandwidth to watch all of Christina Aguilera's videos in YouTube high-def simultaneously.

But is this — streaming Christina Aguilera and live phone calls to get overseas weather forecasts — the pinnacle of fibre-optic communications as we know it? Are we going to get the NBN in our homes only to find out that it's simply more of the same, from the same people?

(Credit: Ericsson Australia)

Politicians, industry types, and scientific types used to generating terabytes of information per day already seem convinced they can think of things to do with all that bandwidth. But the use case seems to decline quickly after that: so far, the best applications the industry can come up with include smart metering and this vague concept that doctors will somehow be able to treat patients better when those patients have blazing-fast Internet services.

Some might argue that patients would be better served with hospitals that actually have enough doctors to manage them, but far be it from me to cast aspersions on the disgraceful state of healthcare. Or perhaps I just did.

At any rate, these sorts of applications are largely document-based and don't require the kind of bandwidth I saw buzzing around Ericsson Central. Not even the CDM-Net application, a government-backed healthcare initiative to improve management of chronic disease that was announced in 2007 and finally went live this week, requires the kind of bandwidth the NBN will deliver. Neither will the $4m remote diagnosis program to improve collaboration amongst southern NSW hospitals.

The government seems to believe that simply stamping 'NBN' on projects like this will lend weight to the so-far nebulous business case surrounding the network project.

Still, the government seems to believe that simply stamping "NBN" on projects like this will lend weight to the so-far nebulous business case surrounding the network project — the thinness of which was recently slammed in an independent analyst report. The thing is, none of these applications actually require that much bandwidth; even putting a high-definition telepresence system in every lounge room (perhaps a companion stimulus initiative to be announced during Rudd's re-election campaign next year?) wouldn't need this. If Labor really wants to increase utilisation of the NBN, it will legalise movie swapping and add BitTorrent techniques to the primary school curriculum; at least the ISP charges will start to justify the NBN's cost.

No, the most important thing about the NBN is not how much bandwidth it delivers, but the equality of access it delivers. It's nothing but a new baseline communications infrastructure for a country where the status quo is dangerously inadequate. And its value will underscore utility, e-health, and other initiatives made possible not by pushing multimedia at record speeds, but by the simple fact of having nearly every household enjoying a reliable data connection at last.

The "Candyman" demo showed that the NBN can give us in Melbourne equal access to streaming videos from Swedish media servers, but the NBN's ultimate value is something that Conroy — or recently hired commercial strategist Tim Smeallie — can't quite put their fingers on. Nor should they try; who could have envisioned the delivery of ISDN or ADSL way back when the copper loop was being architected half a century ago? Now as then, one thing holds true: If they build it, the rest will come.

Topics: Broadband, Mobility, Telcos, 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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  • This uncertainty is to be expected

    Henry Ford once said, that if he had consulted consumers about what they wanted from the Model T, they would have invariably said they wanted a better horse.

    This is a system whose benefits are not going to be immediately apparent in terms of what type of application can take full advantage of its speed. If it was, then that would be a clear sign that it is underspecified.

    The idea is that In 10-20 years time, we will have a better idea of what economic and business benefits the NBN has brought
  • Don't understate your demands

    In recent history, people and companies were shunning the 'Internet' as something a novalty and evil or dirty. At the times, many people were still managing with 56K dialup modems.

    Where are these people now? and who thought ADSL2 is a basic necessaty for "every" household.

    Let's not be cynical. 20Mb is not much today and it is definiately under-engineered if we are to predict the needs 10 years from now.
  • I agree with Christina

    As a communications engineer with some decades of experience, if I ever came up with a proposal costed at "somewhere between 28,000 and 43,000 Million Dollars," unrelated to any known marketing strategy, and without any business case to indicate how it might be viable (or to indicate what magnitude of subsidy it requires), I would hope to be FIRED!

    However, I just watched a video of "Candyman" by Christina Aguileria (using my not-broad-enough-band ADSL service) and I am now a total convert - why didn't Stephen Conroy reveal that she was a supporter of the NBN earlier? Now I want the broadest band possible as quickly as possible - (taxpayer) money is no object!
  • What's next and when?

    I'm with you Anonymous concerning Christina, cost just ain't a factor, lol.

    Seriously though, as we talk of the difficulty of knowing where technology will go and how quickly, could an expert inform me if it is possible that the fibre cable could be superseded in the years ahead.

    If the possibility is there that it could be, what is the point of spending 43 billion dollars on it. Surely it would make more sense to proceed to upgrade the present system at much less cost.
  • Good idea heres how

    Yep lets upgrade the present system, good idea.

    The governemnet should legislate forfeiture

    {the act of losing or surrendering something as a penalty for a mistake or fault or 'failure to perform'}

    laws, as Telstra fit the forfeiture interpretation perfectly, take back ownership with no compensation, as the years of automatic profits is compensation enough and upgrade the present system for all Australians.

    Thats a great idea not a good idea.
  • Blinkers must come off.

    You're floggin a dead horse Anon. Australia is awake to your devious Telstra bash.

    Best you start to invest a few bob and forget the cheap freeload on Telstra. The party's over.
  • Change is needed

    The benefits of a NBN far out way the negatives, both business and end users can benefit from higher speeds but the diversity is whats needed.

    By diversity I mean reach, we need to divise how to reach areas which have no coverage first then worry about the major metro second.

    Planning for something on a scale like this has to be done right, get it wrong and we will forever pay the price.

    The delivery of services to area most in need is an absolute must for this project.
  • @Blinkers

    Dear greedy, "BLINKERED", Telstra shareholder.

    Still no comment about Optus' D3 satellite, Telstra will be accessing (leeching your word) from, Sydney?

    Why do you continue these blatant, disgraceful lies (oh, the shares, that's right)!

    When are Telstra going to invest a few "bob" and launch a new satellite like Optus have, rather than continually sitting back and just scraping the cream form their inherited monopoly, fixed line network - leeches eh?
  • RS and Spin.

    RS not sure about that satellite. Will keep my eye out on my next early morning walk.
  • Fibre - The epitome or redundancy of

    Commercially for the next 15 years (unforeseen breakthrough' aside) Fibre will remain the epitome of bandwidth.

    But just like Rolls Royce continues to be the epitome of price. The epitome of function has well and trully been lost. Many cheaper and better alternatives are available against every metric worth considering.

    The govt went from offering $4.7 B to extend broadband by geography as its first aim (98% of pop.).

    12 mb/s was the supplementary aim.

    No fibre (technology) stipulation was given.

    Why within the process of evaluating the NBN 1.0 did it decide (magically) on 90% of Pop. with specifically 100 Mb/s with specifically fibre to the home?
    Not fibre to the node, Not HFC, Not LTE,
    Not ???

    Something overtly stinks very very bad, Kevin.
  • ??

    How are these two sentances to be interpreted?

    "we need to divise how to reach areas which have no coverage first "
    I read this as the bush.

    "The delivery of services to area most in need is an absolute must "
    I read this as metro areas.

    which is it?
  • WiMax

    WiMax is a viable alternative for the counrty areas and outer residential areas. It much cheaper to deploy and quicker to implement.

    Why waste the money !!!!
  • Blind to reality

    Sydney, Sydney, Sydney!

    Even if Optus' D3 satellite inexplicably fell from the sky, landed on you and the word OPTUS was indelibly imbedded into your forehead forever, you still wouldn't see it.

    Simply because you don't want to see it, just as your wife's portfolio and your own never ending greed dictates, you not see it!
  • A bit tired

    Sounds much like what we were showcasing at interop 9 years ago, so much for progress! 9 years down the track and we still don't have 100% national access and many are still stuck with dial-up internet. (and we're still awaiting that killer-ap?)

    What this country needs is not an NBN but digital access for every Australian regardless of where they live.

    A base service should cost the same regarless of the service tech (ie dsl, wireless, sat) and standard download min of 10 G/month.
  • Article tone confusing, ends on the right note

    Reading through this article, it appeared to be building up to giving the NBN a lambasting for building an over-engineered and unneeded broadband network.

    Then I hit the last two paragraphs, and went "Oh, that'll save me having to write exactly that in the comments".

    It appears several other commentators below also missed this change in tone, and commented appropriately.

    Build it, and they will come. Write about it, and they will only skim?
  • No suprised.

    I'm guessing all other vendors are struggling to come up with ideas to demo.

    I know we are as well :(
  • Digging Wells

    As I read recently, building the NBN is like building a dam or a multi-line highway - it will be fantastic for the future. You don't need to be using it at 100% today - that is not the point.

    Also, now that Conroy has realised that the so-called "Telstra-Bashers" are actually telling the truth about Telstra's despicable anti-competitive behaviour (I have encountered it many many times in my past and present roles to my absolute disbelief) and Conroy is going to pull them back into line - this is fantastic news for all Telco consumers.

    Also, I don't know why the posters even respond to the Lawrence poster - if a drunk moron comes up to you in the street then what do you do ? I just ignore them - not argue witt them.
  • At what price?

    People are talking about streaming HD movies of choice on a continuous basis--that's >10GB per day! How much is this "utility" going to cost the consumer?

    We need a communications watch-dog that mimics the u.s.-model. Telcos can actually be fined for making "too much" money! That' would stuff up Telstra's monopoly of what was a PUBLIC utility.