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

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.
Written by Stilgherrian , Contributor

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.

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