Just how fast is fast, anyway?

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.


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