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Is the NBN a Good Idea

Since writing my post about whether the National Broadband Network can ever break even [1] I’ve had a number of people try to convince me of it’s merit. He is my summary and rebuttal of some of the arguments for the NBN:

The FUD

Claims are made that Australia may fall behind the rest of the world, children may be disadvantaged in their education, or many other bad things may unless a faster net access is provided to everyone. That is FUD. If we are going to spend $43,000,000,000 then we should have some evidence that it will do some good.

One thing to note is that rural areas will not get anything near the 100Mb/s speeds that FTTH will deliver to people in the cities. So if faster net access is actually essential then it would probably make sense to start by delivering ADSL2+ speeds to rural areas – something that is not planned to be part of the NBN.

Some people claim that having slow net access (ADSL2+) is going to preclude unknown future uses of the Internet. However the NBN is only going to be 100MB/s so any such claim is essentially that “unknown things will happen in the future to make 24Mb/s too slow, but those unknown things won’t make 100Mb/s too slow”. I started using computer networks when a 1200/75 modem was considered fast. Over about the last 25 years typical net access speeds have increased from 1200b/s to about 12Mb/s, that’s a factor of 10,000 speed improvement! Now the people who believe that we only need to multiply the current speed by a factor of 4 to address all future needs could be correct, but it seems unlikely and doesn’t seem like a good idea for a $43,000,000,000 bet. If they were talking about 1Gb/s net access then things would be different in this regard.

Technological Development

Some people compare the NBN to the Apollo Program and suggest that the scientific research involved in implementing a FTTH network might result in useful developments in other areas.

The Wikipedia page about Fiber to the premises by country indicates that Hong Kong had 1Gb/s available in 2006. It seems that a service which is rolled out 4 years later and 10 times slower than in Hong Kong is not going to involve a huge amount of research. Certainly nothing like the Apollo Program.

It would allow multiple HDTV channels to be viewed at the same time

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2001 the average Australian household had 2.6 people (3.0 in NT) [2]. The incidence of every member of a household wanting to watch a different live TV channel at the same time is probably quite low, it seems that young people nowadays spend as much time watching Youtube as they do watching TV. Based on the Wikipedia bit-rate page it seems that an ADSL2+ link could stream two HDTV channels.

I could use fiber speeds today

There are some people who claim that they need faster speeds for their data transfers right now. The problem is that the latency of data transfer is a bottleneck in transfer rates. In some quick tests between servers that have reasonably fast connections to the Internet I was only able to get one international transfer in excess of ADSL2+ speed (24Mb/s or 3MB/s).

I was able to transfer data between London and Germany at a speed of 11MB/s – which was possibly limited by the 100baseT Ethernet connection in the data center in Germany. Now if the people who pay for that German server were to pay more then they would get a higher speed. So anyone who downloads anything from my web site in it’s current configuration would get a significant performance boost by using an NBN connection – if they live in Europe! But if they live in Australia then they will probably get a fraction of that speed (a quick test indicates that my ADSL2+ connection gives me about 500KB/s from my web server. I need to have at least three transfers going at the same time to get more than 600KB/s when downloading files from other countries, and it’s rare to have a single download run at a speed higher than 100KB/s.

It would be handy if I could download at higher speeds from my ISP’s mirror (which seems to be the only way someone in Australia can even use full ADSL2+ speeds). But it’s certainly not worth the $5,000 per household installation cost of the NBN to get that.

I’m sure that there are some people who really do have usage patterns that could take advantage of fiber net access, one possibility would be downloading large files from a local source such as a major web site that uses a CDN. It seems likely to me that the majority of people who fit this category are using major porn services.

Fiber would be good for Video-Conferencing

To be better than ADSL for video-conferencing a NBN connection would need a faster upload speed. Internode is already selling NBN connections for the trial areas [3]. The cheapest fiber plans that they offer are at the 50/2 speed, that’s 50Mb/s download and 2Mb/s upload – in theory ADSL2+ should have a higher upload speed. In my tests the best result I’ve got from sending files over my ADSL2+ link to another country is about 110KB/s (880Kb/s). The fact that the theoretical speed of a fiber connection is better than the measured speed of an ADSL2+ connection in this regard doesn’t mean much, let’s not assume that a fiber connection will get it’s theoretical maximum speed.

Not that you necessarily need higher speeds for video-conferencing, Youtube is one of many services that uses a lot less bandwidth than the upload speed of an ADSL2+ connection. Also video-calls which are supported on most 3G mobile phones use even less bandwidth again.

I want an NBN connection to run a server at home

The fastest connection for uploading that Internode offers to “home users” is the “Home High” plan at 100/8 speed, that is maybe a bit more than twice as fast for uploading as ADSL2+. They also offer a SOHO plan that supports 16Mb/s upload speed (at extra expense) and suggest that customers who want higher speeds contact their business sales department. But they include both sending and receiving data in the bandwidth quota for the fiber connections. Transmitting data at 16Mb/s isn’t that great for a server.

The cheapest virtual server plan on offer from Linode [4] includes 200GB of data transfer per month and has significantly higher transmission speeds. You could get a Linode virtual server plus an Internode ADSL2+ connection for about the same price as an Internode fiber connection to the home.

There are two down-sides to virtual servers, one is that they are limited in the amount of RAM that they have (I can easily afford to buy 8G of RAM for a home system but renting an 8G virtual server is going to be expensive) and the other is that the storage is limited. Shared storage on virtual servers can be slow and is limited in size. If you need to run a server with a few terabytes of data storage (which is cheap on commodity SATA disks but expensive on server-grade disks) and you don’t need to transfer much of it then a home server on the NBN might do well. Otherwise it’s probably not going to work well for server use.

The NBN will avoid people leaving their PC on to do downloads and save electricity

To save electricity you would have to have a significant incidence of situations where a download can complete fast enough over the NBN to allow the user to turn their PC off before going to bed but be slow enough over ADSL to require that it be left on overnight. That would probably only apply to downloads from a CDN or from a local ISP mirror. From the Internode mirror I can download a test file at a speed of 850KB/s (I guess this means that my ADSL connection is not delivering full speed – I suspect poor quality wiring in my home and would try to fix it if the current speed was too slow). In 5 minutes spend brushing my teeth I could download 250M of data, in the same time if I had a 100/4 connection on the NBN I might be able to download almost 3G of data. So in the unlikely event that I wanted to download a CD or DVD image and turn off my PC immediately before going to bed then the NBN would be a good thing.

But then of course I would want to burn the CD or DVD image to disc and that would take long enough that I would leave it on overnight…

My ADSL connection gives really low speeds or I’m out of range for ADSL

Some people who live only a short distance from an exchange are unable to get ADSL2+. Some people live a long way from exchanges and are outside ADSL range. The ideal solution to these problems is not to provide fiber access to the majority of the population, it is to provide ADSL to everyone who is near an exchange and maybe provide fiber access to some people who are a long way from exchanges.

I find it rather ironic that some people in the country are essentially saying “because net access in the country is so slow we need fiber in the cities”. The NBN is not going to give fiber to rural areas, satellite is one of the options that will be used.

Really High Speeds

I have been informed that to get the distances needed for the NBN they have to use Single Mode Fiber, this permits scaling up to higher speeds at some later time by changing the hardware at the end points. So we could end up with a Hong Kong speed network at some future time with the same fibers. This is a good thing.

But I don’t think that we need to get fiber installed right now so that we can use 100Mb, we could wait until there is enough need to get the faster transmission rates from the start. At the moment it’s just a waste of money.

5 comments to Is the NBN a Good Idea

  • You say videoconferencing will be enabled by the NBN. Call me a cynic.

    Videoconferencing has been the “next big thing” since forever. I remember visiting the Wollongong telephone exchange at an open day when I was maybe 8 years old before most people had even heard of the Internet, and they were demoing video phones there.

    On 28.8k dial-up we watched a live space shuttle launch with RealPlayer in the late 90′s. That was a fun night that will stay with me forever. :)

    When we first started getting ADSL in the early 2000s, videoconferencing was touted as a feature back then, especially the medical applications. I expected us to have a video phone with a 20-inch screen within years.

    And yet videoconferencing still didn’t take off.

    I guess you can understand why I’m cynical videoconferencing will take off even with the NBN.

  • etbe

    Jeremy: I agree. But people keep citing video-conferencing as one of the reasons for spending $43,000,000,000 on new Internet infrastructure in Australia.

    I think that a major problem with video-conferencing is that people don’t want it. You don’t have to look good for a regular phone call…

  • I do video-conferencing at my work sometimes – it usually starts with audio conference, but then someone needs to show something and the screensharing is not quite enough, so we switch to video conferencing. Done it a few times in the last few months.

    Now for FTTH – we are deploying this in Latvia now. Around 100k people have been connected to 100Mbit fiber lines right to their apartments and now they are testing 200 Mbit and 500 Mbit connections as well over the same fiber, just with a different router on the client side (and different hardware on the regional central, I assume). This is being done by one of the larger ISPs on their own money. But the key is that they will not go with this tech into rural areas without a government subsidy, because it costs 2000-3000$ per kilometre to connect something. While the government is looking to find money for the subsidies ‘at some point’, the private sector is practising with customers in the large cities, so that they have the know-how when the government offers the subsidies in a few years.

    What you guys should be doing is similar to this: government says to the private sector ‘we will be offering big subsidies to connect rural communities with FTTH in 5 years, but only companies with at least 1 million FTTH customers will be able to apply’ so that ISP could start a race to get fiber into as many profitable homes in the cities as they can, so that they can qualify for that government money down the road.

  • etbe

    Aigars: That’s a really good idea, I’d vote for that!

    Are the 100Mbit fiber connections symmetrical? In Australia the common offers are 25/2, 50/4 and 100/8 so you don’t get much more upload speed than is necessary for ACK packets – it’s really not designed for uploading. I think that making symmetrical speeds the standard for everyone would be a significant benefit.

    Now Australian “rural” areas are a lot more remote than any part of Latvia (with all due respect all European countries apart from Russia are tiny when compared to Australia). This makes it technically a lot more difficult to provide service to rural areas. Part of the NBN involves government subsidies for rural net access, but they are talking about wireless (which can be fast but probably won’t) and satellite which has horrible latency.

  • Wendy macdonald

    In my opinion 43 Billion would build a seriously big hospital and some well funded schools.I can see one great advantage though. While lying on a trolley in a hallway in an emergency dept. Patients waiting hours to see a real doctor may be able to videoconference with a specialist (as described by our PM when she was citing the great benefits of the NBN) if they remember to bring their laptop!