Thursday, August 19, 2010

Labor and Liberal's battle of the broadband

Probably much to Labor’s own relief, its problematic Internet filtering policy appears dead in the water. A policy pursued with vigour during the early days of the Rudd administration, it was deferred to 2011 last month before being delivered the coup de grace in recent times with both the Liberals and Greens coming out in opposition to it. Labor haven’t yet formally cut it loose but it is merely a matter of time, probably around 1 July 2011 when the buffoonish pro-filter Family First Senator Steve Fielding is finally turfed out of a parliamentary position that squalid Labor backroom tactics got him into in the first place.

If there is a communications policy fight in this election it is now over how broadband will be delivered to the home in the years to come. The centrepiece of Labor’s policy is the National Broadband Network. The ambitious NBN is Australia’s largest ever infrastructure project and will involve the laying of fibre optic cabling to Australian homes, schools and businesses. It will be capable of delivering speeds of 100 megabits per second which is up to 100 times faster than most current speeds. The NBN will reach 93 percent of the Australian population with the remaining premises connected via a combination of next generation high speed wireless and satellite technologies delivering broadband at the much lower speed of 12 Mbps.

The work (both fibre optic and wireless/satellite) has already started under the auspices of the new NBN Co led by former Alcatel boss Mike Quigley. Quigley was chosen for his American experience developing and integrating large scale Fibre-To-The-Premise and Fibre-To-The-Node implementations for US telecommunication carriers.

Most of Australia's telecommunications network is still copper based. This is ageing technology that is primarily responsible for Australia’s slow Internet response times. FTTP involves laying optical fibre from a central location right to the home or business. While it could potentially deliver broadband at speeds of up to 100Mbps, the actual speed is determined by the size of the Passive Optical Network.

The technology is capable of transmitting data at speeds of up to 2.5Gbps; however this amount is divided by the number of termination points on the PON to determine the actual bandwidth to each end point. FTTN is a cheaper option (and was Labor's policy until 2007). In this case fibre is terminated in a street cabinet up to several kilometres away from the customer premises, with the final connection being copper. Customers typically connect using traditional coaxial cable or twisted pair wiring, both of which are 19th century technologies.

The current Labor Government is going with the FTTP option. FTTP is expensive and is one of the reasons the NBN is likely to cost in excess of $43 billion (though this is likely to be substantially reduced now that Telstra are inside the tent) with a rollout period of eight years. Phase 1 has already begun in Tasmania with 1,200km of cable laid and the first services have been switched on in the north-east communities of Midway Point, Smithton and Scottsdale.

In these towns the ISPs iiNet, Internode and iPrimus are offering 25Mbps for $29.95 and 100 Mbps for $59.95 per month. Labor is also addressing “regional blackspots” on the mainland with 6,000 km of new, competitive fibre optic backbone links are being rolled out in regional Australia. NBN boss Mike Quigley is now saying that 1000 Mbps plans may also be available for wholesale. Communications Minister Stephen Conroy said at this speed a school could download a hi-def documentary in 20 seconds rather than the five hours it takes now.

The Liberals meanwhile agree Australia needs fast, reliable and affordable broadband services but differs on the technology it wants to use to provide it. It says the NBN Co will be a taxpayer funded white elephant when it is completed in eight years time, does not deliver lower prices, and gives no priority to those who do not currently get an adequate service. They will cancel the NBN and instead deliver a 13 point plan they say will “encourage competition and ensure services reach all Australians.”

Their plan is significantly cheaper than Labor’s at $6 billion and will cover more of the population at 97 percent and will be completed quicker too. However they will only commit to offering 12 Mbps relying heavily on wireless technologies. They will provide $2.75 billion for an open access, fibre-optic backhaul network which connects the big cities to compete with Telstra, $2 billion for blackspots in outer metro and regional areas, $750 million for fixed broadband optimisation on older exchanges and funding for satellite serves for the outlying 3 percent.

The response from experts in the communications field has been mixed. Crikey’s tech writer Stilgherrian said the difference between the two policies as much about ideology, vision and political rhetoric as technological choice. He said the Coalition’s saves money now, but asks “is it merely delaying the inevitable big spend?” However ZDNet reports some analysts saying the Liberal's plan could potentially be safer, more flexible and "give more bang for your buck".

Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, Adam Turner said the Liberal's plans were stop-gap measures while he called the NBN “future-proof”. The Internet Industry Association has also come out in favour of the NBN saying “the key to Australia’s broadband future is speed.” However Commsday CEO Grahame Lynch in The Australian slammed the NBN as “the world's most generous telecom industry welfare scheme”.

The attitudes of the Greens in the Senate will be crucial to deciding the outcome of telecommunications policy regardless of which sides wins the election. The Greens policy is strangely silent on the position of the NBN. However their ICT spokesperson Senator Scott Ludlam said the NBN should go ahead, with priority for communities in regional areas. “It should absolutely stay in public hands so that we don't see another repeat of the debacle that followed the privatisation of Telstra,” he said. The Greens are also cold on the Coalition’s alternative with Ludlam calling it “a real patchwork of service delivery.”

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