Photo: GLENN HUNT
If your internet drops out when it rains, don't expect the new-look NBN to rush to your aid.
Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull unveiled the Department of Communications' long-awaited Broadband Availability and Quality report on Thursday, as the next stage of the NBN revamp. The report contains page after page of charts and graphs finding different ways to tell us what we already know: Australia's current broadband infrastructure is a hotch-potch mess, but people who live in the metro areas are generally still better off than everyone else.
In other words, they might dump you in the too hard basket, which the new-look NBN Co can get away with now that it's scrapped its end user speed guarantee.
Along with releasing the report, Turnbull also unveiled an NBN-style MyBroadband map which lets you check the current availability of fixed and wireless broadband services in your area. The map supposedly identifies Australia's "broadband blackspots", but it's more like a best-guess coverage map.
When you enter your address, the blackspot map takes an educated guess as to your broadband access based on what's available to a few hundred nearby premises in your Telstra Distribution Area. You're told if you've probably got access to fibre to the premises, HFC cable, fibre to the node, fixed wireless or ADSL. If a service is probably available you're given a likely quality rating from A to E, along with an estimated median of the download speeds in your area. In other words, a rough estimate of what you're probably likely to get. Maybe.
To the government's credit, the DSL quality estimates don't just take into account your distance from the nearest telephone exchange. They also consider the availability of DSL ports at your exchange, along with impediments such as pair gain systems – which is where Telstra took shortcuts when rolling out the phone lines which now limit access to broadband over copper.
The government intends to prioritise the new NBN rollout based on the data in this report, says Turnbull, focusing on "those areas with the least effective broadband service at present". But when you get to the fine print, these areas will only be prioritised where it's "logistically and commercially feasible" to do so. Turnbull doesn't have figures on how much this will add to the cost of the rollout. So even if you're in a broadband blackspot your mileage may vary.
Of course the glaring omission in these blackspot calculations is the lack of acknowledgement that deteriorating copper lines have a major impact on DSL performance. A few years ago Ziggy Switkowski described Australia's copper network as being at "five minutes to midnight", but now that he's head of NBN Co and determined to keep the copper he's seen the light and tells us that copper is "more robust than anybody thought".
Switkowski should tell his story to people who lose their DSL access for days at a time whenever there's heavy rain. My friend Barry supposedly gets slightly more than 8 megabits per second (Mbps) over the copper DSL service according to the MyBroadband maps, but after heavy rain his service drops out for about 24 hours – delivering exactly 0 Mbps. The problem is getting worse but Telstra has checked the line twice and claims there's nothing wrong.
Some of Barry's friends who live nearby have the same problem. I think they're entitled to believe they live in a blackspot, but they shouldn't expect the new-look NBN to rush to their aid. If the problem with the copper is close to their homes then even an update to fibre to the node might not fix it.
There's plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest Barry and his neighbours aren't alone, at the mercy of line faults and dodgy repairs which leave the copper exposed. Unfortunately once you dip into the fine print of the report, the situation doesn't look good for the likes of Barry:
"The analysis has found that there are areas of inadequate access to infrastructure across the country, including areas distributed as small pockets of poor service in metropolitan and outer metropolitan areas. It will be difficult for NBN Co to deploy in these areas but the objective is to prioritise the areas of greatest need where this is logistically and commercially feasible."
In other words, they might dump you in the too hard basket, which the new-look NBN Co can get away with now that it's scrapped its end user speed guarantee. When you read the fine print, they haven't really promised Barry anything. Or anyone else, for that matter.
Turnbull isn't oblivious to the fact the the condition of the copper lines is missing from this data, but says the MyBroadband blackspot map is "the closest you can do without testing every single premises in the country".
"We've done a lot of work with the telcos and we're satisfied that these estimates, they don't just measure the distance from the exchange, this is consistent with the telcos' own experience," he said at Thursday's launch.
"This represents the sum total of the knowledge of the telcos as to what they believe, based on their records."
There's no word as to if or when NBN Co will actually start testing the condition of the copper lines, although if the problem areas aren't fixed then the new-look NBN will still leave some people in the lurch – regardless of what the MyBroadband map says. Even speedtest.net results count for little if they're just the speeds on a good day. Fixing the deteriorating copper further down the track, on a case by case basis, won't be cheap. We're supposed to believe it's cheaper than taking copper out of the equation completely.
To be clear, I don't have a problem with the NBN rollout prioritising areas that have poor access to broadband services. I just want to make it clear that if your internet is flaky now, don't take Thursday's announcement as an indication that they're rushing around to fix it any time soon.
Does your internet access dropout in the rain? How does the MyBroadband map rate your service?