Photo: Michele Mossop
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A third of Australia will be left to rot on struggling cable broadband networks after the Coalition further downscaled the national fibre network.
Some people held out hope that once in power Turnbull would try to steer away from Abbott's wrecking ball approach to the NBN and find a way to roll out as much fibre as practical.
The Government's strategic review of the NBN, released on Thursday, actually delivers much less than what Malcolm Turnbull proposed when in opposition. Probably the biggest change is that the government now intends to connect almost a third of the country to the existing Hybrid Fibre Coax (HFC) cable networks rather than fibre-to-the-premises or even fibre-to-the-node. If pay TV cable runs down your street you can probably spot the problems with this plan.
The first hurdle is that many houses in the HFC rollout areas can't actually connect to the HFC cable. In some suburbs the Telstra and Optus rollouts followed each other up one street and then both skipped the next street, leaving in their wake a digital divide of haves and have-nots. Even if the cable stopped a few feet short of your house, no amount of begging and pleading could get them to come back and hook you up.
Under the Coalition's pre-election NBN plans these homes without cable would have been last in line for the fibre network because HFC areas would have been a low priority. At least they would have got it eventually. Now they're in limbo, because the new-look NBN Co will be reluctant to run fibre to the premises or the node in these areas to cater for those homes which don't have access to the cable. Worst-case scenario they could be left to languish on ADSL2+ or some form of VDSL running all the way back to the exchange – which is of little comfort if the condition of the copper line is your biggest impediment to decent broadband access. As soon as it rains you'll be back on the National Broken Network. This isn't the case – every home in the HFC footprint will get a connection (a point I didn't make clear in the first version of this story). But judging by the horror stores from some HFC users there are times when you might wish you were back on copper.
The digital divide created by the haphazard cable rollouts even exists within streets. If you're on a multi-dwelling property, the Telstra and Optus cable networks would only connect to the front premises. Even if you're on a side-by-side divided block, chances are that only one home will be hooked up to the cable. This problem has become much worse in the last few years as more and more homes are torn down to build units. Once again, no amount of pleading will get the telco to hook you up to the cable. In many streets you'll find every second home has access to a 100 megabits-per-second (Mbps) cable connection while their neighbours are stuck with sub-5 Mbps DSL.
The idea of going back to connect all those overlooked homes to the HFC network isn't as straight-forward as you might think. We'll need a whole new round of negotiations for NBN Co to gain access to Telstra and Optus' cable networks, which aren't even open to wholesale access at this point. Retro-fitting an entire street with HFC connections could mean forcing every home to use Telstra or Optus as their ISP. This obviously isn't acceptable, but you can imagine how Telstra and Optus will behave at the negotiating table now they're holding a third of the country to ransom.
Today, Telstra and Optus have about 1 million HFC broadband subscribers, which reportedly represents a combined penetration rate of 36 per cent of premises. This means the new-look NBN could triple the number of users on the HFC networks in order to avoid running fibre to those areas. The government actually predicts that 3.4 million premises will end up on HFC under the new NBN plan. That's every home in the HFC footprint. Heaven help anyone stuck in those areas who was actually relying on the NBN to deliver more reliable broadband.
The logistics of adding around 2.5 million new premises to the HFC networks is a nightmare, but don't let the government dismiss this as a minor technical detail. If you want to look at the big picture, the real problem is that the HFC networks can't cope with the customers they already have. Unlike fibre or DSL, the speed of your HFC connection is at the mercy of the homes around you. Optus' HFC network already slows to a crawl during peak hour, as kids come home from school and hit the internet.
A 100 Mbps cable connection isn't worth much if you can't squeeze much more than 1 Mbps out of it. Don't rely on the government's 25 Mbps minimum download speed commitment to save you either, because NBN Co rewrote the fine print on Thursday. All guaranteed speeds are now "wholesale speeds", which means it's the speed that NBN Co will offer to your ISP but not necessarily the speed you'll see at home. To cite the fine print in Ziggy Switkowski's press release:
* NBN Co will be designing the new-look NBN to provide these speeds to NBN Co's wholesale customers (internet service providers). End-user experience, including the speeds actually achieved over the NBN, will continue to depend on a number of factors outside our control including end-user equipment quality, software, broadband plans and how each service provider designs its network.
In other words, don't blame us if the second-rate broadband infrastructure you're forced to rely on can't actually deliver the speeds we promised.
The primary reason for building the NBN was to escape this problem, but now Malcolm Turnbull is prepared to spend billions of dollars to put us right back where we started. Some people were prepared to give Turnbull the benefit of the doubt, because some of his pre-election comments regarding NBN compromises actually seemed quite reasonable.
Some people held out hope that once in power Turnbull would try to steer away from Abbott's wrecking ball approach to the NBN and find a way to roll out as much fibre as practical. If it was up to Abbott, NBN Co would be investing in 10 million tin cans and the world's biggest ball of string. But it's hard to have faith in Turnbull and the Abbott government now that it's condemned a third of the country to languish on the struggling HFC cable networks. Talk of upgrading the HFC network is meaningless if all it's going to do is lift those fairytale wholesale speeds. No amount of proposed network upgrades will bring the HFC network into line with what fibre would have delivered in terms of speed AND reliability.
Back in the 1990s those homes with cable broadband access were considered the lucky ones. Now they're looking like the forgotten victims of the Coalition's National Broken Network.
Are you in HFC suburb? What hope do you hold for the NBN?