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NBN: how much speed do we really need?

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Need for speed?

The Coalition's alternative broadband network is under siege as opponents insist the speed promised in the government's plan is worth the extra money and the wait.

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Just two decades ago, with a dial-up internet connection, it would have taken more than a lifetime to download a single movie.

Today's 24 megabits per second (Mbps) ADSL2+ broadband connections can pull down multiple HD movie streams simultaneously.

Offering: Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull spruik the Coalition's broadband plan.

Offering: Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull spruik the Coalition's broadband plan.

The debate raging over whether the Coalition's 25Mbps minimum broadband plan is adequate compared with Labor's 100Mbps to 1 gigabit per second (Gbps) offering raises the question: how much speed do we actually need?

Geoff Heydon, business development manager for CSIRO's Digital Productivity and Services Flagship, has spent decades looking at this question. In 2002, he predicted that, by 2020, high-end home users would require 1Gbps connections.

Ultra high-definition streaming television, or 4K TV, which offers four times the resolution of current HD TV, will require about 28Mbps for a single stream, he said. Products supporting this are already on the market, and 8KTV, requiring four times more bandwidth again, is in development.

Rollout: The NBN is installed in Hobart.

Rollout: The NBN is installed in Hobart.

"If you start to introduce the idea of holographic or 3D image projection - and I expect within five years we'll see early low-quality holographic entertainment systems - they will require even more bandwidth," said Heydon.

Bandwidth requirements are rapidly multiplying. Many households now have multiple large screens connected to the web as well as several portable devices such as smartphones and tablets. Fibre-to-the-home, which is Labor's proposal, is technically infinitely upgradeable.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in the quarter ending December 2010, Australians downloaded 174,665 terabytes (TB) of data over fixed-line broadband connections. This jumped to 254,947 TB in the quarter ending June 2011, to 322,290 TB in the December 2011 quarter and again to 389,130 TB by June 2012. The December 2012 figure, released this week, is over 500,000 TB.

Futurist Mark Pesce, honorary associate in digital cultures at the University of Sydney, said in 10 years time the average household would have "north of 100 devices" connected.

"The car's going to be talking to the dealership, the dishwasher's going to be talking to Sydney Water, the lights and the airconditioner are going to be talking to Energy Australia ... your toilet's going to be analysing your urine for you and talking to your doctor," he said.

"When you have all these devices trying to talk, you have to make sure they can talk in an uncluttered fashion."

From June 2010 to June 2012, the number of Australians streaming video increased from 2.3 million to almost 4.4 million, according to market research firm Roy Morgan.

"Twenty-five years ago it was literally impossible in somebody's lifetime to download a movie, and yet 25 years later, families are doing it every single day - and they're doing it without much delay," said Heydon. "The next 25 years will translate into just as many mind-blowing changes."

Networking company Cisco predicted that by 2016, global internet traffic would reach 1.3 zettabytes per year (1 trillion gigabytes), which is 10 times the number for 2008.

As Australia tosses up these two broadband plans, Google has announced it will bring its gigabit internet service Google Fibre to a second US city: Austin, Texas.

Supporters of the National Broadband Network argue that the things we will be using the extra bandwidth for haven't even been invented yet, because the pipes need to be there to encourage companies such as Google to innovate.

"The problem with designing a network to meet the needs of today is that it denies you the ability to meet the needs of tomorrow," said technology commentator Brad Howarth, author of A Faster Future.

"It's like the M5 tunnel – by the time it was completed, it was already jamming up."

Ian Teague, senior manager for Australasia at Akamai, which delivers 15-30 per cent of the world's internet traffic, confirmed that 4K TV would require at least 25Mbps for each connected television.

"The ultra HD rent/download model becoming popular will face significant adoption issues in the case of long download times," he said.

In the business world and fields such as medicine there is a need to transfer files that are up to several terabytes in size, said Teague.

"All this, combined with the 'work from home' revolution ... make very high speed internet essential."

 

377 comments

  • How much speed do we need is like asking how much RAM we need. Even Bill Gates once said that 640K ought to be enough for anybody.

    Commenter
    Mike
    Date and time
    April 10, 2013, 2:19PM
    • Exactly. No matter how wide the pipe, we will fill it. Conversely we will make do with however narrow the pipe is, we just get used to it. Frankly to build capacity significantly over what is currently envisioned is commercial lunacy. The only reason it is happening at all is because the taxpayers are footing the bill.

      Commenter
      l r
      Date and time
      April 10, 2013, 2:45PM
    • It's not that difficult Mike, but you do have to understand the TCP transport protocol. Basically all download speeds quoted by broadband providers and Telcos is based on line speed. When Turnbull talks about 25Mbps he is quoting line speed. When you download data the real speed that you are actually getting is reduced by distance, number of subscribers sharing the DSLAM and the quality of the line from the DSLAM to the premises. If we take the optimum scenario of a user with a good quality connection who is less than 1000m from the multiplexer and a line speed of 25Mbps the actual amount of data they will receive on their disk is around 3Mbps. If the user has a wireless router and there are several users in the premises the actual data downloaded will halve again (depending on router and number of users) leaving an actual down load speed of around 1.5Mbps. This is a very very long way short of 25Mbps and is the elephant in the room that everyone is ignoring. If you have four users in the premises and they each are downloading HD video you need a minimum of 16Mbps (actual data not line speed). Turnbull quoted BT in the UK as his source of technical advice. BT have been installing FTTN since 2010 and have upgraded their speed requirements three times. They are currently upgrading to an optional service of 330Mbps. Their existing top of line service is currently being offered at 100Mbps. I think the current price is 26 pounds per month, but you can check their website. Incidently I have a line speed of 16Mbps and because of slow speed due to high traffic in my area, typing this was a bit of a nightmare.

      Commenter
      Jonathan
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      April 10, 2013, 3:31PM
    • Why is the Coalition even proposing anything at all? It is a ridiculous waste of money to build FTTN, because the ISPs would have done that anyway and it wouldn't have cost us a cent. So instead of giving us the opportunity to keep up with the rest of the world, they've decided to defer the expense until a later date. Their policy takes us back 10 years. That's how much of a backward step it is.

      Austin Texas is getting 1000Mbps, and the Coalition are promising 25Mbps, which is only 2.5%. What an absolute waste of money. No vote for you.

      As for having the money, this is Australia's 21st year of economic growth of which the last 6 years were with a Labor government. We have a AAA rating so we can afford it, and it is futureproofing.

      The newest applications that take advantage of these speeds and the patents to go with those applications will only be created when it becomes viable to create a business to use the provided speeds. We have to get in there early and be the ones to patent those applications.

      To give you an example of what is wrong with Coalition policy, take video conferencing. 10 years ago it was not viable, because the images were too grainy. For many people it is still grainy, and with the Coalition's policy some will still end up with grainy pictures. With fibre to the home, 93% of the population will be able to get crystal clear video phones.

      Commenter
      Tone
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      April 10, 2013, 3:43PM
    • Your conversely is wrong. I have >never< heard anyone go "oh well, the internet is slow... guess that's just the way it is".

      Competition in IT is the same as competition in formula 1. It is all about innovation not mediocrity and tradeoff.

      Commenter
      Jase
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      April 10, 2013, 4:19PM
    • Wow, Luke R / Lr / L R: you seem to have a decisive analysis of every comment in favour of coalition policy. Methinks you a stooge of the party. Fess up! Is this what we can expect (probably from bothe isdes) in the run to September?

      Commenter
      Bony Tabbot
      Location
      Dodge City
      Date and time
      April 10, 2013, 4:27PM
    • Precisely. And when we remove the bottlenecks the possibilities for various applications too become a reality. I know this because having spent time in Singapore with a mobile device manufacturer the roll-out of SingaporeOne fibre optics network simply pushed us to consider so many different applications that we thought would not be possible, especially in the area of medicine. This is why Google itself has setup a 1Gbps trial network to explore future applications. We cannot craft fit the future into today's constraints.

      Commenter
      Jon
      Date and time
      April 10, 2013, 4:38PM
    • I remember when I bought my first Mac and it had a 20G hard drive and I could never imagine filling it! An episode of Two and a Half Men last night had one of the main characters going "gaga" over 28kbs/sec dial-up speed. The Coalition's NBN plan makes no sense - it's designed to con (what it thinks is) an unsophisticated electorate into voting for "cheaper, sooner" instead of "better, later".

      Commenter
      David
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      April 10, 2013, 4:40PM
    • l r your logic of not doing anymore than you foresee is totally silly. Technology is the greatest example of exponential expansion we've ever seen. The SMH has had around half a dozen articles about this topic just today and a majority of experts have been heavily in favour of the ALP policy.
      Lets do this once properly, instead of half-arsed with ongoing problems.

      Commenter
      meatatarian
      Date and time
      April 10, 2013, 4:41PM
    • The cheapest deal on the NBN is $40 a month with only 50 gigabytes and 12 mbps download speed. Currently thanks to Dodo I get unlimited downloads and 16 mbps (I'm 700 metres from the phone exchange) for $35 a month. As I can only afford $35 a month for the internet WHY do I need the NBN? So what do I get for paying $5 more 4 mbps less and only 50 gigabytes to download. Thanks Mr Broadband I will still be able to get my unlimited internet for $35

      Commenter
      Mark of Adelaide
      Date and time
      April 10, 2013, 4:45PM

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