The Digital Divide Grows Thanks to NBN Myopia

With the rollout of the NBN Satellite service underway it is perhaps unsurprising that the cracks in the system are starting to show, at least to  those of us who have not been blindsided by the spin provided by governments of both persuasions.

The satellite service is already not living up to its promise, with plenty of chat on social media about the slowness and the flakiness of the service.  This was all easy to predict as I've previously discussed, but what is of more concern is the use of "price signals" to manage the abysmal planning failures.

Currently if you want more than 75GB in a month, then you have to look at options other than satellite.  Sure, you can get generous "off peak" allowances, but since when is the 6 hours between 1am and 7am a viable time for utilising that extra data?  Are kids expected to do their homework in that timeslot?  Are businesses expected to do their admin, that is increasingly internet-based, during that time?  So, for around $115 or so you can get 50 usable GB (i.e. in a time that you are likely to be able to utilise it) on a satellite plan. Heaps, right?  Not according to ABS.  In December 2015, roughly 13 million subscribers downloaded over 1.7 exabytes, or an average of around 140GB per subscriber per month.

Looking at those figures will also reveal that data downloads have been doubling on a per-subscriber basis every 18 months or so.  This is as a result of the increase in rich media, social media, collaboration tools and simply the fact that as more people are on the internet, they are engaging more with others. Business is carried out over the internet more. Shopping over the internet is on an upward spiral. Interacting with government is increasingly via the internet. Schooling is making increasing use of internet. Even the "self-serve" support which used to be text-based tutorials is moving more and more towards video.  All of these factors mean that the 75GB limit is a joke, and forcing people to pay more for it is criminal.

Speaking of criminal, what about the alternatives?  Mobile broadband?  Remember the 1000GB per month I mentioned?  If you want to get that on any mobile broadband plan you are looking at close to $10,000 per month rather than the $50 or so you'd be asked for on a real service.  Yet many of us outside the major population centres have no choice but mobile broadband.  The satellite isn't going to get to many areas until 2020, and even when it does we already have evidence it won't cut it.

City users are getting the benefits of the doubling of data, with their per-GB pricing dropping drastically to mere cents.  Compare that with the over $3 per GB on the higher satellite plans or the $10 per GB on a mobile broadband plans and you can see that the digital divide is still with us, and widening.  The NBN, and certainly the government inteference, have exacerbated this situation by having this bizzare idea that people in regional, rural and remote Australia somehow are not going to use the internet as much as their city cousins.  With the competition in the agricultural sector there has seen a massive increase in the use of technology to reduce costs and improve efficiency.  Yet without decent internet this technology is never going to reach its true potential.

Clever country? Fat chance.


Jedda's "Golden Glow" dims

Jedda aka Golden Glow

Jedda, my 9 year old Australian Terrier, today lost her "Golden Glow".   That was her kennel name when we got her.  Born on ANZAC day, she was as tough as they come, but it appears that liver cancer is tougher. 

Jedda was vivacious, anarchic, over-the-top with a lust for life that sometimes left you speechless - or at least hoarse from yelling at her.  She loved nothing more than a long walk, however there was never a walk long enough or with enough new friends, both human and canine, to meet, nor was the car ride short enough to get there.  Until proven otherwise, Jedda approached every new person or dog as a potential friend, with her tail wagging and her eyes bright. If proven otherwise, she was a terrier through and through and would take on any dog, no matter how big.

She was a challenge at times, headstrong and feisty.  We all have bites from trying to do something to her that she didn't like, such as cutting her nails.  When meal times came around, or the lead was produced for a walk, she would bounce up and down until the plate was in front of her or the lead on her collar.  You always knew she was around at dinner time. At least until last week.

The only saving grace was that the progression was quick, and we got a few hours to spend with her at the vet's before she was taken from us, both literally and metaphorically.

Digital Divide Part Two

In my last post on the NBN I got a few things wrong.  The $41 billion pricetag is not just for the satellite service. The satellite component is priced at $2 billion (or $3.5 billion if you include fixed wireless, or anything up to around $5 billion if you actually want all households to be serviced, according to this report - page 13, available on the NBN Co website).  Does this change the base argument? Not really.  If you look into that report a bit further you find some interesting gems, but first, let's look at some NBN marketing.  In this piece we are told just how wonderful the NBN is, but there are a few asterisks in that text that then point to this:

*Your experience including the speeds actually achieved over the nbn™ network depends on the technology over which services are delivered to your premises and some factors outside our control like your equipment quality, software, broadband plans and how your service provider designs its network.

 So back to the report.  It states that even at 65% take up of the satellite service, the "mean busy hour throughput" will be 150kbps - or just about 3 times dialup speed.  Hang on, isn't it supposed to be 25Mbps down, 5Mbps up?  Well, here is where the marketing and the technical realities diverge.  Unlike FTTP where you have a high-bandwidth connection that comes directly to the house, with satellite you have a limited number of transponders, each of which supplies a beam that covers a fixed geographical area.  Each transponder is limited in its bandwidth, and that bandwidth is shared amongst the 500 to 15,000 premises covered by that beam.  So if we actually use the service, the speed we get is determined by where we live and hence how many other premises are covered by the same beam.   The more successful the marketing, the less useable is the outcome.

The interim satellite service (ISS) quickly became over subscribed as mentioned in the previous post, and the above report suggests that this is likely with the new service.  Indeed one of the options it recommends is a third satellite coupled with expansion of the fixed wireless network.  I live in central Victoria, and if you take a look at Exhibit 14-2 on page 87 of the report you will see that most of Victoria at just 65% uptake is likely to be oversubscribed.

One other fact coming from this report is that the service is not built to be future proof, and the timelines for getting people connected are starting to become very concerning.  It is unlikely that the satellite/fixed wireless rollout will be completed before 2021, and even then the rate of growth of the customer base is likely to outstrip the supply by between 10 and 30% depending on the speed options being supplied (Exhibit 15-1 page 98). The satellites themselves have a design life of 15 years, so we need to revisit this before then at any rate. Yet the obvious choice of upgrading exchanges to support ADSL as an interim is simply not even considered.

Time for a bit of a reality check.  Every town that has a school in it has an ADSL enabled exchange.  Yet you cannot get ADSL in many of those towns.  In the town just 10 minutes from here they have ADSL at the school, but no other premises has been able to get this with the excuse that there is no ADSL capacity at the exchange.  Seriously?  ADSL units come in various configurations, but usually start at 12 ports and go up from there.  That means that there should be at least 11 other premises capable of being connected to ADSL, yet none can be.

Let's go back a step, in the Statement of Expectations signed by the Malcolm Turnbull - Minister for Communications and Mathias Cormann - Minister for Finance, the expectation is set that:

The Australian Government is committed to ... ensuring all Australians have access to very fast broadband as soon as possible, at affordable prices, and at least cost to taxpayers

There is also a recommendation in the report that NBN set expectations correctly.  So why are we still getting the lie that we will have 25/5 Mbps speeds which will, in the main, be unattainable and that the NBN will be the same for all when quite clearly it cannot be?  Why are obvious solutions that at least give "metro equivalent" capacity not being used? When will the digital divide really be a thing of the past?

Ideology Fuels the Digital Divide

I live in the bush.  Not out back of beyond, or beyond the black stump. I'm 20km from the nearest town, on a highway, and within 2km of the local telephone exchange.  Yet I'm in an internet backwater.  All because of ideology.  Let me explain.

Australia has this wonderful new toy called the NBN - National Broadband Network, which was touted as bridging the digital divide between city and country.  Yet it is fundamentally flawed, and is unlikely ever to provide the level of neutrality that its proponents crow about.

A bit of background first.  Most telephone exchanges in Australia are connected by fibre optic cable and use an IP backbone.  They have done for over a decade.  This means they are easy to retrofit new equipment into and have plenty of capacity. Most cities enjoy ADSL2 capabilities, and even the town I mentioned initially has ADSL.

The NBN decided that the best solution was fibre to the premises for larger population areas, fixed wireless (basically point-to-point 3G LTE) to areas surrounding these and a satellite service to the rest of the country. All great stuff. Lots of expensive, flashy, techy gadgets that politicians love so much.  Much talk of "infrastructure building" and "securing our future".  Yet where I am I cannot get any of this.  It is even uncertain that if the new satellites ever reach orbit that I'll be eligible.  Even if I am eligible, satellite is not the same as a terrestrial service. And it is totally unneccessary.

The satellite service relies on two satellites that are not yet in orbit.  There is also no guarantee that they will make it to orbit, as Mexico can attest to, or even the US.  If they get to orbit it will have cost tens of billions of dollars to get there.  Numbers being bandied around suggest at least 41 billion.  Once there they are supposed to provide 25 Megabit per second download speed.  What nobody tells you about is the latency that means that this doesn't directly translate into that amout of data being able to be transferred every second.  I won't go into the boring details but if you look into how TCP/IP works you will see that there are always going to be issues with achieving this with a satellite.  And it could have been avoided.  Let us assume there are 1 million telephone exchanges outside the metro areas (there are nothing like that number, but let me continue).  41 billion dollars would see $41,000.00 available for each exchange to upgrade to the latest ADSL2 or better.  Add to this the cost of the fixed wireless (somewhere around $13 billion), reduce the number of exchanges to something closer to the mark and you can see that what we are paying for the 2nd and 3rd tier of the NBN could have easily seen $100k per exchange for upgrades.  Considering that even at the most exhorbitant estimates that would mean an additional 100  ADSL/ADSL2 connections per exchange, and more realistically several thousand, and you start to see that this entire system has been designed to be impressive, but not necessarily to meet the current or future needs of the community.

What we have, then, is ideology driving technology.  There is nothing "future proof" about satellite, or about fixed wireless.  These technologies are limited by physics in a way that telephone exchanges aren't.  They have limited amount of radio frequency spectrum available, limited channels, longer latency and frankly will be obsolete before they are rolled out.

Ideology also plays into the limited options I currently have.  Because I get a 3G signal here I am not allowed to get onto the interim satellite service, which is so over-subscribed that it is not worth attempting. 3G is considered "metro equivalent", even though I pay between 12 and 15 times the price of someone on ADSL for anything like the equivalent amount of data.  Telstra say that this is because they don't charge different prices for regional vs city 3G - all very well, but they do charge different prices for 3G vs ADSL, and calling 3G equivalent to ADSL when there are caps on the data allocation that are way short of even the bottom end of the ADSL plans, and prices of data beyond that at up to 100 times that of even Telstra's ADSL plans, is disingenuous at the very least.  This is ideology that initially looks grand - charging the same for the same service. On closer view however it is window dressing the ugly reality - there is no "same service".  Just a short walk down the road and you cannot get 3g at all.  I cannot get 3g from any other provider here, but I can if I walk up the hill.

So when do we get to bridge the "digital divide"?  Or is that like most other political promises, just smoke and mirrors?

Farewell Old Friend

Today is March 17, the day for the wearing of the green.  But today I'm in a more sombre mood as I've just had to say goodbye to a mate of almost 17 years.  He died today in the arms of my wife, after a melanoma in the mouth finally took away his quality of life.

Clancy was an Australian Terrier.  We used to quip that Aussie Terriers were just German Shepherds that had shrunk in the wash.  The same glorious zest for life, the same loyalty, just in a more compact package. Right up until yesterday he was still trying to jump up to welcome his dinner, even if he didn't get his front feet more than an inch off the ground, the will was still there.

Clancy brought joy and comfort to everyone he met.  When he'd got a bit older he was my aging mother's favourite as he would like nothing better than to snuggle up to her and she would commiserate on the process of aging.  As a youngster it was like living in a pinball machine, he would literally bounce off walls.

When we got Clancy I spent time learning by heart "Clancy of the Overflow", a classic Australian poem by Banjo Patterson.  I don't think I'll ever forget him or that poem.

So this evening we've poured two fingers of whiskey each, and toasted that wonderful creature that both of us will miss dearly.

Farewell Old Friend.