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.

Why your next DevOps should be an Australian

I often see job postings that allow remote workers, but only from Europe or North America.  This ignores a pool of talent that has advantages that you may not have thought of.  Australia is often seen as being in an "inconvenient" timezone, yet if you want to cover the "swing shift" between North America and Europe you need look no further than Australia.

When I get up in the morning it is in the US afternoon, when I leave work it is the European morning.  So I get to cover those times that others do not - or would be expensive to do so.  I have been doing this "swing shift" for 10 years now, and providing value for the companies I contract to.  Why don't you consider Australia for your next hire.  We even speak English!

In memory of Eileen Mary Donnison (nee Cain)

Today, just before Mother's Day, my mother died.  It was fitting in some ways, she hated Mother's Day as she thought you shouldn't need a special day to remember your mother - that should be every day.

My mother was born Eileen Mary Cain in the period between two world wars, the daughter of a man touched by war - he was a TPI (Totally and Permanently Incapacitated) pensioner after encountering a mustard gas bomb in the first world war.  She was a teenager for most of the second world war where she saw her older brothers head overseas as boys and arrive back vastly changed men - one of whom never really recovered from the experience. Shortly after the war she married my father, John William (Bill) Donnison. Her home town of Rye only saw electricity connected the year she was married.  Her life has covered an amazing amount of technological and sociological change.

At heart my mother was an anarchist.  No, I don't mean she threw bombs and tried to bring governments down. Instead she was a ferociously intelligent woman in a time when it was not seen as an asset.  In her teens Eileen received a scholarship to university, but given her age (and no doubt her gender) it was decided she should forgo it.  What a pity. This was a woman who loved learning and would have been a great teacher.  My love of books I attribute directly to her. I remember times when, while cleaning the house, she would come across a book she hadn't read or remembered had a great quotation in it, so the task at hand was put aside for the far more important one of  reading.  Standing in a queue I had seen her toe a piece of paper that had fallen to the ground so she could read it.  From the back of cereal packets to the classics, nothing was considered to be too high- or low-brow to be read.  I think she would rather read than eat.

One of my favourite stories that mum often related was of her as a young girl sitting at the dinner table reading the newspaper and asking her father "What is rape?".  Her father replied "Its an oil seed." to which the young Eileen responded "Don't be silly, Errol Flynn has been charged with it!".  Her father, rather nonplussed, spluttered and told her to put the paper down and finish her dinner.

Mum used to tell of her horror when recently married and having to vote in a council election, talking to the other women there.  She naturally asked who the women thought would be a chance in the election only to be told that they didn't think about those things, their husbands told them who to vote for.  Mum was incensed at this and told them in no uncertain terms that nobody told her what to think or do. To her marriage was a partnership, but she still insisted on keeping her own bank account, and when things got tough it was mum's foresight that meant there was money to pay the employee's Christmas bonuses.

Times were occasionally very tough. She used to tell of the time that the kids were complaining that there was gristle in the meat served for dinner, because she could only afford pet mince, and she didn't want her children to go without meat.  Mum and dad made sure all of their kids got the best education they could afford, despite the cost to them personally.  It was mum's insistence that education was the way to a better future.

Eileen couldn't abide those that thought of educating women as being a waste. To mum, educating a woman meant educating a family.  The saying "Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime" could be extended to "Teach his wife to fish, feed the generations that follow".  To this extent mum was a feminist. Not the bra-burning type, and she thought that feminism was basically giving women the right to work two jobs, but she nevertheless saw the empowerment of women as not only important, but vital.  As a girl mum would have to wash the work clothes of her father and brothers in a time when that meant boiling up a copper and running them through a mangle, and she was adamant that she would not allow that to happen to any daughter of hers, nor would she allow her sons to put that burden on others.  Each of us seven boys was taught to cook, clean, wash, iron, mend, knit and sew.

This is not to say my mother was the dour, earnest type. Not a bit of it. There were many a time that we were all rolling around in laughter at some shared joke, mum usually the instigator.  Eileen also would find fun in the most unusual places.  Dad getting inappropriately angry at something would at times cause mum to fall into gales of laughter at the sense of absurdity of the situation. While in the short term this would make dad angrier, he would eventually succumb to the hilarity of it all and join in. Mum loved The Goons, Spike Jones and his City Slickers, Dave Allen and Val Doonican.

Eileen loved life and loved people.  She was intensely interested in people and was a great listener.  Once I was waiting outside a supermarket while she ducked in for a few items, and coming out she told me all about the life of the woman who followed her out of the supermarket - someone she had only just met and started talking to in the checkout queue.  She would also talk to anyone - as far as mum was concerned people were people, and you treated them as you would like to be treated.  She could be found as easily chatting with a group of school children as she could with a bunch of Hell's Angels.  There was just something about her that led people to want to talk to her.

Mum's love of people was even more profound when those people were family.  Even towards the end  as her mind faded and she had no idea who I was she would proudly talk about her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. To her family was everything.  It distressed her no end at the occasional disharmony in her children, as to her family was inviolate and love absolute.  That love could be a burden on her though. In her early marriage she suffered with an interfering mother-in-law and vowed she would not do that to her children. This often meant that she held her tongue and suffered vicariously the pain of her offspring when their marriages hit a rocky patch or their children hit those troublesome years as they invariably do.  Sometimes I think it may have been better had she not been so hands-off, but then you had to admire her commitment to her ideal.

Mum was a communicator. She would say that you should be able to talk on any subject for 5 minutes without hesitation or repitition. As a relbellious teenager I remember replying "Bullshit!", so without so much as a blink of the eye she proceeded to start on that topic until we both couldn't stop laughing. I have had the privilege of reading her rare efforts in poetry that was both beautiful and poignant. We could talk about any subject, and often did.  I remember talking to her one day about either menstruation or masturbation (I don't recall which) and my father walked in, blushed and sputtered and walked straight back out. Mum shrugged and continued the discussion.

I learned a lot from my mother. Much more than I can ever repay. I learned tolerance, compassion, strength of character, tenderness, fidelity. I learned to read, write, drive, cook, knit, sew, draw, laugh, cry. More than anything I learned to love. To love life, to love others, to love myself. There is nothing else I need to know.

Eileen Mary Donnison (nee Cain) 28th May 1928 - 3 May 2014.

May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
the rains fall soft upon your fields 
and until we meet again, 
may God hold you in the palm of His hand.

(traditional gaelic blessing)