Monday, 16 August 2010

NBN Australia

As the federal election campaign comes to its final week, the issue of national broadband network (NBN) has become one of the most important policy differentiators between Labor and the Coalition.

I have not been paying much attention to NBN until a couple of months ago when a friend of mine was trying to search for jobs in NBN yet found very few. As the government claims that NBN will directly employs tens of thousands of people, you’d expect many job ads from them. But that’s not the case. I did a search on one of the job sites back then and only found a handful.

I posted a question on what real benefits average Australians will expect from the NBN on the NBN Australia discussion group. There has been no answers so far. As I live in a big city and there are many broadband options to choose from – FTTH, cable/HFC, xDSL, 3G or non-standard wireless ones (unWired) offered by many communications service providers (CSPs). I don’t see the need of spending my hard-earned tax dollars trying to improve on something that I cannot experience.

What I do want to see is to spend my hard-earned tax dollars on those who really need it – regional Australia. There is a big gap between big cities and regional area in terms of infrastructure. Some people have to drive for hours just to go to a hospital – that’s if they have a car. For those who don’t, they will have to rely on community buses, which takes even longer.

Dick Smith has raised the issue about population and sustainability in Australia. It was hotly debated on Q&A. One of the issues was population distribution and the infrastructure to support the population. There is no doubt that regional towns want to attract more population and therefore economic growth. You cannot achieve this without improving the infrastructure. So I believe the government should spend less money overall, and focus on narrowing the gap, which will provide real long-term benefits to the Australian people.

Last week, NBN triumphantly announced that the speed of the fibre network can go to 1Gbps – “10 times what they originally envisaged”. At least that is what most of the TV news reports have told you. To non-tech heads like Tony Abbot, that might sound astounding. But when you go into the details, it’s not that exciting but could be puzzling. Apparently the 1Gbps is burst rate, not committed rate (note that the committed rate is what users really experience). Does that mean NBN and the government were originally envisaging 100Mbps burst rate on a FTTH that costs 46 billion dollars, which is downright laughable?

Communication networks are hierarchical and each link of the transmission network matters (by the way, can NBN tell us what the bandwidth between Tasmania and mainland is/are?). The overall user experience also depends on all the links from point A to B. The network speed we experience is equal to the weakest link – see Ultra-fast broadband will be slow on overseas links. Just a few days ago, I downloaded VMWare image of Mac OS X Leopard (2GB) using bit torrent. It took less than 30 minutes. One day later I tried to download Zorin OS – a Ubuntu Linux distro (1GB) using FTP, it took over 8 hours at which point the connection to the website was broken. So I had to redo it the next day using a mirror site which still took a couple of hours, but it was worth it. The OS is awesome!

Also, in a wired home environment (or should I say wireless), people typically use WiFi and laptops. With the latest WiFi standard (802.11n), you can expect 40Mbps (and 200Mbps burst). So again, there is a very weak link right at home.

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