Riddle me this – if our political parties collectively agreed to build a hydroelectric power plant, do you think we’d let them choose what concrete we’d use to build it based on political policies, three word slogans and particular biases that seemed relevant at the time? You’d naturally think if we let people who have no idea how to build a dam wall it’d probably crumble, and there’d be a million inherent problems in the process of building said damn wall, right? This of course all happens while engineers who said this would happen decades earlier look on, shaking their heads in disbelief. And yet, here we are in 2017, and thanks to the NBN (that’s the National Broadband Network for those of you playing at home) becoming a political football, folks like me who are trying to run a business from home are suffering out of sheer NBN incompetence.
Firstly, there’s a lot of terminology and words being flung around in terms of technology, pipes, speeds, yada, yada, yada. For the purposes of making some sense out of the mess, i’m just going to make a quick core dictionary for you below:
Before the NBN, it’s what most Australians used (although to be fair, most of us like me still do). We rolled out copper lines back in the 60’s to every house in Australia so we could make calls. Then we figured out Dial-up internet, which was pretty badass at the time, then we figured we could throw a specific frequency down the copper line to get faster internet. We got by for a time, but ADSL in 2017 is crap. Telstra said the network was dead in 2003, it was being fixed by ziploc bags (you can’t make this up), and because it’s an analogue pipe, it’s affected by weather, it gets interference as it travels from the exchange to your home, and of course, the further you live away from your home, the crappier your speeds are. Golden.
When the NBN was first introduced, it was going to be a majority Fibre To The Premise/Home network. Fibre is kickass. Why? Because it’s a passive conduit that doesn’t have any of the problems I just mentioned with ADSL. In terms of nation building, it’s the Sydney Harbour Bridge. As it stands today, like when the bridge opened in 1923, we don’t need all the lanes and extra space now. But fast forward to 2017, and the Sydney Harbour Bridge is a fine example of building for the future, & FTTP is no different. It’s virtually unlimited in bandwidth (because fibre uses light to transmit data), it can be used for an infinite number of things (not just internet, making it versatile) and the only real bottleneck to FTTP is the boxes on each end that send & receive data, both of which can be replaced cheaply when we inevitably want to go faster. The catch was when NBN first started their rollout, there was a serious case of what you don’t know, you don’t know. There’s only so much you can guess from trials, and so there was a lot of extra time spent figuring out the best ways to roll out FTTP. But by the time the election rolled round, FTTP was already well on its way to being on a working schedule, meanwhile other technologies like skinnier Fibre lines were being trialled, bringing down deployment times and cost.
I’ve almost never seen a massive, national government project run on time or under budget, and at one point because of inherent delays, the NBN was costing more and was behind schedule. If you clicked the links above in FTTP, you’ll understand why. On the flip-side of this coin, let’s not forget that despite it running over budget, it still wasn’t costing tax-payers a single cent and was well ahead of being completely repaid by 2034, thanks to incredible uptake of high-tier plans. Despite this, part of the Liberal’s plan to get into power as part of the 2013 elections was to deliver an NBN “cheaper, faster, sooner” using technologies like Fibre To The Node. What this means is that instead of taking the fibre all the way from the exchange into your home, NBN takes it to the closest Fibre termination node and the Copper that Telstra said was already dead will deliver it the rest of the way. This made sense because the most expensive part of the NBN rollout is what’s known as the last mile – that is, the piece between the distribution point and your house. Digging trenches, working around driveways, gardens, different houses etc. etc. is all time-consuming, unpredictable and intensive, laborious work. So, in theory at least, you can cut a huge chunk of the cost out by just avoiding that altogether, right? Well, not so fast. For one, FTTN gets better speeds than ADSL, but it’s still subject to all the same problems of ADSL. You might get a fast connection, or, you might not for the same myriad of reasons Telstra (& Labor who created the NBN) wanted to step away from. As for speed, FTTN delivers just enough bandwidth for today, but really only lasts us for another decade, tops, before it’ll have to be replaced by FTTP anyway. That includes all 30-60,000 FTTN boxes filled to the brim with lithium batteries that are being installed around the country as we speak. In fact, almost every single country & telecommunications provider that the Liberal party based their plan on, is already moving away from FTTN for FTTP. This isn’t without factoring in all the issues of the Telstra copper network we bought in the process, which, thanks to Telstra’s privitisation and subsequent use of sub-par contractor technicians, means that the lack of documentation and adequate permanant fixes means there’s huge parts of the copper network that have to be dug up and replaced anyway.
Ah, Hybrid-Fibre Coaxial. You’re… okay. A little flawed, but far better than FTTN, well sort of. Those pay-TV cables Optus & Telstra strung around capital cities are being repurposed for the NBN. Is this a bad idea? Personally, I actually don’t mind. Sure, i’d love a big Fibre pipe in the back of my house, but HFC also does the trick right now, and has been shown capable of handling some of the load that lays ahead. HFC, like FTTN, was the Liberal’s plan to re-use parts of the older networks to deliver the NBN sooner. The big issue with HFC is that everyone down the street, from my neighbour who doesn’t know how to turn on the TV, to the kids a few blocks over who throw ragers every weekend and pirate Game of Thrones all share the same HFC pipe. That means that unless our providers have sufficient bandwidth in place, HFC’s speeds can drop from Fibre-like speeds to sub-ADSL speeds at dinner time. Swell.
Multi Technology Mix – This basically means “screw Fibre to the Premise, we’re going to use FTTN & HFC in a vein attempt to roll-out a network as good, sooner, faster, cheaper.” Except for the fact that this has, and continues to fail miserably. See video above for why using one technology over MTM is better.
Back to the story so far.
So, now that you’re with the program in terms of definitions, let’s get back to business and why i’m so cranky. With the exception of my own want and experiences so far with NBN, a nation without fast internet is not an innovation nation, despite what Turnbull all too well thinks. We’re a country stepping away from manufacturing and a country that’s transitioning into services and providing specialised knowledge & insight (don’t believe me, just look at what makes up our current GDP.) As this continues to happen, as the next generation is raised on code, on fostering digital ideas, on creating new things that propel our world forward, we need a platform that harnesses that ingenuity and places our kids on a global scale. Right now, that platform is ranked 51st in the world, and shows no sign of improving. This is a big problem. The NBN is already costing us more because all the things engineers, not politicians, said would happen, happened. We could’ve had a network that enabled regional towns to be on the same playing field as major capital cities. We could’ve sparked a whole new wave of small startups in places like Gympie or Mildura, towns with tens of thousands of folks fostering growth of the next generation because they don’t need to leave their towns and families to build the next big thing. But sometimes it’s not even about the next big thing.
You see, I run a creative agency, and we make a lot of film & photo products. As it stands right now, if I had the NBN, my company would be faster and more cost-effective. I still have ADSL even though I should have HFC by now (don’t worry, i’ll get to that in a second). To send a client a 200mb proof for reviewing a film currently takes 40 minutes. On the NBN, it’ll take 40 seconds. Sure, you can work around 40 minutes, it’s not ideal, but it could be worse, right? Well, actually it is, because when we are finally ready to deliver a mastered video file, which are usually around 10gb, if we were to use the ADSL, it would take us 35 hours under ideal conditions. On the NBN though, it would take us 40 minutes, the same amount of time it would take us to upload that tiny 200mb file on ADSL. That means if I want to deliver something in a hurry, it’s actually more cost-effective to courier, Express Post or even hand deliver a hard drive to the client instead of using my current connection. On FTTN, that won’t be much better, on HFC, it’ll probably be fine, but while I wait on the NBN to deliver my connection, i’m using my 4G connection and wasting $45 for 10gb of data to make things happen in a reasonable time frame. Ouch.
And the salt in the wound is that I was supposed to have my HFC-NBN connection by the end of January 31. Back around this time last year, Downer Group (one of the contractors NBN uses to roll-out their network) delivered notices to all the houses in the area saying we’d be having our HFC NBN connection installed sometime between September 2016 & January 31, 2017. Thank god, finally, I thought to myself. Finally I can get ahead and live in the digital age where my business belongs and thrives.
So what happened?
Well, January 31 came and went, and the Downer Group never knocked on my door. You see, I live in an estate. My entire neighbourhood has HFC running past and into their houses, but when they built my estate, the developers chose not to run the HFC into the development and instead relied on good old copper to handle our internet and phone calls. We’re so far away from the exchange, I experience regular drop-outs three times a day (in good weather) and my speed is a third of what constitutes optimal ADSL speeds. This means that Downer Group would need to actually come into the estate and install some HFC cable for us to get connected. No biggie I thought, i’d imagine they would’ve considered all of this when they came and sussed out our estate to give us an installation date, right?
It’s now the middle of March, and Downer Group & NBN are nowhere to be seen. My entire suburb is now on the NBN, except for our estate of 42 homes, who have no idea what’s going on and why we haven’t been connected, no matter how much we ask for answers. I’ve explained the entire situation to NBN over the phone and over Twitter messages, and the official response is always “there needs to be more work done, we don’t give out timelines, our contractors don’t communicate with us and you’ll get it when you get it.”
Hold on, firstly, you don’t find it ironic that the NBN, a major piece of technology primarily used for communication isn’t being built by people who don’t talk to each other? Also, you literally put a piece of paper into my letterbox TWICE saying I had a definitive timeline for when the Downer Group were installing my HFC connection. A window of months, which they missed completely, and are hiding behind you, still getting paid with no sense of accountability or action for their laziness?
I’d be totally happy if someone could just pick up old mate Bob the Technician who’s out on the street doing the rollout (which is exactly what they do with Telstra) and just ask “hey Bob, what’s happening with these guys?” and for Bob to go “oh yeah, we forget about them” or “yeah we need to install an extra piece of infrastructure, it’ll get here in a month.” Both of which i’d be happy with. Knowing some sense of transparency or idea of why the NBN is completely missing the mark would be great. At least creating a sense of understanding of why i’ve been left for dead while the Downer Group start rolling out the next suburb over instead of finishing what they started would be great.
The crux of it all.
And this is why folks are so frustrated with the NBN. Since the Liberal party took hold, the NBN all but stopped regular, transparent updates on the roll-out, creating plenty of mystery and further confusion as to just what the hell is going on. This thread on Whirlpool about my local area is surging with a deluge of complaints about folks experiencing NBN installers simply not turning up on the day, connections never being activated and poor connection speeds to just scratch the surface. From my own research to friends & family who live in the area, they’ve had everything from NBN-installers not turn up to rocking up after their scheduled timeline, looking at the house and going “nah, we’ll be back maybe tomorrow, maybe Friday” and then buggering off.
So here I am, frustrated as all hell that my business is suffering, and no matter how hard I try, whether it’s Telstra, NBN or the Downer Group, I simply get ignored when I try to figure out why no one bothered connecting us or letting us know why or if we’ve been forgotten altogether. I’m so sick and tired of being played off as a number, as someone who doesn’t matter, it inspired me to write this and share it around, because so help me god you should never piss off a nerd, especially when you screw with their internet connection, and i’m especially tired of being taken for a ride by my government who have lied their way into power and have left the generation of tomorrow in a scrap-heap.
All I want is my NBN actually connected with a company that has a sense of integrity and accountability. And if they can’t install my NBN, just let me know why, so i’m in the loop. All I see right now is a company failing and hiding because they current government doesn’t want to look bad, and it’s frustrating the hell out of tens of thousands of Australians, myself included.
UPDATE: Just came across a Whirlpool thread, which, at time of writing, has over 55 pages of complaints about being given a timeframe and then simply not showing up and then being told the same rehtoric that “additional work is still required.” Delving in to the thread, it is noted that NBN is pro-actively doubling down on any communication out of fear of revealing network woes, and that issues relating to complexity (like HFC activations) and Micronode setups are adding the company’s growing woes.