This is a conversation I had earlier in the week, over the National Broadband Network (NBN) with a person who is staunchly against the project. My brother was there, ready to provide perspective as a neutral bystander.
Opponent: The whole thing is a waste of money. By the time it’s rolled out, everything will be wireless.
Me: Nope. And there is no ‘wireless’.
Brother: We have wireless internet.
Me: No, you have ADSL2+, which is connected to a phone line. You use a Wi-Fi router. Your computer connects wirelessly to your router, which is connected to a fixed line.
My brother acquiesced to my superior knowledge, because he’s my brother and he’s got my back (blood…thicker…water…something something). The opponent shook her head and smiled, saying she wasn’t convinced. I guess that’s on me.
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What do you mean ‘there is no wireless’?
The idea that installing fibre to every home is a waste of time and money, because everyone’s moving towards wireless connections, is a popular position to take for opponents to the NBN. The only problem with this is that it ignores how a wireless connection works, and mistakes mobile broadband for wireless connections.
Radio – For all the fancy terminology involved with ‘wireless’ internet connections (3G, 4G, LTE, Wi-Fi, 802.11n, Satellite, etc), it might be worth remembering that ALL wireless connections from anything to anything uses radio technology. That means a copper wire, acting as an antenna, is trying to hunt out a broadcasted signal from the atmosphere, relying on line of sight to a transmission point.
Think about your mobile phone. Think about the quality of calls. The difference between the audio quality of a mobile connection and a landline connection can be justified in our minds because mobiles are just so much more convenient. But there’s no mistaking the fact that after 20 years of mobile tech, call quality is still not as good as that provided along a line of metal, reaching through the ground, and ending in two plastic microphones (telephones). That’s because of physics, and science, and the fact that neither are strictly ‘magic’.
Pipes - The idea that we’re moving towards less wire and more wireless would suggest that each mobile tower connects wirelessly back to the stronger points in the network. This is called Mesh technology. The idea being that a very BIG mobile tower would send LOTS of very hot microwave data through the air. Some gets lost. The data that doesn’t get lost is connected in smaller towers that distributes the signal to hundreds of end users with cute little dongles hanging out of their laptops. Some of that signal gets lost on the way. Too bad so sad.
That’s how it used to work (and still does in a handful of locations). When mobile technology was all about voice calls, that loss could be justified. Voice calls need very little ‘oomph’, in radiation terms. So in rural areas, towers could ‘mesh’ in the air back to bigger towers. The bigger towers…they would be fed by big fibre optic ‘pipes’ running underneath the tower, and back to even bigger pipes. And yes, the internet really is a series of tubes. The internet is a bunch of electrical signals, which resemble water to a certain degree, being carried by copper and optical fibre wires, which resemble pipes to a certain degree.
So now, with mobile towers having to carry so much more than voice calls, they’re all getting fibre underneath them. This is what I mean by ‘there is no wireless’. Every wireless connection feeds back to a bunch of wires at some point. The trick is in bringing more and more pipe-fed capacity to each wireless transmission point.
Suggesting that ‘everything is going to be wireless anyway’ is like suggesting that in the future, we’ll all get our water via powerful sprinklers, instead of via irrigation (which is just slightly older than fibre optic tech by a few thousand years, and yet still seems to be en vogue). Fibre Optics won’t be obsolete. They’re becoming more and more relevant. The NBN isn’t about bringing everyone back down to wireless. It’s about bringing high capacity feeds closer to each individual user.
Fibre Optics aren’t new. Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, wanted to use glass piping to transmit voice with light instead of electricity (‘a light pipe’), but opted for copper wires carrying electricity instead. Copper was cheaper, easier to lay in the ground, and also cheaper (that’s important).
Improvements in fibre optic technology- making it more durable (easier to lay) and even more efficient at carrying light signals have led to slow upgrading of the worldwide telecommunications infrastructure from copper to fibre optics. First come the big trans-ocean cables, which are now almost all fibre optic. Then the big interstate and inter-country transit links. Then the big links between network points.
But wiring up every house is so much more expensive. There’s about 10 big, BIG links into Australia. There’s about 100 inter-state transit links. There’s about 2000 exchanges. But there’s 12 million homes! That’s so much bigger a project. Which is why it’s taken this long for countries to properly start looking at it. It’s a process.
Meanwhile, the old copper lines still do their part. Copper can carry far less data over far less of a distance, but it served until now (and hey, it was already there). And even though copper is a dwarf next to optical fibre, it’s a giant when compared to mobile broadband. Let’s compare value.
Optus Mobile Broadband vs Optus ADSL2+
I’m using Optus as an example because their network is well-priced. Telstra’s network is far stronger and faster, but is priced out of many people’s budgets. Vodafone’s network is cheap (though not much cheaper than Optus’), but still has a number of gaping holes in coverage.
The Optus Network is ok, especially in capital cities and large regional areas. So it’s priced accordingly. It’s also the network used by most Mobile Virtual Network Operators (that is, companies offering a mobile phone and mobile data service when they don’t actually own towers).
As for Optus ADSL2+ - Optus supplies broadband connections over copper telephone lines to most heavily populated areas. They don’t go after the anything-goes market with Unlimited data plans (like, TPG and Dodo), but they still offer decent sized amounts of data to play with.
As you can see, $60 with Optus for Mobile Broadband will get you 15GB of data. And that’s a mobile connection – you also have to consider the frustrations mentioned before, of poor signal and uneven performance.
For about $65 on ADSL2+ (this is the full bundled price with line rental included), you get 120GB of data. Even with the peak/off peak split, you still get 50GB of data to use during the day. And that’s a fixed connection. The speed will be far more consistent, and in most cases it will be faster than even a well-behaved mobile connection.
A little bit more - $85 - gets you vastly more data, 500GB.
As for ‘wireless’ – you can always get a modem that connects to the phone point, and redistributes the connection wirelessly (using Wi-Fi) to a range of 50 metres or so. All computers in the home can access this signal and share the connection.
So what’s mobile broadband good for?
Not much, for my money. But it’s obviously more mobile. It can be used anywhere your network operator has a signal, just like your mobile phone. If that’s a selling point for you, then there’s your answer.
It’s also a reasonable option if you’re a very infrequent user at home, and need to only sip a little data. But keep in mind that average usage in Australia is 20GB a month, and there’s only one mobile broadband plan that even supplies 20GB a month (that’s through Dodo, who also use the Optus network).
So why do we need the NBN if copper already provides such good value?
The problem with ADSL2+ (and Cable, which has its own issues) is that getting a decent connection at a good price is a lottery. You have to live in an area that is well populated enough to attract low cost providers, and then you have to live within 3 km of the exchange for decent speeds. And that’s if Telstra, the operators of the copper part of the network, haven’t done something screwy to your line in the past to cut costs.
There's also the little issue that it makes Telstra a vertically integrated monopoly, for the last bit of your connection.
So the NBN, by providing fibre to almost every home and premises, is about more than just bringing fast internet to every home. It’s about bringing the same fast connection to every home. It’s about having a system in place that guarantees all potential customers the same advertised prices, regardless of where they are.
What about mobile?
Mobile broadband will still have its place. But consider that the mobile communications network provides voice communications, which is its more ideal role. Getting more and more people off mobile data and onto easy to understand fixed services will free up capacity on mobile networks. That means fewer dropped calls, and better on-the-fly data for when it’s needed.
But improvements will come about in mobile, and eventually there will be a point where it will be a reasonable alternative service for fixed-line. If enough radio spectrum is given to the task, and if enough towers are built, and if enough fibre is built to each tower (which will be much easier with fibre running through the ground to each home, as network operators can just buy access to transit networks), AND if there’s good enough software to more accurately predict the network load and add bandwidth accordingly by lighting up redundant fibre…THEN we MIGHT see mobile connections with very fast speeds, that stay appreciably ‘fast’ throughout the day, and with data allowances in the 100GB range. But that will still require the NBN (or something very much like it), and it will still be dwarfed by the capacity of fixed-line connections. It’ll just be dwarfed to a degree that brings it more in line with something that the market is actually demanding.