Why Wireless Won’t Work for NBN

  • The science isn't there
  • Who really benefits?
  • Who suffers from a wired NBN?

The debate and politicking over the National Broadband Network (NBN) has grown fierce in the last two weeks, as news has come to light on delays, contractor problems and coalition plans for the network if they come to power. In all the noise, a particularly grating misconception has once again made itself heard, suggesting that the idea of a national wired network is obsolete in light of advances in wireless technology. This misconception has once again found a mouthpiece through Alan Jones, a Sydney AM radio shock jock.
 
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Nah

 

In a broadcast on March 28, Jones took time to lambast the current woes of NBNco, before launching into a suggestion that these people must be ‘dumb’, and that everyone has ‘known for years’ that wireless is the way of the future. Jones has made these comments before, as have members of the coalition (notably Joe Hockey, the Shadow Treasurer), but this particular line of attack had been muted in the last few months - quite possibly because Malcolm Turnbull, the Shadow Communications Minister and a former telecom executive himself, has kindly asked colleagues and supporters to please not mention it again.
 
ABC Technology and Games, Delimiter and numerous independent experts have thoroughly dismissed 4G Wireless Broadband as a legitimate alternative to a wired network, and even the telcos keep mum about it. Simply put, anyone who knows anything about telecommunications will dismiss out-of-hand any suggestion that a wireless network can provide any substitute for a wired network; even the suggestion that a comprehensive wireless network could provide a ‘good enough’ solution while also offering other huge benefits (easier to deploy and upgrade, universal access on the go) might find it hard to plan for a wireless NBN without butting up against the limits of physics and geography. The closest technologies that exist are still in the lab, meaning years before they can be launched in any type of commercial configuration.
 
So why is a wireless solution being pushed, what are the actual limitations, and what are the possibilities?
 
CUI BONO

 
It’s always worth asking ‘Who benefits?’ when a debate gets as heated as this one has. Proponents of a wired NBN solution have been deemed ‘zealots’ by politicians, and the layout has been decried as a ‘horrible hoax’. Strong language, suggesting strong emotions. Why all this over a technical specification?

 
In the case of the NBN, the current proposal being pushed by the Labour government is to replace the current wired telecommunications network (the copper telephone line network owned by Telstra) with a government owned and operated fibre optic network, reaching to every door of 93% of the country, and reaching to specific wireless towers to 4% of the country (with distribution to end users over wireless signal), and 3% to receive satellite cover. It is a majority wired network, just like the current network; but using a material that is far better adapted to high speed data communications, and offering universal access to all retailers (that would be the companies that sell access directly to you, the user in a home or business). This would upgrade the quality of our broadband communications, while separating wholesale and retail access. Right now, Telstra has a tight grip on at least part of your connection, whether you retail a plan off them or not.
 
The wireless alternative would presumably see a dramatic rollout of more and more towers to accommodate full mobile links from tower to end user, bypassing the need for any digging, cable laying or other messy nonsense. It would put all the wholesale control into the hands of either a different NBNco, or into the hands of Australia’s 3 mobile network operators (Telstra, Optus and Vodafone).
 
So the answer to ‘Who Benefits’ in the first scenario is clear. The consumer benefits from secured, high speed communications. NBNco benefits from owning a wholesale monopoly. Anyone who isn’t Telstra benefits from being able to buy access from the government, rather than from a retail competitor. In fact, even Telstra benefits, depending on who you ask. Telstra gets to shake off all the suspicion that its wholesale and retail arms are in collusion to own the market, and get access to a high speed network that it doesn’t have to maintain all year round. Telstra shareholders seem to think this is better than owning a monopoly.
 
In an all wireless (or majority wireless scenario) the benefits extend to end users only in that they get mobile data coverage everywhere, but that’s not a small thing. Certainly plenty of people already find this the most desirable solution, as more than 50% of broadband connections in Australia are made over mobile networks. That said, it’s quite likely that as many people connect over wireless because they are fed up with complex cabling, as legitimate users who need access everywhere.

But convenience aside, mobile broadband is terrible. Speeds vary wildly depending on the time of day and strain on the network. Data limits are very small, and customers get slugged with over usage fees that defy logic. Most plans can offer 5GB for $40, but charge $250 for an extra gigabyte. There’s a huge disconnect between the cost of providing the service and the traps laid by the operators, buried deep in the T&C’s.

But even for users who sip their data, the nature of mobile communications makes many popular applications near impossible. A steady, 5Mbps wired connection is better suited to things like Skpe, streaming video and gaming than even Telstra’s blistering 55Mbps 4G mobile connections.

The reason for that is latency. Even the fastest wireless communication fails to ‘synchronize’ with the transmission equipment on the other end on a constant basis. It depends on line-of-sight, and that’s easily interrupted. We need wired communications for the same reason we irrigate our cities via pipe, rather than via gigantic sprinklers.

So it’s not really a question of Who Benefits from an all wireless NBN. The real focus should be on who gets hit by a wired NBN. And the answer to that is pretty plain to see.

Not Just Telstra


The assumption by many is that Telstra might be the ones pushing Turnbull and co. to back versions of an NBN that would restore at least some monopoly control to the Big T. But Telstra are very smart, and they can play a long game, where 30 years of government-owned NBN gives way to (planned) privatisation, with Telstra the natural buyer. In that scenario, instead of 30 years of trying the same old balancing act, Telstra can wait 30 years before acquiring a still-viable network.

No, the real objections might be coming from guys like Foxtel, AFACT (the Hollywood studio-backed anti-piracy lobby group) and numerous other bodies that own their own distribution channels. Even universities might not be keen on an NBN that can offer immersive real-time links to international competitors.

But really, it’s unlikely that your local TAFE wants to block the NBN. The Murdoch press is consistently anti-NBN, and some of that opposition might come from their common ideological belief that the free market, and not government ownership, is the best path towards innovation. But some of it might come from their parent company owning a unique entertainment distribution network that allows no access to any competitors. Self-interest usually trumps ideology, especially when that ideology is rooted in the pursuit of self interest.

Conclusion


Wireless? No. Any suggestion that wireless could replace wireline is equivalent to suggesting that we should have no crime because cameras and DNA testing exist. The question is; can we implement any technology on any scale? A majority-wireless NBN requires 100 times more towers than what we have now, and still wouldn’t come close to the capability.

Fibre-to-the-Node? That would leave us with a network with poor scalability, meaning that within 10 years we’d be back to square one – a last-gen network that can’t be easily upgraded.

The current NBN plan, even with all its cost and inevitable delays, is still the best design, regardless of whether speed of access is your driving motivation or not. It’s not being built the way it is because we need a ‘gold plated internet”; it’s being built how it is to rectify monopolies owned by private corporations. It requires a new network – and in 2013, you build that with fibre, not copper or wireless.

Turnbull and Abbott will likely get into power, and will do so partly on the back of promising to destroy an excellent scheme. Maybe the crime is that they didn’t think of it. But it’s just as likely that when sitting at the big desk, reality will trump rhetoric, and cooler heads will prevail.