Why does my location matter when getting a broadband connection?
- What are 'Pair Gain Systems'?
- What's a Telstra Monopoly area?
- Why is broadband more expensive in the country?
If you’re in any area that might be classified as regional or rural, and you’ve tried to get an internet connection, you’re probably ready to bang your head against a wall. After seeing advertised plans for cheap, fast, unlimited internet, you’ve rung up your preferred provider and been told “the best we can do is expensive, slow and 10GB. Sorry”. And the situation is the same wherever you go. Why are you being discriminated against?
The next step is to try Mobile Broadband (also called Wireless, 3G, 4G). It seems very easy- the whole internet, right there in a USB stick! Of course at the end of the day, this is a radio connection. Bad weather, too many people on the network, lots of dropouts. And with such tiny data plans, customers find themselves with a service that really doesn’t work well, or worse- with a service that works and then bankrupts them if they go over their data limit.
Meanwhile in metropolitan areas, customers have tons of choice for fast, cheap internet, and even the mobile option works better. Why do metro customers get so many options, while regional and rural customers get almost nothing at all – and at higher prices?
Sun Burnt Country
Australia is a land of wide open spaces. Very wide. Very open. Spaces. As in, empty space with no people in them. Australia has the lowest population density of any developed nation, about 3 people per square kilometer.
To put it bluntly, big wide open spaces are bad for communications. That shouldn’t be a surprise – before we entered the modern age, big wide spaces were bad for communication then too – there’s only so far you can yell. After that, you have to light fires or send eagles to carry your message.
Thankfully, broadband-over-eagle is unnecessary these days, thanks to the telecommunications grid. Like the power grid, this is a network of wires and termination points, carrying signals all over the country. Like the power grid, much of it is invisible to us or easily distracted – it’s either underground, or 30 feet in the air. We ignore it after a while, but make no mistake – all communications are carried to you on a length of wire. We’re still in can-and-string territory, until magic becomes a viable option.
When the distances to be covered are so great, and there are so few paying customers along the way, that’s when we start to see prices go up. It’s a simple economic equation – if 400km of cable costs $100 million to lay, and will pass 200,000 customer homes paying at least $50 a month…that’s going to be paid back within a year. If the same length of cable passes 5000 homes, we’re waiting 40 years before the investment is even being paid back, let alone making any money.
Of course, in major cities you could lay just 20km of cable to get 200,000 homes. And in some areas of Australia, 400km wouldn’t even pass 500 homes. The disparity between the cities and country start to get severe.
An easy answer to this would seem to be wireless. Without all that cable to lay, that cost factor is eliminated. Mobile works in a broadcast – it blankets a wide area with signal that anyone can latch on to. But even those towers connect back to a cable, which feeds into a base station at the bottom of the tower. So really, we’re no better off than we were before – mobile towers still have to be close to the grid. And that’s before we consider the difficulty of getting a good signal, which requires flat line-of-sight and good weather.
But the telephone network is already there
But, you might say, the telecommunications grid is already in place, and already reaches every home – with a telephone line. And that’s absolutely correct – that’s why telephone lines are the preferred method of delivering an internet signal in most developed countries. Because it’s already there.
But the telephone system was purpose built to carry telephone voice signals. A voice signal doesn’t require much, and it can carry over 200 km and remain reasonably clear. As such, customers in regional areas might find that their Local Loop – the loop of telephone wire, emanating from an exchange building, passing by each home – extends for hundreds of kilometers. For the sake of efficiency, each exchange has to carry a couple thousand connections – and in Woop Woop, that might mean extending hundreds of km.
An internet signal is much…let’s say ‘hotter’. It needs a short length of wire to sustain a decent quality, which in broadband terms means speed. This is a length of copper wire we’re talking about – a metal. And that means the signal is being carried electronically. And the ‘hotter’ an electronic signal is, the more rapidly it burns out over distance. A high speed connection over a copper wire will peter out to nothing after 4.5km.
In the cities, this is no problem. Most loops don’t extend more than a few km in each direction before connecting up a good 30,000 homes. So everyone is within range to a connection. In rural areas, as little as 50% of homes in a distribution area might be connectable. And that’s if the area is built up and old – the exchange would have been plotted to reach as many homes as possible with as little wire as possible. In newer estates and sub-divisions, homes have been built on land that was completely uninhabited when the telecoms grid was developed.
The Universal Service Obligation
All of this falls into the lap of Telstra Wholesale. Telstra bought the grid built by Telecom, with a Universal Service Agreement. Because Telstra is a private company, they could just leave unprofitable areas (ie. sparsely populated rural areas) to rot if they wanted to. But the Universal Service Obligation (USO) dictated that Telstra had to find a way to get a line out to every home, regardless of how unprofitable it was to do so. But ONLY a phone line - there's no guarantee for internet.
If a new sub division is built with 2000 homes, then the old public utility (Telecom) would have to dig a new trench to the area, lay down a big trunk cable (containing about 4000 individual lines) and plot pillars around the neighbourhood to terminate those connections. Then each home would need wiring from the end of the property to the pillar. Big Job.
Telstra needed to find a way to do this on the cheap. For about 15 years, Telstra have wired new areas using a method called Pair Gain Systems.
A ‘pair’ is shorthand for a single copper line connection (which is made up of two wires, twisted around each other inside a single plastic sheath, or ‘twisted pair’). So Pair Gains is a means to increase the number of virtual ‘pairs’ using what’s already in place, rather than actual putting in real pairs.
The most common Pair Gain technology is the use of mini exchanges, sub exchanges, street side cabinets and the like. So an individual short run of copper is still extended from each home, but only a few hundred metres to a mini version of the exchange – sometimes just a cabinet on a street corner. The cabinet itself connects back to the grid with fibre optic cables.
But that’s good, right?
Technically, this is an improvement. Fibre optic cables provide the highways of the internet – copper is used for sidestreets. The closer you are to the nearest fibre optic connection, the faster you can go. Exchanges are hooked up to the rest of the grid with optical fibre. So are mobile towers. So if there’s a fibre link just a few hundred metres away, instead of 10km away at the exchange, that’s technically better, right?
It is, but the first run of Pair Gain ‘nodes’ were there to provide telephone services only, and Telstra isn’t even done upgrading them all to ADSL1, a relatively slow standard (they’ve only just recently rolled out a program to get these thousands of cabinets ready for ADSL2+).
Also, these cabinets and sub exchanges can be pretty small, and sometimes don’t adequately cover each home (this leads to being told that there are ‘no ports available’).
But more relevant is the fact that these cabinets are owned and operated by Telstra, and they charge heavily for anyone to access them for broadband, driving the price up for your service provider. If your service provider has their own network link at the exchange, that still doesn’t help you, because you’re not hooked up directly to the exchange – your individual line stops at Telstra’s sub-exchange. And even BigPond, Telstra’s retail arm, can’t help you- If you’re a wholesaler AND a retailer, you’re not allowed to sell your retail service at a cheaper rate than your wholesale service.
In other words, if you’re effectively stuck in a Telstra Wholesale monopoly, then even going with BigPond can’t save you money.
So what are my options?
I personally live in a metropolitan area of Melbourne, where I get an ADSL2+ connection with TPG. When I check with other companies to see if I can get ADSL2+, they all say yes- and that makes sense. After all, everyone uses the same copper line, and connects me to the internet at the same exchange.
But when I check with BigPond, Australia’s largest ADSL2+ network provider, I get a ‘maybe’. Why on earth would Telstra have trouble connecting me?
But that’s me. We’ll get back to that in a minute.
Let’s think about the poor blighter in rural WA on a sub-exchange. He’s connected to one of these streetside cabinets. He wants to sign up with Dodo. After 2 weeks, Dodo tells him they can’t connect him up. He tries with BigPond, and after two weeks, gets told the same. He tries again with Club Telco, and finally gets connected. What’s going on here?
In a nutshell, most companies who are not Telstra operate on very slim margins. If a Dodo technician keeps trying to get a connection on this person’s line, by dealing with Telstra Wholesale, and it keeps failing, at a certain point Dodo will give up and move on to the next customer. Club Telco might have just gotten lucky, and scored an easy link at the right time.
The really big question, and one that leads back to my situation in a metro area, is why BigPond can’t connect this customer. It could be a matter of BigPond finding no spare ports at the time of connection, while Club Telco did (ports become free and get filled all the time. It’s like parking in a busy area – as soon as a space opens, it gets filled by the first person in line).
Anecdotally, Telstra has been failing where others succeed in providing ADSL for a little while now – even in well provisioned metro areas. For customers who trust Telstra, a failed ADSL connection can lead to a sales pitch for Telstra’s Mobile Broadband service, which can be even faster than ADSL in some areas. Of course, it’s also more expensive, comes with much less data, and will charge you if you exceed that data.
This is all just speculation of course. But the lesson is: if you’re determined to get a fixed ADSL connection, to take advantage of generous data caps and lower prices, then keep at it. It may take months.
If you’re on a Pair Gain but otherwise within 4km of the exchange, you may want to ask Telstra for a Fixed-Line Transposition. This is where they will re-route your connection from a cabinet to a spare link back to the exchange. This will make it easier for other companies to provide you with ADSL.
If you’re at a loss and have tried everything, give us a call on 1300 106 571, and we’ll try to help you find the best solution.