The Rudd Government’s proposed fibre to the premises (FTTP) broadband network has generated a rich variety of ill-informed media commentary. It is time to debunk some of these myths and set the record straight.

Myth number 1: Wireless will provide a competitive alternative to a FTTP network.

The reality: Wireless internet access provides flexibility and mobility. It is useful for people on the move who want to do simple things like accessing e-mails, browsing the web, and downloading small files. But it will never be able to support universal broadband services. The big problem with wireless is that all users have to share the same “airwaves”.

Imagine a politician communicating with constituents at a town hall meeting. Everyone in the room has to share the same sound space to communicate with the politician. If the politician is talking to only one person, that person gets the politician’s undivided attention. But as more people attend the meeting, each person has to wait for their turn to ask a question or express an opinion.

Exactly the same thing happens with so-called wireless broadband. Service providers advertise impressive bandwidths. But the only way a user can get the advertised bandwidth advertised is if there are no other users. As the number of subscribers increases each subscriber is allocated a smaller proportion of the total available bandwidth.

This is already starting to happen with 3G wireless in Australia — a recent surge in subscriptions to 3G internet services has led to a degradation of user experience. Future generations of wireless (4G, LTE etc.) will help to avoid this problem, but they will never be able to provide the bandwidth of a FTTP network.

In addition, both wireless and satellite can provide services to users in remote areas that are difficult to service by other means, and a well-designed national broadband strategy would channel the use of the limited radio and satellite spectrum so as to serve those customers well.

Myth number 2: An FTTP infrastructure will lock Australia into old technology that does not allow future upgrades to new technologies.

The reality: In FTTP networks, a single feeder fibre from the telephone exchange is shared by 32 premises. Near the premises, the feeder fibre splits into 32 fibres that run all the way to each user. The fibre from the telephone exchange carries an incredible 2,500 megabits of data per second.

If all 32 houses simultaneously use the network at its full capacity, each user can obtain one thirty-second of the 2,500 megabits per second, or roughly 100 megabits per second.

Importantly, the experience of each user is not limited by what other users are doing. But this is only the start. The optical feeder and fibre is capable of carrying more than 1,000 times this amount of data. Therefore, as new higher capacity terminal technologies currently in the pipeline become available, it will be possible to upgrade the system to much greater capacity.

The FTTP network could one day deliver many gigabits per second to the home. This could be achieved by just changing some equipment in the exchange and in the home. One compelling advantage of a FTTP network is that the core infrastructure, which constitutes the bulk of the investment — the fibre in the ground or strung from poles — is completely future-proof and will not require any additional upgrades.

Myth number 3: Enhanced DSL and hybrid fibre coax networks (HFC) will be able to provide the same capabilities as FTTP at a fraction of the cost.

The reality: DSL technology has advanced over the years, but unlike fibre, it is already operating close to its full capacity. There is no practical way to provide widespread delivery of 100 megabits per second over DSL. The HFC access networks operated by Telstra and Optus could be upgraded to 100 megabits per second. But like wireless, the 100 megabits per second is shared and user experience on these networks is degraded as more users use the network.

More importantly, the HFC networks cover only a small percentage of Australia’s population. With today’s technology, it is cheaper to roll out FTTP than to roll out new HFC networks. And HFC networks are not greenhouse-gas-friendly. Like wireless access networks, they consume about four times as much energy per user as FTTP.

Myth number 4: FTTP will provide little value because most home users are happy with today’s broadband service.

The reality: Not so long ago, most home users were happy with their 56 kilobit per second service, and more recently with their 0.5 megabit per second ADSL service. We have learned that new opportunities and new services arise when the capacity to support them is made available, and it would be bold indeed to call a halt to further improvements in network capacity because “all of the valuable services have already been invented”.

But more importantly, FTTP is not just for the home. It will enable new services in health, education, business and government services. Video on demand will enrich entertainment opportunities, and video conferencing and other online networking facilities will reduce business travel and cut greenhouse emissions.

Myth number 5: An upgrade of the existing network would be more environmentally friendly than a new FTTP network.

The reality: An upgrade of the existing network to just 10 megabits per second would require a new 200 megawatt power station, presumably coal fired, just to operate the new equipment. The environmental impact of this would be huge. Through savings obtained by removing old equipment, a FTTP network could operate without requiring a new power station.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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