NBN blackspot lobby for Australian households with no/slow broadband (RIM, ADSL1)

Asleep

The Blackspot Lobby

If you cannot get decent broadband and are concered about misdirection of resources then email me anthony@berglas.org.   I am setting up a lobby group.  As individuals we are nothing, but as a group we can draw attention to our problem.  To try to push the snail along so that we get serviced sooner rather than in decades time.  Currently there is no real policy to address blackspots.

Snail

Who gets the NBN (No Broadband Now)?

Person Situation Current NBN Priority
Alice Lives 15km from Exchange No broadband Nil
Bob 1980s subdivision using a RIM No broadband Low
Charlie Lives 8km from Exchange Slow broadband, 1 mbs Low
Debbie Lives 5km from Exchange Fast broadband, 5mbs ADSL2 High
Edward Already has TPG fibre Ultra fast broadband 100mbs Top

One might expect that those poor souls that have no broadband at all would be the first priority.  They have no real access to the internet at all.  Then those people that have very slow broadband would be serviced.  Those people that already have fibre would not be serviced at all.

But that is not the case at all.  To date the vast majority of other receipients of the NBN's fibre already had fast copper internet.  Very few people without broadband have had any priority at all.  Maybe they would get internet sometime in the next fifteen years if the money does not run out, but they are certainly not the priority.

Most people that are given the NBN fibre for free do not actually want it.  In the initial 4000 home rollout in Hobart only 10.9% of the residents bothered to take up a free connection because the NBN areas were near exchanges and so those people already had fast internet.  The solution was to pay Telstra billions of dollars to cut people's copper.  This gave householders no choice at all, so unsurprisingly they switched to fibre.

While this waste is happening, the people without any broadband that are screaming for any improvement are simply ignored.  When they call Telstra they are told

        Too bad, so sad, go tell someone who gives a damn.

Indeed, the NBN is often the reason that Telstra does not provide more broadband.  Why bother when the NBN will eventually replace it.

The priority is crazy.  Obviously Alice and Bob should be top priority, not Debbie and Edward.

Most real information about the NBN is secret.  However, a brief look at the coverage maps shows that most of the brown field areas supplied are within 5kms of an exchange.  So it is fair to say that they already are like Debbie, with good 5 megabit ADSL.

To be fair, things have improved slightly.  The previous Minister Conroy was only interested in delivering fibre to people that already had fast internet.  The current minister Turnbull at least talks about the needs of those without internet, but the details are vague and inconsistent as discussed below and Turnbull is also cutting the total amount of money available.  

The NBN bureaucrats themselves just want to maximize their revenues, which means ignoring those without broadband.  They just announced that its top priority was people that already had fibre from TPG.  They actually said that without blushing.  (More details below.)

Cartoon

What actually is a megabit?

Technology Speed Utility
No Broadband 0.056mbs dial up modem Awful Internet is essentially unusable.  Modern bloated web pages take tens of seconds to load.  Many time out.  No video at all.
Slow ADSL 1, more than 5 km from exchange 1.5mbs Poor Internet is usable but slow.  Basic low quality video watchable.  Downloads painful.  Interactive gaming OK.
Fast ADSL 2, less than 5km from exchange 5mbs Good Web page are fast (some pages are slow at the server end).  Can watch DVD quality videos.
Cable, fibre to node 12mbs (variable) Slightly Better Can watch ultra high definition TV (wall size) without needing to predownload.  Internet is no faster than ADSL due to server issues.
Optic Fibre to home 100mbs Pointless Can power 8 ultra high definition TVs at the same time.  

We are told that in the modern world the internet is everything and that Australians need 100 megabits in order to stay internationally competitive.  That the NBN will deliver huge benefits economically, in health, education, administration, social media, recreation and access to cloud services.  However, a little analysis shows that this claim that 100 megabits is required is in fact nonsense.

As illustrated in the table above, not having any broadband is a disaster.  The internet really is an essential component of modern living, and today that really means some broadband.  To be deprived of the internet is truely terrible.  

ADSL 1 delivers that, if badly.  It is slow, video is poor but viewable.  Surprisingly, interactive gaming can be OK -- it is more susceptible to latency issues rather than bandwidth, and that is a function of the main backhaul cables rather than the connection to individual homes.

Fortunately, roughly 80% of the population can now get ADSL 2, which delivers a good 5 megabits per second.  That is plenty to access most websites quickly, including health, education and social media.  (A website that has a slow server will still be slow regardless of how fast a connection people have to it, obviously.)   It is enough to watch two DVD quality videos at the same time.  It is plenty to access normal cloud services such as Dropbox and Google services.

The one thing that 5 megabits cannot deliver is ultra high definition TV.  Those modern wall sized TVs that cost thousands of dollars cannot run at quite full resolution in just 5 megabits.  While some people might enjoy those TVs they hardly seem to be a worthwhile target of billions of dollars of our taxes.  

So the internet connection to one's home is a bit like having a road outside one's house.  It is essential to have some road, and one that is not full of pot holes is certainly desirable.  But beyond that having a six lane super highway does not add much value for a surburban street.  Once one has two good lanes one simply has enough.  The result is that of the 207,500 premisis passed by fibre in June 2013, only 33,600 have bothered to connect to it.  Most people without any existing internet would not be at all slow to connect if the service was offered!

There are zero internet applications, real or imagined, that would require more than 5 megabits other than ultra high definition TV.

Sledge Hammer

One important detail is that the connection actually needs to work.  There are small but significant number of people that have bad copper lines that stop working whenever it rains.  They should also be a high priority, obviously.

The priority should be a reliable 5 megabits, NOT 20 megabits.

Roughly 80% of the population already have decent internet at 5 megabits of better.  It will be expensive to upgrade all of them to optic fibre to the house or node, and that will consume most of the resources that are available.

A goal of 5 megabits focuses resources on helping people that currently have no or bad broadband.  If money is not wasted on competing with TPG then many of those without decent broadband could be improved very quickly.  But with the budget constraints there should be no doubt that the money will run out sooner than later so it needs to be targetted where it is actually wanted.

Broadband Technologies, Loop Extenders

The big NBN debate has been whether to run super fast optic fibre to people's homes, or to run it to "nodes" which are those grey pillars on street corners, and then use the existing copper for the last hundred metres.  Fibre to the node is cheaper, but can "only" achieve speeds of 20 megabits or so.

But there are other simpler technologies that could economically help people right now.  One in particular is strangely called "loop extenders" (Not to be confused with "Digital Loop Cariers" or RIMs).  Essentially they put a box in the middle of a long phone line which redigitizes and amplifies the signal.  A fourteen kilometer line that cannot support ADSL thus becomes like two seven kilometer lines, which can each support quite good ADSL.  And more than one loop extender can be used in a longer line.

Loop extenders can be purchased wholesale for just $150, plus installation.  They do not even need an external power supply, but can be powered directly from the exchange.  http://www.strowger.com/solutions/adsl-loop-extender.html is one of several vendors.  

Telstra had successfully trialed this technology as "Project new ground"  from Melbourne company Extel to extend ADSL reach up to 20 km back in 2005.  That was before Sol Trujillo and the NBN killed it off.  The vast majority of blackspot sufferers would already be relieved if this had gone forward.

Loop extenders are commonly used in the USA.  But they are just not available in Australia.  The focus is on optic fibre only, and nothing else gets considered.  If you live too far for decent ADSL now then its just too bad, so sad ...   Even if you offer to pay for the extenders yourself.

Telstra themselves have done some good work with ADSL RIMS and other boxes that they place a few kilometers from exchanges to greatly improve ADSL services in areas that are further away.  This is another cheap and simple technology.  Between them and loop extenders anybody that has a phone line should have access to decent broadband at very reasonable cost.

If you have a phone line, there is no technical reason why you should not be able to get passable broadband.

While most of the existing copper network is in good shape, a small but significant proportion of it is not.  Those lines stop working whenever it rains.  They obviously need to be replaced.  However, it is not at all clear whether most of the problems are in the wire between the household and the node, or the node and the exchange.  If the latter then fibre to the node will fix it nicely.  If the former then fibre to the house is required.  But this is only a small proportion of all the copper.  (How small?  No real data except anecdotal evidence.)

(Clearly households that are hundreds of kilometers away from the nearest town in the outback then you do not have a phone either.  They need satellite.  But most blackspots actually do have phone lines.)

The TPG Fiasco

In April 2014 the NBN Co announced that its top priority would be to provide optic fibre to homes that already had optic fibre from telco TPG.  They also asked the government to let them cut the price for those customers so that it could use tax payer's money to drive TPG out of business!!!

http://www.arnnet.com.au/article/542911/new_nbn_co_chief_challenges_tpg_early_rollout/
http://www.itwire.com/government-tech-news/govenrment-tech-policy/63747-nbn-co-set-to-tackle-tpg-head-on

Specifically, the NBN said "NBN Co’s push into high-density urban areas will allow consumers to benefit from the competitive market the NBN enables, and purchase broadband, telephone or other services from the retail service provider of their choice."   In other words they intend to provide even less resources to those households that do not have any internet at all.

The reason is that the providing broadband to households in cities is cheaper than for those in the country.  The NBN wants to cross subsidize the country with the city.  But if companies like TPG supply all the cities, then this will not be possible.  TPG is "cherry picking" which is taking business away from the NBN bureaucrat's business.

The problem is the attempt to cross subsidize the country with the city without having an explicit levy.  The result is the same as for other market distortions, it simply means that the country gets no service at all.  When the NBN says they need to "build out the network" that is doublespeak for saying that they need to service profitable customers first.  I.e. those that already have fast ADSL and/or cable.  The NBN's current plans to prioritize undercutting the price on TPG's cable will just exacerbate the problem.  Particularly if TPG fights back!

The correct solution to the problem is to make the subsidy explicit.  Place a small tax on city broadband users, and use it to provide an explicit subsidy to country users if that is what is wanted.  In that way companies like TPG might even be interested in supplying country users given the subsidies.  

What the NBN does not point out is that nimble companies like TPG can actually lay cables much more quckly and cheaply than monsters like the NBN can talk about laying them.  For the billions of dollars already spent only 33,600 premisis were actually actively connected to the NBN by June 2013.

But many if not most people that cannot get any broadband today just want to have it, at whatever it costs.  Today, not in fifteen years time!  5 megabits is fine.  But just make it available.  Even if they have to pay the full cost themsleves.  This author would certainly love to be able to pay TPG to lay a simple copper line to his house that delivered 5 megabits!  

For people without any broadband, the NBN building duplicate fibre to households that already have TPG fibre is just obscene.

TPG should not be condemed, instead they should be applauded!  Telstra and Optus have also said they would be interested in building fibre to city homes if the law would allow them to.  Let the NBN and its billions of dollars of tax payer money focus on those people that really need them.

Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)

Bureaucrats like the NBN are driven by the Key Performance Indicators that are used to determine whether they have done a good job.  Currently they are essentially just the number of households that get any sort of fibre.  That's why they mainly focus on people that already have good broadband.  They do not deliberately pursue this idiot policy, it is just that houses that are near exchanges are the cheapest houses to connect , so they get priority.

Instead the KPI should be changed to be the number of households supplied, weighted along the following lines:-

Household type KPI Points
No broadband 100
ADSL 1 < 1.5 megabits 50
ADSL 2 < 5 megabits 20
ADSL2 > 5 megabits 5
Fibre 1

In this way they would be rewarded for providing real benefit to people that are in desperate need, rather than just wasting money forcing people to use a service that they do not even want.

An alternative proposal that might appeal to dry Liberal bean counters is to allow people to bid for the NBN.  This author would happily put down $1,000 for just 5 megabits.  That should even pay for most of the cost of installing loop extenders that could easily achieve that.

The number of people that would be willing to contribute even $100 would be relatively small.  If targeting such people was the explicit goal then the NBN could boast that it covered a large proportion of those people that have said that they really want the NBN, and at a fraction of the cost of forcing the NBN on people that do not really want it.

And of course if the city is supposed to subsidize country users, then that should be achived by an explicit tax and subsidy.  $5/month would produce a huge revenue stream to remove all blackspots very quickly indeed.  And pay the subsidy to whoever addresses a blackspot first.

NBN Fanboys

There is an amazingly loud, arrogant and often very aggressive lobby for the NBN fibre to the house scheme that violently rejects all the arguments made in this paper.  The only thing that counts to them is getting their own hands on ultra fast fibre.  Often to play very high end video games.

They push a number of lies and half truths.  For example that the copper network is on the brink of collapse.  Nonsense, most of it will be fine for many decades to come.  A small proportion of it is sick and stops working in the rain.  But that is only a small proportion which needs to be replaced.

Another lie is that loop extenders cannot exist because the signals are analog.  Nonsense, the signals clearly can be redigitized and there are several vendors that actively sell loop extenders.  

Technophiles tend to want this ultra fast broadband, and they are the ones that are most vocal on this topic, unsurprisingly.  They have distorted the debate away from a focus on poor users with no broadband at all and towards themselves who already have good broadband but demand 100 megabits.

Meanwhile, users in blackspots are unlikely to even be able to read this page.  They have no internet.

When will it be Delivered?

Nobody knows.  But in February 2014 it was announced to the senate estimates committee that only 3 percent of Australia's 10,000 households had been connected, for a cost of $7billion.  Minister Turnbull noted that the project started in 2009, taking 5 years, so at that rate the full program would take 30 times 5 = 150 years to complete.  The previous minister Conroy pointed out that this was a gross distortion, as the 2009 work was just trials, and real work only started in 2011.  By that analysis the complete rollout would only take 30 times 2 = 60 years to complete.  This author will be dead and burried by the time that happens either way.

The new approaches using existing cable and fibre to the node promise a quicker roll out.  But it will still take decades to complete.  As long as the focus is on the number of homes that have access then the NBN will target the low hanging fruit.  That is, people that already have fast broadband.  The blackspots will not be addressed for many, many, many years.

As a guide, in May 2014 the NBN that it had originally planned to service 200,000 homes with fixe wireless by 2021 (7 years!).  But the demand is actually 600,000 homes, require an extra $1.4 billion.  If it takes seven years to service 200,000 homes one can but speculate upon how long it would take to service 600,000 homes, assuming that the plan is even remotely on schedule.  Hopefully before 2035!  Incidentally, $1.4 billion for 400,000 homes is $3,300 per home -- there would be many private companies that would be more than happy to provide the service with that huge subsidy.

Current NBN Policy

To his credit, the current minister Turnbull has at least mentioned the problem of blackspots, which is a step in the right direction.  But it would seem that the NBN does not care.
 Like most things concerning the NBN, the current policy on addressing black spots is secret.  

 But what has been said is (9 April 2014)
“The design of a multi-technology NBN will be guided by the Government's policy objectives of providing download rates (and proportionate upload rates) of at least 25 megabits per second to all premises and at least 50 megabits per second to 90 per cent of fixed line premises as soon as possible.”
http://www.theregister.co.uk/2014/04/09/turnbull_leaves_australias_broadband_blackspots_in_the_dark/

In other words, to prioritize those premisis that are cheap to connect because they are near existing exchanges.  I.e. those people that already have fast broadband.  They might try to address blackspots where "logisitcally feasible" (i.e. cheap) but the blackspots are blackspots precisely because they are not the cheapest to service.  That was supposed to be the point of the NBN.  Why provide government funding to service high density areas that telcos are more than willing to service if the law would permit them to?

The statement also reinforces the point that zero priority will be given to simple, cheap technologies such as loop extenders to address black spots now.

Then about 14 April 2014 the NBN gave the following equally meaningless assurance
"... you can’t address every small island in Australia that is underserved at once but rather, have to build out a network from where existing assets are... .by giving priority to poorly served areas in the deployment schedule, they will on average be upgraded two years sooner than if no effort was made to prioritise them.”
http://www.theregister.co.uk/2014/04/14/turnbull_made_no_blackspot_targeting_rules_for_nbn_co/

Two years sooner than what?  So maybe thirteen years instead of fifteen years, assuming that they do not change their mind?  And the first part says, in effect, that only premisis that are near exchanges will get serviced first.

Note that the phrase "Build out the network" above is not really a technical point but a financial one.  They mean that they need to inflict the NBN on lots of people that already have fast broadband in order to produce the revenue to slowly address people that have no or bad broadband.  Virtually every exchange in Australia now has a fibre connection to the rest of the network.  There is no technical reason to not start adding ADSL RIMS or other technologies to address black spots.  

The Register asked specifically “Has the department developed criteria for NBN Co to use when assessing whether it is 'commercially and operationally feasible' to address a poorly-served area?”.   The eventually received the following gibberish.
“NBN Co’s next Corporate Plan is expected to include criteria around the appropriate technology choice for a given location. But first it needs to take into consideration a whole range of factors, including the Department of Communications’ report into broadband quality and availability, along with other analyses – including the company’s Strategic Review and the Fixed Wireless & Satellite Review – not to mention the results of any renegotiated deal with Telstra. It is also likely to take account of advice from Government arising from the Vertigan panel’s cost benefit analysis. The Corporate Plan is due later this year.”
http://forums.theregister.co.uk/post/submit/2014/05/12/nbn_co_has_no_plan_to_prioritise_blackspot_builds/

In other words, guarenteeing that nothing will be done this year, and that there is no priority to do anything at all later.  And the existence of the NBN prevents other telcos from being allowed to.

What is required is some type of clear, tangible statement from the minister.   For example, that X million dollars will be spent specifically for households that have no internet today.  Or Y% of all households that are connected to the NBN will be brown field households that do not have internet today.  Or that have less than 2 megabits.  Personally I think that Telstra should have a 5 megabit internet obligation like they currently have a phone obligation, and the government should subsidize that and downsize the NBN.

But whatever it is, "two years sooner than never"  is not helpful, and just pours fuel onto the flames of discontent.

The NBN fanboys in combination with the NBN bureaucrats appear to be winning.  The NBN is mainly for people that do not really want it, and blackspots are somebody else's problem.

The billions and billions of dollars that are being wasted on this junket should also be of concern to Australian tax payers.   But for the audience of this page, people stuck without broadband, we just want some improvement in service.  Even if we have to pay for it entirely by ourselves.  Feel free to waste the money, but let us fix our internet.

Broadband Availability Report

To their credit the government released a report of the existing state of broadband in December 2013.  However, the numbers it contains are very strange and do not correlate at all with common experience or the physical properties of ADSL and cable technologies.

Speeds
The figure above is particuarly odd, suggesting that most people already get over 12 megabits which can only be deliverd up to 3km over ADSL.  By 5km it drops down to about 2 megabits.  A brief examination of where telephone exchanges are situated shows that there must be many more people that live more than 3kms from them.

But the real problem with this chart is that it defocuses the important end, those people that have less than 3 megabits.  It does not really matter if people have 6 megabits or 60 because unless they have an ultra high definition TV they will never utilize it.  But it matters a lot if someone has 3 megabits, which is slow but usable, vs 0.056 megabits, which is not even covered by the chart.

yathink

The excellent if informal survey at http://yathink.com.au/mybroadbandvreality-nbn-senate-submission paints a somewhat different picture shown above.  They compare survey respondants speeds to speeds estimated by https://www.mybroadband.communications.gov.au.  But as always, the focus is on the fast end, and not on us poor sods with very slow broadband.  Note that it is a relatively small proportion below 2 megabits, which suggests that fixing blackspots should not be that difficult or expensive if the government could be bothered.

The problems is that the NBN fanboys have stolen the agenda.  The departments are trying to defend claims that they can deliver 100 megabits, and not "just" 50 megabits.  But the real argument should be focused on delivering to people that only ove 0.056 megabits!

Slow users lobby

As individuals we have no voice.  Complaining to a nobody at Telstra is almost as big a waste of time as complaining to your friends. But as a group we can get media attention, and thus political attention.  The current situation is undefendable.

I am setting up a slow users lobby.  Please contact me if you would like to register your interest.  The more members, the more influence we can have.  I would be particularly interested in anyone that would be interested in helping to organize it.  Anthony@Berglas.org

Responses from the minister and NBN

Both the minister and the NBN have been asked for a response as at 30 April 2014.  In the unlikely event that any are received they will be posted here uneditied.

Links

Official Responses

Jon Dart, 28 March 2014

I received the following response to this page from jon.dart@communications.gov.au.
Anthony, your description of priority given to households in each category is wrong.  It is not correct to say that houses within 5km of the exchange are given high priority and houses with no broadband are given no priority.  The situation is the exact opposite – Ours is the first Government to systematically measure which areas have the best broadband and worst broadband around the country (the results have been published online).  The recent NBN Strategic Review found that on average, the worst served areas will receive upgrades two years sooner than if no effort to prioritise these areas was made.
He just repeats the meaningless "two years sooner" claim.  I strongly suspect that he did not read beyond the first few paragraphs.  He certainly did not address the arguments made.  I'm sure that he thinks that it would be nice to address blackspots first, but I doubt whether he understands what is required to do so.

Malcom Turnbull, 16 March 2014

Below is an earlier response attributed to Malcom Turnbull.  It is a standard form, as one would expect as a response to one of thousands of emails from individuals.  It talks about slow users, but does not say anything definite, and this was before the NBN announced it was going to focus on TPG users.  As a group we would have much more influence.

anthony berglas anthony@berglas.org

Mar 16
to malcolm.turnbu.
Dear Sir,

I commend your broadband initiatives.  But should the NBN focus on

1. Users that already have fast ADSL or cable and so do not really want it, or 

2. Users that have lousy broadband and are desperate for something better.

Under Labor, the answer was clearly 1.  That is why they have to cut the copper in order to force people to use the NBN.

I would suggest that 2. would be a better priority.

I would propose that people be allowed to offer to contribute $500 (say) for better broadband.  Then those people get priority.

The problem is the KPI.  To get the maximum number of households quickly Labor focused on houses near exchanges, and they already have fast broadband.  But change that KPI to the much fewer users that are willing to pay $500 and you can get a good percentage and gratitude.

Yours Sincerely,

Turnbull, Malcolm (MP) Malcolm.Turnbull.MP@aph.gov.au via berglas.org 

Mar 19
to anthony

Dear Dr Berglas,

 

Thank you for taking the time to email me with your thoughts in relation to the NBN.

 

NBN Co has advised the Government that to deliver broadband sooner, at less cost to taxpayers and more affordably for consumers, the NBN should be completed using a multi-technology mix.  This will match the right technology to the right location and make use of existing networks where possible to deliver very fast broadband.

 

This will save taxpayers $32 billion, complete the rollout four years sooner, and ensure that 90 per cent of Australians receive minimum download speeds of 50 megabits per second (Mbps) by 2019. Australians will also pay lower monthly Internet bills. 

 

The NBN Strategic Review recommends upgrading existing HFC cable networks so they deliver downloads of up to 300 Mbps and uploads of up to 100 Mbps.   Fibre will still be run all the way into households and businesses where this makes sound commercial sense – for instance, where there is high business or consumer demand for very fast broadband, or existing infrastructure needs to be replaced. A multi-technology mix NBN will provide broadband with downloads of 25 Mbps via satellite and fixed wireless technology in regional and remote areas of Australia. 

 

In addition, the Government recently undertook a Broadband Availability and Quality: Summary Report, which found that there are more than 1.6 million premises across Australia with very poor or no fixed broadband access at all.  However, Labor made no effort to prioritise these areas in their rollout.

 

That is why the Coalition Government has instructed the NBN Co to revise its current rollout schedule to meet three key objectives:

 

         To ensure that the worst served areas in Australia are prioritised in the NBN Co rollout.  On average, areas with very poor broadband will receive upgrades two years sooner.

         To ensure the NBN is delivered sooner and more affordably, by using a mix of technologies.  The Strategic Review found that under the model adopted by the Coalition, the project will be finished four years sooner than would have otherwise been the case.

         To ensure that information provided in the public domain is accurate and can be relied upon by businesses and households waiting for broadband upgrades.

 

The fact is the NBN, to date, has reached only 3 per cent of Australian premises after four years and $6.4 billion of funding.   Fixing Labor’s inability to manage this project is a key priority of the new Government.

 

NBN Co is expected to publish an updated Corporate Plan and rollout schedule later this year and further information will be made publicly available on the NBN Co website,www.nbnco.com.au.

 

The Coalition Government remains committed to completing the NBN as quickly and cost-effectively as possible and managing this taxpayer-funded project with complete transparency.

 

Kind regards,

 

Malcolm

 

 

 

 

From: anthony berglas [mailto:anthony@berglas.org] 
Sent: Sunday, 16 March 2014 12:27 PM
To: Turnbull, Malcolm (MP)
Subject: NBN for slow users without ADSL2