Not Netflix but Government killed the NBN

In a recent ABC interview, Sam Dimarco, Head of Stakeholder Relations at NBN Co, asserted that Netflix has been a catalyst for change.

It has been blamed as the principal reason why the NBN is unable to deliver the quality that was promised by the Government. The article also mentioned Bill Morrow’s comment on this, admitting that high speeds would no longer be possible on fixed wireless without spending ‘mind-boggling amounts of money’.

However, the arrival of video-based entertainment as the “killer application” for the NBN was well and truly envisaged as early as around 2007. The then-Labor Government asked Melbourne University to advise them on what would be the key apps why truly high-speed broadband was needed.

University Professor Rod Tucker had established the Institute for a Broadband-Enabled Society (IBES).  They were well-positioned to provide such advice.

Executive Director, Dr Kate Cornick oversaw the research and she very clearly stated not just in her report but also at conferences and meetings that video-based entertainment would be the killer app for the NBN. She was very adamant about that.

The advice of the Institute was taken on board by the Government of the day and became a key input in their decision to increase the reach of the Fibre to the Home (FttH) network to 93% of the population.

Despite this knowledge, the incoming Coalition Government downgraded the quality of the NBN. While this was a political decision, the engineering management of NBN Co, and their suppliers, could (and in my opinion, should) have indicated that the NBN in that format would not be able to effectively and efficiently handle high levels of capacity required by the applications and services that would be developed for high-speed networks.

With the downgrading from a mainly FttH network to one based on a Multi-Technology Mix (MTM), NBN Co faced many quality issues. This was especially acute in the fixed wireless, satellite and fibre to the Node (FttN) parts of the network.

With the pressure on NBN co to complete their roll-out, fixed wireless has now been deployed well beyond the initial target areas. In some cases, it is now being mixed in – within towns – with fixed NBN networks. This is putting further pressure on the network capacity required to deliver a good quality fixed wireless NBN service in regional and rural areas.

The problem is also occurring in the satellite-based part of the NBN. We were one of the early users of this service in Bucketty, the Hunter Valley.

While the initial drop out problems were resolved a year or so ago, the service is nearly always worse than our Telstra-based ADSL service. I recently cancelled the NBN satellite service. Luckily in satellite areas, Telstra continues to deliver the ASDSL service and this service provides overall a much more reliable and consistent service than the NBN.

One day, the speed of the NBN service might hit 13 megabytes per second (mbps). Then, the next day or even hour, it’ll have fallen below 5mbps. Reliability, or the lack thereof, was a major concern.

So, Netflix didn’t just magically fall out of the air and wreck the NBN’s service. The current position we’re in didn’t come as a total surprise to those who’ve followed the conception and roll-out of the NBN.

It was all envisaged years before the Coalition Government downgraded the NBN infrastructure.

Most telecommunications engineers around the world were saying that very high capacity networks are the only way to provide future-proof solutions. It was very well understood that once broadband penetration and quality improve, new applications and services would follow — and so they did.

As a result of these unstoppable innovative developments, in the case of fixed wireless, this means that there is a requirement for far more transmission towers, and as Bill Morrow mentioned, more money.

In the case of fixed networks, fibre optic networks are the only way forward. The situation here is certainly not as bad as in fixed wireless. However, we can also here expect increasingly more problems, especially in relation to FttN.

This will become more critical with further advances in video-entertainment such as the ones that will be provided by the 4K and 8K TV technologies. New TV sets based on these technologies are becoming cost-effective and soon most TVs will be 4k-based.

The question is how the MTM-based NBN will handle this.

NBN Co cannot be blamed for the political decision. But, they went with their eyes wide open into a situation where it was clear to many telecoms experts that video-based entertainment would require much better infrastructure than what would be available through the MTM.

Many of the video applications that we now see all around us were originally envisaged years if not decades ago. For example, in the 1990s Optus started to roll out its video-based broadband network based on coax infrastructure. Many of the broadband networks in the U.S. and Europe from the 1990s onwards were designed with video-based entertainment in mind.

Blaming Netflix for the NBN’s significant shortcomings is trying to rewrite history.

Paul Budde

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