Finder to the Node: Inquiry kicking it to the Kerb

Krishan Sharma 5 October 2017 NEWS


The political football match that is the NBN has gone into extra time with a new joint federal inquiry recommending an overhaul of the network.

A joint federal inquiry into the rollout of the National Broadband Network (NBN) wants a drastic overhaul of the project, requesting among other things the use of fibre-to-the-curb (FTTC) as the “minimum” for the remaining fixed-line network as opposed to the cheaper but slower fibre-to-the-node (FTTN).

Select government members hit back saying that any changes would have to be paid for, either by Internet users through higher retail prices or by the taxpayer through higher taxes.

All in all, there were 23 detailed recommendations in the 196-page report, including new regulations for fault repair times, better recourse for customers when things go wrong and tougher enforcement powers for the regulator to ensure that nbn acts within reasonable timeframes to fix faults. However, it is unclear as to how many, if any, of the recommendations will be put into practice.

For me, the more interesting recommendation and the one that is most likely to be granted, as it really requires no extra effort on nbn’s part, is to publicly disclose the maximum attainable speeds of the NBN for each and every premise across the nation.

nbn has a database containing this information and, if released publicly, it would go a long way in eliminating the confusion for customers who find themselves unable to sustain speeds they thought were achievable and also prevent consumers from being charged for NBN speeds their homes could never achieve.

Of course, the maximum attainable speeds do not take into account the quality of the copper or network congestion on the ISPs end, all of which can impact end speeds, but they do address the main determiner of speeds – line distance.

Achievable speeds on an FTTN network are ultimately determined by the length of the copper that runs from the premises to the nearest node cabinet and pillar positioned on street corners. This is what nbn and ISPs refer to as the "line distance". The shorter your line distance, the closer you’ll get to the promised 100/40 Mbps speeds.

Typically, an FTTN cabinet serves a few hundred customers in a radius of about 1.5km, which has long been a bone of contention as FTTN speeds drop off dramatically the further you are from the cabinet, creating a digital divide of sorts. Future network upgrades such as G.Fast and Super Vectoring, which can deliver speeds of up to 300Mbps to end-users, won’t help to address the tyranny of distance either as it will only benefit those with shorter copper lengths.

nbn works out the maximum attainable speeds on a per premise basis based on this line distance. nbn says that it gives ISPs access to this data, putting the onus back on the service provider to divulge that information to the customer. A couple of months ago, I wrote a piece that covered the steps you can take to improve the speed of your FTTN connection, one of which is to get an estimate of the line speeds from your ISP.

The problem is that unless customers specifically request the line speed from their ISP, they won’t be given that information. I also spoke with a number of customers who told me that their ISP had refused their request entirely.

A significant reason customers are unaware of their speed plans and the service they should be expecting from their NBN is poor communication from RSPs in explaining the speeds that customers can realistically expect.

In May, Telstra was forced to make refunds to almost 10,000 customers after it emerged they had been sold high-speed NBN packages that could not be achieved at their homes. Last month Optus said it would also offer refunds, but declined to say how many customers were affected.

Putting this data in the public domain would remove the primary source of confusion for customers. Several major ISPs such as Optus have come out in support of this idea, arguing that nbn should make that database public to improve market transparency for the public.

In July, ALP communications spokeswoman Michelle Rowland lodged a Freedom of Information (FOI) with nbn seeking to access the database, which she said was “clearly in the public interest”.

“Having listened to the concerns of both constituents and consumers, I am firmly of the view that providing Australians with access to public information ... will help support more informed decision-making when choosing a broadband plan with a retail service provider,” Ms Rowland wrote to nbn.

nbn said no decision had yet been made as to whether the information would be handed over.

Let's hope it happens sooner rather than later.

Finder to the Node is a weekly round-up of all the latest news around Australia's complex National Broadband Network from award-winning technology journalist Krishan Sharma.

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