It's time to get brutally honest about the NBN's problems - and what's not its fault.
There’s been a bit of drama regarding FTTN speeds and congestion that has wound its way through various online forums, Delimiter, and a variety of Senate Estimates committees, which threatens to derail a lot of the good arguments that are being raised about the MTM. In the interests of fairness, it’s important that not every single technical issue is immediately leaped upon as a “massive irreparable fault” – just like a lot of FUD was spread about FTTP, while FTTN has significant limitations on speed, it’s not entirely useless.
Newcastle NBN customer, Robbie Gratton, published his gripes in regards to FTTN in an article on Delimiter about 10 days ago, noting that his speeds would heavily fluctuate based on peak or off-peak usage. The article used a number of speed test graphs to illustrate this fact and it, as most articles on the NBN tend to do, blew up with indignation. “FTTN is garbage! It can’t even deliver the right speeds!”. In many cases, FTTN is a fairly outdated technology in that it still relies on copper, thus distance, attenuation and noise problems and what-not limit its ability to provide long term speed increases and require heavy maintenance costs.
But the problems Robbie faced weren’t due to any of these faults. His off-peak speed tests showed speeds on par with most standard fibre connections (which are capped on all major residential networks (Opticomm, NBN, Telstra Velocity, iiNet) at 100/40 right now) and even he claimed they had been this way since he was connected. This is a feat worth celebrating, since NBN has enabled Vectoring – a relatively new technology that will enable higher speeds via FTTN – thus demonstrating a proper use case. It was when peak hour hit that his speeds plummeted.
The reason his speeds plummeted was due to his ISP, Optus, which has had a long history of using high contention ratios (basically providing a small pool of bandwidth for a large customer base) on all of its broadband connections – from ADSL2 to Cable – and thus failing to provision a decent amount of backhaul for new FTTN nodes is not entirely out of the ordinary. This is the key; while it is obviously not preferable for NBN to be using FTTN, as I have mentioned before in previous articles, the fact is that they *are*, and we need to be mindful of where and how the criticism is laid. I have mentioned before that my arguments against the NBN are not ideological, but technical, thus why I still think FTTH is the best method of wide scale deployment. But claiming that his failure is due to “FTTN” is very dis-ingenuous.
This is important to note because there are lots of potential issues with FTTN that need to be considered. Ensuring that the fibre connection from the node back to its nearest POI (Point of Interconnect) is sufficiently fast enough to supply enough bandwidth to each user is NBN’s problem. Ensuring the node is within 300-400m of each residence is NBN’s problem. Ensuring that the copper is of sufficient quality and not a mish-mash of terrible Telstra patch-ups is NBN’s problem. Ensuring the node is properly powered and operational 99.99% of the time is NBN’s problem.
Providing enough bandwidth via this infrastructure to the user is not NBN’s problem.
If services are offered on a particular node by NBN, it is entirely up to the retailer in question to make sure those services are sufficiently resourced. Just like it would be for a FTTH connection, a Cable connection or an ADSL2 connection. Many customers on NBN’s FTTH have had similar problems with a host of ISPs in regards to consistent speeds in peak times – see any number of threads on Whirlpool’s forums, complete with speed tests and logs. It is not NBN’s problem as a wholesale provider to make sure Optus meets a certain contention ratio. It’s up to the customer to chase up the ISP.
When commentators start jumping on things like this, it takes the air out of other legitimate concerns with the rollout. Such as the large number of people who have been passed but are waiting months for activation, or have faulty equipment or aren’t being provided with enough information on their build status. Or the cost blowouts on installations and node deployment. Or the problems with infrastructure based speed supply issues. It’s important that we fly the flag on these concerns and others because it ensures we get the best network we deserve.
We shouldn’t be wasting precious Senate Estimates time on these faults because they are false flags and allow NBN to simply, and rightly, claim they are not its problem. There are, however, many other things that are, and they are where we should be focusing.