The coronavirus outbreak has forced many Australians to take part in the country’s biggest work-from-home experiment.
So far, these haven’t yet been soured by wide-scale outages or faults on the NBN – possibly due to preventative measures like free extra CVC capacity NBN gave to retailers and streaming platforms lessening their impact on the network.
But for long-time better broadband advocate and vice president of the Telecommunications Society of Australia, Laurie Patton, now is the best time to start talking about upgrading the NBN.
“A third of the population are on the wrong-side of the digital divide,” Patton said. “No amount of extra CVC or having Netflix and Stan lower their bitrate is going to make fibre to the node appreciably faster.
“A third of the country have got an inferior product using FTTN which relies on old copper wires and that’s just, in many cases, not hugely better than ADSL.
“And it’s not just that FTTN is inferior technology, it’s also being overlaid over a run-down network.”
“This is the opportunity to double down and say, ‘let’s fix this thing now’ instead of having a review of the crisis six months down the line and making the same decision then.”
By the time the NBN rollout is complete this year, around 4.7 million out of 12 million premises connected to the NBN will be through FTTN or fibre to the basement (FTTB) technology.
For many people in search of high speed internet, FTTN/B has been unsatisfactory.
Recently, Telstra and its subsidiary Belong stopped offering high speed (100mbps) NBN plans because customers weren’t getting the speeds they signed up for.
Issues with FTTN were also flagged in a report from the ACCC earlier this year which showed that around a quarter of FTTN customers who were paying for 50mbps or 100mbps connections never saw the full speed of their plans.
ACCC chair Rod Sims said at the time that “too many consumers with FTTN connections are not receiving the speeds they are paying for.”
A new normal
For Patton, the issues people have with home FTTN connections won’t disappear once the coronavirus work from home period ends because he doesn’t think the virus going to be a short-term stress-test.
“That problem is not going to go away when the crisis is over,” he said.
“I think that there will people who find working from home satisfactory and they are going to want to keep doing it and more organisations are going to embrace it.
“That will further test the NBN.”
Once the world started grappling with the extent of the coronavirus, large technology companies started to put their working from home policies in place.
While this had unintended consequences – including an added reliance on artificial intelligence systems to monitor social media content – some companies are expecting the work from home experiment to have permanent effects on their workplaces.
Earlier this month, Twitter’s head of HR, Jennifer Christie, told Buzzfeed the company’s workplace would never be the same after coronavirus.
“People who were reticent to work remotely will find that they really thrive that way,” she said.
“Managers who didn’t think they could manage teams that were remote will have a different perspective.
“I do think we won’t go back.”
And if it is going to be the case that the flexibility for working from home opened up during this time of crisis continues, Patton thinks the first stages of an all-fibre NBN should begin sooner rather than later.
“Before people can go out and roll out more fibre, the engineers have to do the planning,” he said. “And that could be done now, from their own homes.”
Reckless and short-sighted
Communications Minister, Paul Fletcher, scathingly dismissed calls to redirect the NBN’s attention during the coronavirus crisis.
“Recent calls to halt the current rollout and pivot to a new approach are reckless, short-sighted and self-serving,” Fletcher said in an email statement.
“The multi-technology mix policy allows for the selection of the latest technology to provide upgrade pathways as demand for data grows into the future.
“NBN Co is implementing new technologies that will allow faster speeds on its network, such as G.fast and DOCSIS 3.1 and the company is continuing to explore opportunities for upgrades across its technologies.”
Indeed, NBN Co’s 2020-23 corporate plan includes the G.fast DSL protocol on its technology roadmap for FTTN and the wholesaler optimistically says inclusion of the protocol to FTTN connections could provide up to gigabit speeds through Australia’s ageing copper network.
“G.fast will see Australia’s legacy copper network carry many times more bandwidth than it was required to support for the decades with voice, dial-up and ADSL,” NBN’s corporate plan says.
The timeframe for these purported upgrades is, however, unclear.
NBN Co did not respond to Information Age’s request for clarification about its network upgrade strategy in time for publication.