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Publisher's Letter

We need the NBN; pity it’s so expensive

As readers will be aware, I have criticised the National Broadband Network in a number of past Publisher’s Letters, mainly on the issue of its huge and open-ended cost. The correctness of that criticism has been borne out by the recent report of NBN Co, detailing lack of progress, further cost increases and pitifully low number of people actually connected and using it, at under 4000.

But while I lament the process by which it has come about, I have concluded that we really do need the NBN. Why? Because it is painfully obvious that the vast majority of businesses in Australia are now irrevocably tied to the internet. The internet is wonderful when it is running and it is now inconceivable that we could do business without it. When the internet is down, for whatever reason, our VOIP PABX does not work, we have no email, we can’t transfer files, do any financial transactions and so on.

So we need a reliable internet connection and I dare say that would apply to virtually all businesses now. The connection does not have to be particularly fast but it does need to utterly reliable. And looking back, I don’t think Telstra would ever have planned for a complete optical fibre network covering virtually all of Australia and with “fibre to the home” (FTTH). Telstra’s preferred lower-cost option was always “fibre to the node” (FTTN).

Unfortunately, FTTN is always going to be dodgy because it relies on the obsolete copper wires in Telstra’s ducts for the connection from the “node” to the home. The simple fact is that those wires and ducts have been there for decades, maybe 60 years or more, and Telstra has done virtually no maintenance for years. The situation in my own suburb of Collaroy Plateau is a classic case. Because so much of the suburb is hilly and rocky, much of the copper network is strung pole-to-pole, as are the Pay-TV cables for Foxtel and Optus.

These cables are a mess and every time we have a few days of bad weather, we either have a failure of the phone or a very noisy connection, coupled with no internet or lots of drop-outs. Or sometimes we might lose the phone but the internet still runs, indicating that one of the cable pair is open-circuit or there is a poor connection somewhere. Many of my neighbours have similar problems. One particularly unfortunate Telstra customer living close by has had no fixed line for about seven weeks but has had the internet during all that time. And Telstra has not been able to fix it, despite a number of visits by technicians.

So as far as Collaroy Plateau is concerned, FTTN, if it ever happens, will be a joke. We will still be relying on the rubbishy cables in the street! While much of Telstra’s network is probably not as bad, it is not likely to provide the high reliability that should be available from a brand-new optical fibre-to-the-home network. It cannot come soon enough, as far as I am concerned.

Mind you, a lot of people do not have any land-line phone or internet connection; they rely on their mobile phone for all communications. At the last count, about 14% of Australian households were in this category and it is increasing. Well, that is all well and good but mobile phones aren’t utterly reliable either, as you will sometimes find on critical occasions. I also have an Android mobile phone and can use it for email, internet etc but it is not a complete substitute for a land-line, the faster 4G service notwithstanding.

In fact, all businesses and most people probably need both: utterly reliable mobile and fixed-line communications. I wonder how long it will be before we get it.

Leo Simpson

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