Saturday, August 14, 2010

Broadband antics Down Under, with the looming 2010 federal election

I’ve been closely following communications technology developments, with all the twists and turns, for decades during my career at IBM and afterwards as an independent consultant.

I'm an example of the lucky few here in Australia with a cable broadband choice of both incumbents, Telstra and Optus. Lots of people can get only one or the other (but many Australians unfortunately can get neither).

In Australia, cable has so far generally been available mostly at the level of DOCSIS 2 modem standard. I used the Telstra service for two years, then cancelled it once the contract had expired because Telstra refused to hook me up to their 100 Mbps DOCSIS 3 cable offering. This is typical of Telstra's tendency to "play funny buggers" to use the vernacular, no more so than during the reign of former CEO Sol Trujillo. Acting like this has been their wont, to the intense annoyance of many customers and prospects, and perhaps still is -- although their stance seems to be softening just a little with new management -- fellow ex-IBMer David Thodey get in touch with me if you want a few tips!

Therefore I dropped Telstra cable and switched over to iiNet ADSL2+ with Annex M (the latter only offered to their business customers) which at 1.3 Km from the exchange gives me reliable speeds of 17-18 Mbps downstream and 2.0 Mbps upstream. So while most ISPs offer ADSL only at a maximum of 1 Mbps upstream, double this speed is easily achievable via Annex M if your ISP offers it (same ADSL2+ modem at your end).

iiNet has recently launched what they term "bonded DSL" which requires a second copper line and a special dual-WAN-port modem. This supposedly can almost double downstream and upstream speeds (for me this would be something like 35 Mbps/4 Mbps). My initial reaction is that, for me, it's a bit messy to set up and on the expensive side, but for others it could be their only way currently (pre-NBN)to achieve tolerable speeds.

For me it was a fortunate coincidence that just as I reached my 2-year contract end with Telstra cable iiNet became  the first non-Telstra ISP to offer ADSL2+ (rather than just the slower ADSL1) on my local exchange, Burwood in Melbourne. This exchange is in the heart of suburbia but was deliberately held back from the higher 2+ option for two or three years by Telstra, again playing "funny buggers" to the disservice of its customers.

Running a software consulting business from home, and not being a "leecher" or movie downloader, I've found the  downstream 17-19 Mbps to be quite adequate for my needs 99 percent of the time. I've been carrying out network performance testing all along, and find that iiNet's ADSL2+ is perfectly capable of transferring at close to the nominal 18 Mbps whenever the remote site allows, but this is probably less than 5 percent of the time. Many remote sites, generally those outside the country but including  lots of in-country sites, are not capable of reaching and maintaining more than a few Mbps. I found even the Telstra DOCSIS 2 service rarely connected to sites at anywhere near its nominal 30 Mbps, with few sites reaching even 16 Mbps and most averaging just several Mbps.

However, there ARE occasions when you want/need very high transfer speeds, such as downloading a movie or (in my case) uploading large software files to my web sites. It is beyond question having the choice of operating at high speed is an essential operational requirement -- that is, a "business" case can be made for it (whether the operating environment happens to be commercial, government, or private).

To make an analogy, suppose that a fleet of ambulances is measure over a period of weeks or months to be running at an average driving speed of 55 Km.hour. You'd have to be crazy to try to save  investment  monies by specifying that the vehicles fleet only need a top speed capability of, say, 70 Km/hour because their are times when high-speed travel is of the essence.

In other words, when you want speed you REALLY want it!

False economies like this are to be avoided, at all cost so to speak. This is why the Coalition's piecemeal 2010 broadband policy with its stated target of 12 Mbps "minimum peak speed" (whatever exactly they mean by this) is quite unsatisfactory, if not naive.

Queuing theory informs us that once the a resource is utilized about 60 to 70 percent of its nominal top speed, then its behavior typically becomes very erratic, and that's why a broadband network needs to have far higher nominal speeds than the average user wants to run at and pay for. So, our NBN has been designed and engineered to run very fast: initially announced at 100 Mbps, but with much higher speeds possible (and just the other day a speed of 1 Gbps was announced, easily achieved with current communications technology).

Certainly not everybody requires the very fastest broadband speeds, and it's heartening to see that pricing so far announced by several ISPs for the pioneer NBN roll-out in Tasmania begin at relatively inexpensive rates for a 25 Mbps low-end package. (Packaging and pricing surely will follow the trend of becoming even cheaper as the NBN is rolled out across the nation and economies of scale kick in as well as ISP competition increasing.)

Talking about competition, Optus seems to have been doing their homework and investing sensibly in infrastructure, and they've just announced (for their Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane cabled regions) what they call "Supersonic Broadband" running at DOCSIS 3 speeds (up to a nominal 100 Mbps downstream and a useful 2 Mbps upstream), for a very reasonable $20/month on top of current cable rates. Thus far, Telstra has announced this only for Melbourne, and they seem to have gone quiet on this anyway so they'd better watch out!

We use Optus Cable at home, and for those of us lucky enough to be in Optus-cabled areas this is a serious option for getting NBN-style speeds (until the NBN makes it way across the nation, or definitely if the Coalition wins next weekend's federal 2010 election and do away with the NBN). ... Here Down Under we're living in interesting broadband times indeed!

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