[LINK] NBN white-elephant-to-be: better spend the $$$ on other things

Robin Whittle rw at firstpr.com.au
Fri Aug 20 15:11:12 AEST 2010

I am replying to David Goldstein, Jim Birch and Jan Whitaker

Hi David,

I haven't looked in detail at the Coalition's broadband policy.  I am
not suggesting it is any more realistic than Labor's - but it is less
ambitious and has a lower estimated price-tag, so I guess it is likely
to be less in error in practical terms.

3G, even with substantial extra spectrum certainly doesn't have the
capacity for a large amount of video-speed broadband.  Perhaps in the
future there will be a role for 60GHz systems over one or two hundred
metres line-of-sight.  Birds would cause drop-outs and there would
need to be lots of small towers, which probably wouldn't be acceptable
in most suburbs.   In less populated areas, on the fringes of suburbs
and towns, I think this might be more cost effective than running
fresh fibre hundreds of metres to each home.

You wrote, in part:

> So do I think the project can be delivered on time? Maybe. Do I think it can be 
> delivered on budget? Probably. Do I think we have a choice? No.

I think the Labor party had a choice and decided to go for a massive
project, on no solid costing basis.  The benefits would be immense, if
it could be constructed in a reasonable time.  But as far as I know,
the $43B price was dreamed up by Kevin Rudd and Stephen Conroy.

Hi Jim,

You wrote, in part:

>> firstly I don't think the NBN [can] deliver its promise at that
>> price.
> Any particular reason, or is it just a visceral feeling you have?

A visceral feeling about the costs of pulling fibre, splicing it etc.
and probably directional boring in many locations.  In the mid-1990s
when I was writing for Australian Communications magazine about the
Telstra and Optus HFC systems, I spoke with some directional boring
people in the Melbourne suburb of Surrey Hills.  I recall the cost of
boring past a single home was about $1000.  This needs to be done on
both sides of the street.  (Why would anyone do directional boring,
with a team of 3 people, for less than $50 a metre?  They have to go
ahead and use metal detectors to mark the locations and depths of
water pipes, gas pipes and telephone cables - and in some places power
cables.  Then they need to steer their drill string, also using a
fancy electronic detector, above and below these things.)

Each home gets, or could get, a fibre from a nearby splitter.  Even if
the home doesn't get a fibre, it needs to be laid as part of the
initial installation, since it is impractical to lay it (or probably
to blow it along small ducts) for each house as it wants service.

The NBN plan is for the splitters (one fibre to 32 or maybe 64 homes)
to be in cabinets, so there must be a single fibre from each cabinet
to each house.  That fibre needs to be broken out of a cable, or
multi-blown-fibre duct, as the cable goes past each house.  If it is
not going into the house, is it going to be coiled up underground
until it is needed?  Is it going to be chopped off there?  If it is to
be chopped, there needs to be enough to bring out of the pit to get it
to a fusion splicer for when the house needs to be connected.  There
needs to be extra fibres for new developments, such as if someone puts
up a block of apartments.

Then there is getting the fibre to the house, and in the house,
without extreme bends to wherever the ONT is located.  There, if there
is to be a phone service, there needs to be a battery system capable
of running the ONT for as long as you think the power might be out in
emergencies.  That could be a week or more if you consider cyclones
and the like.

Everywhere I look I see complications with labour-intensive solutions.
 Multiply that by 10 million houses and I sense that the total cost is
more than $43B.

I am not saying this is a really scientific approach, but it is a lot
more informed than whatever telecommunications expertise Kevin Rudd
and Stephen Conroy brought to their process.

> The NBN has been costed by a team of trained experts.

Do you have a reference for this, other than Kevin Rudd and Stephen
Conroy?  It needs to be independent - not paid for by NBNCo.  Its
hardly likely that an NBNCo report would say the whole thing can only
be done for 50 to 100% more than the initial $43B estimate.

> What we are talking about here is infrastructure with likely 50+
> years usage.

Yes - FTTP would be great, and would probably last for 50 years or so.

> It's quite similar to the decision to put in the POTS in the
> middle of last century - still running, and doing stuff no one had
> imagined.

Indeed it is still running.  However, there was no alternative to
putting in copper wires - initially above ground and since the 1950s,
I think, underground.  In a part of Heidelberg Heights, where the
houses were built in 1947, there was still some old lead-covered paper
insulated directly buried in the ground multi-pair cable.  It was an
historic curiosity when it was replaced about 10 years ago - but that
was an early approach to underground cabling.  Still, in the 1960s, in
parts of Rosanna, some streets are totally underground and some have a
mix of underground and above ground multi-pair cabling, with drop
wires to homes from power poles and special wooden poles used mainly
or solely for phone wires.

There are alternatives to fibre.  None of them are technically as
good, except for the ability of copper wires to run a simple phone
service without battery backup.  ADSL is widely available and 3G can
be used anywhere but the most remote areas.  3G isn't video speed
broadband, but it is fast enough for web-surfing use.

So I argue that FTTP is highly desirable, but not essential like
copper phone cables, or pipes for water, gas, sewerage and storm water.

> Are you saying that that shouldn't have been done, because
> virtually identical arguments can be applied?  You could also make
> similar arguments about all sorts of public infrastructure we
> regard as normal and very useful. Hell, thunderboxes work, don't
> they?

Manually emptied toilet pans only worked where there was a lane at the
back of the houses.  They can't work for multi-storey dwellings or any
high-density development.

I am not arguing against how good it would be to have FTTP.  I am saying:

  1 - It is not absolutely essential.

  2 - The NBN price-tag of $43B is based on no thorough planning and
      surely underestimates the true cost, probably by a factor of 2
      or more.

  3 - Even if it was to cost "only $43B", I am not sure that this is
      the best thing we could do with such money.  As I mentioned,
      health, education and solar thermal power generation seem
      higher priorities to me, since pretty much everyone can get
      some kind of broadband (just not video-speed broadband) by
      DSL or 3G (or for a few, geostationary satellite) already.

> If you have an economic case, and show us the numbers but don't
> start totting up weird little narrative points.

What I wrote so far is cursory, but it is more substantial than
anything you have so far written or referred to.

> Did you copy and paste that from a Liberal Party presser?


Jan wrote:

> Heck, I even spliced fibre back in the 80s during a demonstration.
> It's not that hard.

That probably wasn't single-mode fibre.

The fibre needs to be cut and have its plastic sheath stripped off.
Then the fibre needs to be cleaved, and perhaps ground so it has a
flat right-angle end.  This needs to be inspected with a microscope.

Then the ends are loaded into the fusion splicer, which automates the
alignment, fusion and some or all of the testing.

Some datasheets for a cleaver, fusion splicer and an OTDR (Optical
Time Domain Reflectometer) - which is needed for testing and which has
a list price of ~USD$6k.


A quick scan of eBay indicates new prices along these lines, in USD$:

  Cleaver           ~$4k
  Fusion splicer    ~$6k or more, but some include a cleaver

It is a skilled operation, which needs to be done with care, without
wind and rain etc.	

  - Robin

More information about the Link mailing list