Devoted readers of my column (Hi Mum!) will remember that last week I wrote the first of two-parts where I spoke in detail about the current conflict we are seeing between NBN Co. and the telcos in relation to the perceived sub-standard performance of some components of the NBN roll out. I discussed in detail Fibre to the Premise (FTTP); Fixed Wireless (FW) and the poor cousin of both of these, Fibre to the Node (FTTN).

FTTP and FTTN both involve physical cabling to an individual building which lends itself to locations that have a higher population density – or simply a street with houses on normal sized house blocks. FW recognises that in regional areas there may be a number of buildings in an area but not beside each other. For example, on the outskirts of a regional city, there might be a number of ten-hectare blocks in a housing estate. Rather than run fibre or copper cabling to each house, a FW antenna can cover a couple of hundred houses.

As you go to more remote locations, the feasibility of Internet access with very low population density becomes much tougher. The final two solutions that I mentioned last week that I would discuss this week involve the two main technologies designed to address these locations.

The first solution is satellite. It is called NBN but I have sat in the offices of many Communication Ministers – going back as far as my first meeting with Senator Stephen Conroy on 17 December 2009 – and argued that the Government should not call satellite “NBN”. The vision generated by the Government’s pitch around NBN was about unbelievably fast and reliable Internet connectivity that would change the way we live, work and play. Satellite does none of this. Despite the fact that we have used communication satellites since 1962 when Telstar was launched, there is a major limitation in satellites that science has not been able to overcome and it is one of the fundamentals of science as we know it today. The speed of light (which is also the speed of radio waves). Geostationary communications satellites (satellites that stay above the same point of the earth) orbit at 35,786km above the earth. The speed of light approximates to 300,000km per second therefore a round trip from earth to ground and back again adds half a second of latency before any normal processing is factored in. Communication satellites are reasonable for one-way communications but the NBN promises advances that require two-way. Add in the reliability issues due to weather and we have a solution that is way behind the first three I mentioned. Increasing the promised speed of satellite NBN does nothing to address the fundamental issue which is latency.

The last method we use in low density areas is actually reasonably fast and reliable but is often dismissed due to a perception of high prices. Mobile Broadband. I accept that some regional locations can’t receive any mobile coverage whatsoever but there are many remote locations that either receive reasonable communications or, with the help of an external antenna or boosted signal, can receive adequate signal. Mobile Broadband is communicating with a nearby terrestrial tower rather than a satellite with all the benefits you would expect from that huge reduction in distance. There are small devices that allow a Wi-Fi signal to be generated or they will allow the device to be plugged directly into a PC.

Many people choose the satellite option as they assume that Mobile Broadband will be too expensive but many carriers are currently offering plans that are more generous with data than satellite. There are also plans that allow the pooling of data across a number of mobiles and Mobile Broadband devices so the pricing can be reasonable. Although Mobile Broadband is not technically called NBN, it is often far superior to satellite. A possible solution for Governments to consider would be to subsidise clients who are in non-NBN footprints but that have good mobile coverage. This would actually be cheaper than trying to build satellites to service everyone outside FTTP; FTTN and FW.

There you have it – my two-part series on explaining Internet connectivity in our NBN world. It is such a complicated area that I could make it a fifty-part series but that gives you enough information to get you into trouble as the Internet ‘expert’ at the next friendly BBQ you attend.

Mathew Dickerson

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