Some envisage it as a technological ‘silver bullet’ which will fill all the gaps in communications across our vast continent for all time. Others see it as an opportunity for people to shape a truly networked society for the future. In fact the NBN has elements of both.

A closer analogy of the National Broadband Network might be to liken it to a brand new universal network of highway quality roads,  which most residents of Australia will  be able to drive onto right from their front gate. It will be a toll road network, but the price to drive on it will not be based on distance travelled and in contrast to the real road network, speeding will be encouraged, particularly in built up areas. The developer will build and operate the roads, bridges and flyovers, and will use a network of retailers such as Telstra, Optus, Internode and others to sell the ‘right to travel’ to businesses and the general public.

The significant point about this toll highway analogy is that while NBN and its ‘sales team’ will be quite happy to get us there in all weathers with the minimum of traffic delays, it will be up to us to choose when and where we want to go, and to make sure that the vehicle we select is designed for the journey. Or to put it another way, the NBN in itself is what is called an ‘enabling’ technology. It is only a means to extend the capacity and reach of the Internet, and NBN Co. (a Government-owned wholesale monopoly company) will not get involved in selling and delivering applications to residential customers. The opportunity is then what we make of it.

How to reach remote communities: mobile phone coverage challenges

For people in capital cities, the  speeds that NBN will deliver are to a fair degree available now, for those who are prepared to pay for them. So let’s look more closely at the remote areas, the area of most interest to us. Satellite technology will be used by NBN to reach the  most remote 3% of Australia’s population, so this will be the technology that targets most remote Indigenous communities.

The first point to make is that most of our smaller communities do not have mobile phone coverage at present, as this requires very expensive land based network connections to the rest of the  country. NBN will not provide mobile capacity either, so future computing communications with these locations will be built on NBN’s improved fixed satellite connections.

People planning for these can reckon on the connection speed increasing substantially from the best available at present (about 4Mbps download) to peak speeds of 6Mbps over the next few years, to 12Mbps when the NBN satellites are in operation from about 2016.

More importantly, as existing users of satellite broadband have probably experienced, speeds can fluctuate with time of day and the number of users online (particularly in the late afternoon and early evening).  This annoying fluctuation will be ironed out to a significant extent in the longer term, because the number of customers that the new satellites are being designed to support will be much greater.

This will effectively mean more consistent and predictable communications. The latency or delay associated with satellite  won’t change though, so two way real time applications such as voice phone calls and video conferencing over satellite will improve but the ‘customer experience’ for these will not reach the best land line quality. Having said that, starting  later in 2011, NBN Co plans to provide different classes of service to separate the phone calls from general web traffic, to allow retail internet  service providers (ISPs) to offer the best possible performance for this kind of service. The final NBN satellite solution is expected to deliver cost effective monthly
quotas of up to 60 Gigabytes, an option that costs several hundred dollars per month today.

Pricepoints for high-speed internet: Why pay more?

The second point relates to price (see sidebar). Effort is being made to provide a step change improvement  in performance at prices that people are generally paying now. This is good marketing, as people are unlikely to pay a premium for a very high speed service until they have some confidence that it is truly high speed, and that they have a use for it.

What could NBN be used for at home?

Thirdly, it may be useful to make some predictions about the use of NBN in different home settings, and NBN in business, the service sector and government. Although most people in remote communities have very limited access to home computing and the internet at present, the vast majority of Australians have regular access at home. This mainstream group will notice a big increase in available connection speeds and a better ‘customer experience’ than they can get now for the money. That will also mean easier downloading of large files such as videos. Applications incorporating video material are likely to flourish. Translated to homes in the remote bush, the increased speeds will allow each physical connection to go further, so that clusters of homes in communities may be able to share the cost of operating a single satellite service and obtain adequate performance for each connected computer.

The choice between satellite connection on a one-per-home model and a single shared service with say wireless distribution within the community will depend on how much public subsidy is offered for one or the other of these models, since installation and support costs are much higher in remote areas. Either way, a big change in take-up is likely to need a high level of subsidy. The Australian Government has not announced its future plans in this regard once the existing satellite broadband subsidy scheme (the Australian Broadband Guarantee) ends in mid 2011.