Do we understand national broadband requirements?
28 June 2007
The old joke tells that to make a rabbit stew, first catch your rabbit. In many ways, the Australian broadband debate looks like an attempt to make a stew without a rabbit.
One of the oldest lessons in technology industries is this: if you don’t know your requirements, you can’t build your solution.
In Australia, most positions in the broadband debate seem to assume that:
- Everybody knows what our requirements are; and
- Everybody is agreed upon the detail of those requirements (how fast broadband should be, how ubiquitous, how cheap, what applications it should support, and so on).
But what are those requirements? In general, they don’t go beyond woolly statements of belief: we should be keeping up with other countries (but only those countries we identify as being ahead of us); we should have “fast” broadband (without defining “fast”); and we need to realise the economic benefits of broadband (with no rigorous study of those economic benefits, nor even a clear taxonomy of them).
Because they quantify nothing, these are not technical requirements. Yet on the basis of these vague beliefs — and from a more general experience that Websites are slow and therefore broadband speed (or lack thereof) is the problem — we happily accept that billions of either public money or private investment are needed to give us a fast broadband network?
One of the reasons Market Clarity indulged its interests and conducted research into international broadband, is to try and quantify for ourselves the state of play.
This, however, only gives us one facet of the issue, that of an international comparison on broadband take-up (not the availability of the underlying infrastructure). As “requirements” go, however, international comparisons are near the bottom of the list. We also need a debate which covers issues such as:
- Why do we need broadband? — Is it just an entertainment medium, or is it an enabler of new social behaviours and interactions? As an entertainment medium, we don’t need symmetry, and it’s a consumer product that has no call on the public purse. As a social tool, however — as something that facilitates communication between citizens — it should be much more symmetrical, allowing the user to transmit as much as he or she receives. If broadband is seen as a social good, we can justify public funds to support it (since government is nothing more than another expression of the society that elects and funds it).
- What’s fast enough? — If broadband is about shipping entertainment bits to consumers, there’s not really a public debate to be had. Investors, if they really want their content to reach a mass of couch potatoes, will find some way to build enough bandwidth to serve their ends. As a means towards social communication, however, the answer depends on the application. IP telephony doesn’t need much bandwidth at all; video chats need more bandwidth, up to whatever level of quality people want and will pay for. Applications like telemedicine, which are arguably of more far-reaching social import, need far more bandwidth. The point here is that any application can be satisfied if you can give it enough bandwidth on a good network. National pride, on the other hand, can never be satisfied, because there will always be someone holding first place (and if you have followed the OECD documents for years, you’ll know that everybody sacrifices first place eventually).
- Who is the beneficiary? — If the sole consideration is the benefit of the infrastructure shareholder, then the rest of us may as well not have an opinion. If we’re looking for a social payoff as well, then we have to know where to look for it, what it might look like if we achieve it, how we maintain equity so that it’s not confined to a couple of cities, and how to quantify it. If we can quantify the benefits, we can justify government involvement (both as regulator and if necessary as investor). But that needs a lot more than motherhood statements and Slashdot debates.
- Why do customers favour lower speeds? — Where broadband infrastructure is already available, is it being used? Do people understand that they have access to higher-speed services, and if so, do they believe a faster service is worth the asking price?
- What are the economic benefits? — We all know that broadband is associated with productivity improvements. The industry’s been saying this for years, as have any number of economic commentators, Ministers, journalists and advocates. Rigorous economics, however, is sadly lacking. If we can’t predict the benefits, we can’t prove that the costs are justified. So where’s the rigorous, independent, fact-based research that quantifies the broadband dividend?
- What does the future look like? — Even without knowing the “killer applications”, we can be certain that they will need ever-increasing amounts of bandwidth to function properly. We can reasonably expect applications to require symmetry as well as very high capacity, since we want services that can serve as aggregation points within a household or business for many devices and applications.
Without requirements you can’t build anything. Too much of today’s debate is hostage to requirements that we, the broadband citizens, can’t scrutinise: on one side, the requirement to defend a network against too much competitive erosion, on the other side, the requirement to break a monopoly; and on both sides, the requirement to build something the regulator will sanction.
The broadband citizens of Australia may well have different requirements to the industry. But they have little voice, and instead of facts, they too often have to subsist on motherhood statements.
If we say the requirement is “to be number one in the world”, we’ll fail. The number-one spot will rotate, as it always has done — and in a futile attempt to “win back the Ashes”, we’ll doom ourselves to an unending and escalating expenditure. But if we passively accept that the requirement is for a new entertainment channel, all we’ll get is a walled garden with a tiny gate marked “communications”.
The right requirements will help build the right network for all of us. So whose requirements do we want to design for?
Wireless and the OPEL Proposal
One of the most controversial aspects of the OPEL proposal which won $938 million in funding under the Federal Government’s Connected Australia program is its proposal to use 5.8 GHz WiMAX systems to improve rural coverage.
Market Clarity doesn’t propose to involve itself in the politics of this decision, but in debating its merits, we think the basic trade-offs involved with a wireless network need to be kept clearly in mind.
Wireless can deliver reasonably high speed; or it can service a larger number of end users; or it can operate over reasonably long distances. However, any given base station cannot meet all three of these aspects at the same time.
If the WiMAX part of the OPEL network is to connect users over longer distance, it will either serve fewer users, or do so at a lower speed than can be achieved close to the base station. If the users are close to the base station, more can be served at higher speeds — but they’re likely to be within reach of other technologies anyway.
WiMAX is not a second-class technology, but neither is it a silver bullet. As always, the truth lies somewhere between the two extremes of hyperbole.
We need to keep in mind that there is not a single “WiMAX standard”. WiMAX is an umbrella interoperability certification covering a number of technologies, including:
- 802.16-2004 (also known as 802.16d) — Designed for fixed applications, this technical specification, known as “Fixed WiMAX” was ratified in 2004. By the time OPEL’s rollout begins to gather pace, vendors will have had around four years to develop and stabilise their products, and more than a year to finalise their interoperability.
- 802-16e — This specification, known as “Mobile WiMAX”, adds the ability to use the technology on the move. It’s newer than the fixed WiMAX technology, with fewer off-the-shelf products, which may be why OPEL is not proposing to use 802.16e-based WiMAX systems in its rollout.
- 801.16m — This is a work-in-progress designed to boost WiMAX speeds by, among other things, using multiple radio paths (known as MIMO, or multiple-in, multiple-out). The IEEE has only recently (December 2006) begun work on this enhancement, which promises fixed speeds of up to 1 Gbps. This is the “bleeding edge” of WiMAX, but it doesn’t reflect on the rest of the technology falling under the WiMAX banner.
Does the WiMAX proposal represent a “two tiered” system that maintains a city-country divide?
No. That divide is not a characteristic either of technology nor of the telecommunications market. The divide exists because remote locations will always be remote, and will always be out of reach to the newest and/or fastest broadband technologies. With a concerted national-level effort, we can deliver reasonably equitable access to communications for most of the country, but perfect parity will always be out of reach.
The Long Term
Although the “broadband requirements document” is a must if Australia is to get the right broadband network for the future, Market Clarity believes some characteristics of the network could be set down in advance.
- Price — Whether the network is fibre to the node or all the way to the home, there’s no point in massive bandwidth if people can’t use it. We will need the right wholesale price, to enable the right retail price — so that Australians are encouraged and empowered to use high bandwidth applications as they arrive.
- Symmetry — We have become accustomed to asymmetrical services, which themselves reflect a particular content business model. Like bandwidth, symmetry creates empowered users, improves personal communications applications such as consumer “video telephony”, collaborative unified communication applications that can take advantage of far-flung human resources, and new applications like telemedicine.
- Longevity — Fibre-to-the-home may be expensive, but where it is affordable, it offers the longest life of any technology now on offer. Fibre-to-the-node gets half-way to the home — but at some point, the final fibre loop will need to be completed. Arguably, Australia’s needs five or ten years into the future are more important than what happens in the next six months.
- Flexibility — While “FTTH where feasible” is a worthy objective, Australia needs to decide how to cover locations and communities where geography and dispersed populations make fibre too expensive.
In our opinion, a public tender process is likely to offer the best chance to reconcile commercial imperatives with community and social needs.
The tender process itself, however, needs to encourage flexibility and long-term thinking. Instead of a “winner-take-all” process, it may be advantageous to allow different providers to bid on different parts of the network; and to encourage smart approaches to rural and regional communities. Finally, the process should give bidders the chance to work with partners such as state and local government.
Market Clarity has released the latest edition of its mobile forecasts, with the publication The Australian Mobile Market, Market Tracker 2000-2011, updated with the latest data from Australia’s mobile carriers.
Market Clarity has revised The Australian Mobile Market, Market Tracker 2000-2011 to take into account rapid growth in the 3G sector, which has become a key growth engine for mobile carriers and is also set to arrest the drift towards low-value prepaid services.
As with all Market Clarity research publications, The Australian Mobile Market: Market Tracker 2000-2011 is offered either as a presentation-style PDF report or as an Excel spreadsheet. Customers may also purchase a bundle combining both the spreadsheet and the presentation report.
The Australian Mobile Market: Market Tracker 2000-2011 includes 71 Figures and 21 Tables. It covers all mobile carriers and all technologies, with detailed analysis and forecasts for retail and wholesale mobile SIOs, revenue, call minutes, and data services.
Market Clarity’s Telecommunications Infrastructure Database now tracks the Australian data centre market.
We can now offer our clients information about more than 70 data centres operated by over 60 data centre owners across Australia. Market Clarity can combine this information with our intimate understanding of telecommunications infrastructure to help our customers seek out the data centre that best suits their needs.
Market Clarity looks forward to seeing you at the following upcoming events:
Market Clarity is thrilled to announce that we have been short-listed for the Services to the Industry – Professional Services Award at this year’s Communications Alliance / CommsDay ACOMMS Awards.
The Awards dinner is to be held on 19 July 2007 at the Four Seasons Hotel in Sydney. We look forward to seeing you there!
Terrapinn VoIP World
Terrapinn VoIP World Australia 2007
24-25 July 2007
Market Clarity CEO, Shara Evans is Chairing the “VoIP For Service Providers Stream” on Day 1 of the conference. During the day, Ms. Evans will be facilitating discussion groups and providing commentary on:
- Will 2007 be the year of VoIP fireworks?
- Facts and Figures about the Australian VoIP market
- Positioning VoIP in the context of fixed and mobile voice services
- Converged telecommunications status: Where are we in Australia?
- VoIP business models and marketing — lessons from the trenches
- How will incumbents take up the VoIP challenge?
Terrapinn IMS Australia
Terrapinn IMS Australia 2007
28-30 August 2007
Market Clarity Research Manager, Richard Chirgwin is chairing the “Outlining a Profitable Fixed Mobile Convergence Strategy Driven by IMS” panel discussion on Day 1 of the conference. The panel will look at:
- What is driving fixed and mobile operators to deploy IMS?
- How soon will this market develop in Australia and why?
- Examining customer demand and potential services
- How will ARPU likely change over time?
Network Insights Communications Policy and Research Forum
24-25 September 2007
University of Technology, Sydney
Market Clarity CEO, Shara Evans is part of a panel discussing international broadband adoption comparisons between Australia and other countries.
ATUG CrossXconnect NSW September
19 September 2007
KPMG Building – Level 15
10 Shelley Street, King Street Wharf Sydney
Market Clarity CEO, Shara Evans is delivering a presentation on SIP-based services to the NSW ATUG crossXconnect seminar.
Understanding SIP-Based Services will provide a short background on the Session Initiation Protocol, and will put the technology into context with application examples.
The latest update of Market Clarity’s Aussie VoIP List is now online – and the number of VoIP providers continues to grow. There are now more than 260 providers listed.