Wednesday, 27 November 2013

NBN Co and satellite capacity overload

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This year the Coalition was elected into government, and with it their revised plan for the National Broadband Network (NBN) – a multi-billion dollar roll out of fibre-to-the-node internet services that's promised to be delivered sooner and cheaper than the previous Labor government's fibre-to-the-home plan. Currently NBN Co, the company responsible for this nationwide wholesale broadband service, is under a 60-day government review, and questions arise over their interim services – if the government is promising all premises will have access to high-speed internet by 2016, what's available to homes and businesses who cannot access traditional internet services in the meantime?

Last week Australia's second-largest internet service provider iiNet announced it would not be reselling NBN Co's interim satellite services, as capacity problems have rendered the broadband speeds to “be almost unusable”. While NBN Co has plans to launch its own satellites by 2015, since 2011 they've been essentially piggy-backing their service on satellites already owned by IPStar and Optus. However subscribers flocked to this new service, which promised speeds as much as three times faster than what was already available. With a national capacity for 48,000 users, NBN Co has already had to close its service to new users in Victoria, which has reached its prescribed limit, and is close to doing so in NSW, Queensland and Tasmania. Nationally, over 42,000 premises already subscribe to this interim satellite service.

Unusable satellite internet is something that affects John Pearson of Macclesfield, a small town in rural Victoria. He and his wife, Kai Pearson, moved from the outer suburbs of Melbourne to Macclesfield in 2007. Before relocating, John Pearson checked with his previous broadband supplier, iiNet, if an ADSL connection was available at the property, and was assured it was. However it was only after moving and attempting to get a service connected – first with iiNet and then with Telstra – that they learned that the ADSL connection was theoretical in nature. In practice, the local telecommunications set up relied on a Remoted Integrated Multiplexer, or RIM, a device that came into use over two decades ago.

A RIM, at its most basic level, allows multiple users or premises to work from one telephone line. When John Pearson makes a telephone call, the information is compressed into a packet, sent up the line and decoded at the other end – his neighbour might be making a call on the same line at the same time, but that call is a distinct information packet. This is known as a Pair Gain system, and is utilised when there is not enough copper infrastructure in the area to support the number of users. This way the minimum amount of copper ports at the RIM can support the maximum number of users, and is common in rural areas.

The RIM and Pair Gain system have one major downfall: when this system was implemented, copper-reliant ADSL had not yet been invented. In fact, if five copper ports are supporting telephone lines to 20 houses, this means that only five out of 20 houses can access ADSL. This was the problem the Pearsons faced when they moved to Macclesfield – no ports were available, so they couldn't receive an ADSL connection. Their problem with internet access was compounded by the fact their home lies in the bottom of a valley, and 3G internet is inaccessible because the signals from nearby telecommunication towers pass over their house. There is no mobile reception in their home.

The Australian Government established the Australian Broadband Guarantee in 2010 and, although the program has since ended, its promise remains in effect – any residential or business premise that cannot access a metro-comparable broadband service may access a subsidised internet satellite connection. But despite the subsidy for equipment, it's still an expensive service. “I pay $130 a month for downloads of 15 gigabytes,” John says.

John recently applied to change his satellite provider to NBN Co, which would have guaranteed him faster download speeds and downloads of up to 50 gig, only to learn that the Victorian allocations had reached capacity and were now closed. He will have to wait until NBN Co's new satellites are launched in 2015, increasing the capacity to 200,000 subscribers nationally. While he waits, however, the satellite internet service, overloaded by the increased demand of 42,000 NBN Co users, has become so slow as to be unusable.

John has monitored his internet speeds, and at times watched the connection speed drop below 724 bytes – that's less than one kilobyte – in peak times, at which point the connection fails. “Fifteen years ago the average dial up connection was around 64 kilobytes, but the web pages were a lot less graphics intensive,” says John. “We can't use YouTube or Facebook, or do legitimate software downloads, such as programs for work. We have to pay extra to have a disc sent to us.”

John thinks the Coalition's planned fibre-to-the-node NBN roll out will work well for many – with copper running from the node to the home, the signal won't have to travel great distances and therefore won't degrade the way it does currently on copper infrastructure – but doubts fibre will extend even to the node in his area because of the current RIM and Pair Gain system. “Multiplexes don't like data packets,” he explains. “In rural areas, with a low head count per square kilometre, the cost of upgrading per household becomes prohibitive.”

Ironically, 20 years ago John Pearson worked with a company that helped implement the RIM and Pair Gain system, supplying telecommunication components. “That's come back to bite me on the arse,” he says.

With no port availability for ADSL, no reception from telecommunication towers and a struggling satellite internet connection that's all but useless for even the smallest of downloads, John and his wife Kai have run out of options.

The promise of the NBN, for now, is only that – promises.

“We're moving back to the suburbs soon,” he says. “The internet is one of the big reasons.”

Mandy Lee

Mandy Lee is a Melbourne freelance writer who has been published in The Guardian Australia, Essential Baby and The Hoopla.

Follow her on Twitter as @adhocmama