NBN: FTTN in Australia - the Gungahlin Experiment

In 1995, Telstra announced that the new Town Centre in Northern Canberra, Gungahlin, would be a testbed for "broadband", with a $20-$30MM project announced laying "Fibre to the Kerb", which many people like me interpreted as "Fibre to the Home".

What Telstra deployed was RIM's, Remote Integrated Multiplexors, designed initially as an 'integrated' extension of the local Telephone Exchange. ADSL broadband was not supported. Instead of a world-class demonstration of the application and utility of fast broadband, Gungahlin residents were locked in a battle for even minimal access speeds.

For the rest of Australia, we have very clear demonstration of two things from this nearly two decade 'experiment':
  • Fibre-to-the-Node, even 15 years ago when it was a much, much cheaper technology than Fibre-to-the-Premises, is fraught for consumers.
    • Even when the subscribers thought they were out of the woods with high-speed ADSL 2+ available, the sting-in-the-tail of FTTN became apparent: congestion on the node "backhaul" makes line access rate irrelevant.
  • The Coalition, during the Howard government from 1996 to 2007, did not prioritise, nor apparently see the need for, a National Broadband Network.
    • It is only since the Telstra SSU agreements early 2012 that the Coalition has become committed to an NBN of any flavour.

RIM's, and later CMUX's, were an important commercial move by Telstra. They prevented other carriers and ISP's from taking over subscriber lines, ULL (Unbundled Local Loop) or ISP's installing their own DSLAM's, Digital Subscriber-Loop Access Module, necessary to support ADSL. Gungahlin residents have only had the Telecomms infrastructure available that Telstra saw fit to provide. Although other ISP's later sold ADSL services in Gungahlin, it was provided through the Telstra RIM's and CMUX's. This experience might have been behind the limited (5 city) 12Mbps ADSL 2 FTTN network proposed by Telstra in 2005: they'd own both the voice and digital subscriber loops and force competitors to use their infrastructure at prices advantageous to Telstra.

The TransAct "phase 1" rollout around 2002 to 55,000 premises skipped Gungahlin because they had underground power and TransAct ran aerial cable strung from the Electricity Utility, ACTEW, poles. ACTEW was a major shareholder of TransAct.

Gungahlin was chosen for early release in the NBN Fibre rollout. (2009?)

An overview of the technology is available at ACT Broadband.

The local ALP Senator, Kate Lundy, took an early and continuing interest in having Telstra address the Gungahlin broadband access problems. Lists of Media Releases back to 1996 are on the Senators' website for Gungahlin Broadband and Telstra.

Senator Lundy has a 2010 page, with video interviews, of "the History and Issues around broadband in the Gungahlin area" that is concise and worth reading.

There is a larger story. Senator Lundy was involved with the 2004 Senate Inquiry into Australian Telecommunications Network,  noted on her 2009 Pair Gain Update page. Specifically, Telstra had installed 1.2M pair-gain services by 2004, two-thirds on RIM's and all without ADSL access.

Although Politically Partisan, this 2003 (?) page of Senator Lundy's, "Truth about Broadband", does document the long-term indifference of the Coalition to broadband and the ALP policy. Includes the use of the term "National Broadband Network". At the time the ALP were spruiking Fibre-to-the-Node, which was continued until 2009 and the Rudd/Conroy ~$5B tender, which was abandoned with the FTTP NBN announced instead.

A conclusion foreshadowed in 2007 by business journalist and one-time editor of the Melbourne Age, Alan Kohler:
In my view we should at least try to skip the halfway house of FTTN and go straight to FTTH. And the Government should see who else is out there.

A 2010 piece on ITnews "Canberrans confront Telstra over broadband hell" gives an overview similar to the 2010 History and Issues page of Senator Lundy.

The critical point is that by 2009, the ADSL/broadband problems that had started in 1996 were far from over: the RIM's and CMUX's may have provided adequate access line rates (up to 8Mbps), but the nodes suffered acute congestion on their digital link back to the exchange, the "backhaul".  Telstra introduced 'shaping' then reduced line-speed to 2Mbps.

The ITnews article attributes the long-standing problems as due to "underinvestment" by Telstra, the incumbent supplier, unmotivated to win new customers or pay more than scant heed to unhappy customers.

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