The Week: Bargain Basements

The Victorian Government and the City of Melbourne have announced plans for free public Wi-Fi throughout the Melbourne CBD, with CBD for the moment defined as Burke St Mall, Federation Square and the front steps of Flinders St station. Presuming it gets going, the number of locations will be expanded at a later point.

They're calling for private sector proposals to supply the Wi-Fi service on an ongoing basis, and for their part will offer start-up grants, provide infrastructure and other sweeteners. The government's hope is that free Wi-Fi will yield tangible (meaning nebulous) benefits to productivity, tourism, education and transport, although it was never precisely explained how. 

Down in the Basement

Staying in Melbourne, confirmation came through today that NBNCo is about to commence a three month trial of Fibre to the Basement (FttB) technology in three suburbs around the inner north (Carlton, Parkville and Brunswick). Four of Australia's largest ISPs have signed to participate - Telstra, Optus, M2 and iiNet - while interested residents will also be invited to provide feedback. They'll even get a free modem.

 

FttB is the technology whereby Fibre infrastructure is run into the 'basement' of an apartment or office building (multi-unit dwelling or MUD), thus theoretically servicing the entire building. It is, in Dog and Bone's opinion, easily the best component of the government's revised broadband policy.

 

Indeed, the lack of FttB provisions was always a glaring omission in Labor's original NBN policy, since it was a sensible idea that would have ticked many boxes. Firstly, it would have allowed NBNCo to connect a great many people much more quickly: an entire apartment building is serviced by a single fibre installation. More people would have gotten onto the NBN sooner. (This would have been highly advantageous from a political perspective - NBNCo's installation shortfall was a dire issue for Labor.)

 

Secondly, FttB shifts responsibility for the internal wiring of the building out of NBNCo's hands, thus saving quite a lot of money. If the owner of the building wants to run fibre throughout the building, they can stump up for it, or at any rate the residents can. This could be done at any time in the future. However, if they want to stay with copper wiring, they'll still get a much improved service; a kind of FttN solution run over a shorter distance - 'last 100 metres' rather than 'last mile' - using copper that is almost certainly in better condition that what is in the ground outside. The upcoming trial will use the current wiring within each building. Isolated tests last year produced speeds of about 100/40Mbps, which is very healthy. It'll be interesting to see the results.

FttB really should have been part of the NBN from the start. This is clearly the view of the private sector, who've taken it upon themselves to build their own FttB network. I discussed theramifications of TPG's FttB plans several weeks ago, specifically regarding the awkward position it put the Minister in regarding NBNCo's infrastructure monopoly. Faithfully echoing the party line, Malcolm Turnbull was never reticent in criticising the existing legislation whereby private sector providers were forbidden to duplicate NBNCo infrastructure, at least until he took office and discovered what everyone else had already grasped: building a National Broadband Network only makes financial sense if other providers aren't allowed to cherry-pick customers. NBNCo CEO Ziggy Switkowski has come out and made much the same point - TPG's FttB build threatens the financial health of the NBN.