3 Jan 2018

National Broadband Network (NBN) is a project of Australian Government to bring modern broadband to every home and business in Australia. It started as a fibre to the premises (FTTP) project, but was later converted by a different government into a multi technology mix (MTM), where a variety of technologies, such as FTTP, fibre to the node (FTTN), hybrid fibre coaxial (HFC) and others are used.

I've been living in various apartments over the last several years and working from home, so I've been sympathetic to the MTM to a degree. Getting fibre into every apartment is very labour intensive and therefore expensive. So, a solution like fibre to the basement (FTTB) was something I was expecting to see delivered to the building I live in now. Every single apartment already had a twisted pair wiring for the old telephone network delivered and distance between the main distribution frame (MDF) and each apartment is less than 100 metres. It would make sense. For instance, can deliver hundreds of Mb/s on such short distances.

But, it wasn't to be. NBN Co, government owned company in charge of rollout, decided to deliver the network over the old Foxtel coaxial cabling, previously (and currently) used for pay TV. Yes, the HFC.

Shaky start

In May 2017 the building I live and work in was pronounced NBN ready. At that point, my ADSL2+ connection was at about 14/1 Mb/s down/up. Previous apartments that I lived in in the area would go as high as 20/2 Mb/s, all with Annex M. NBN on HFC was promising up to 100/40 Mb/s, which was significantly better. For someone that works remotely on another continent, anything that speeds up pixel delivery is a welcome change, so I immediately ordered an NBN connection.

Some time after ordering the connection, a couple of guys showed up with an NBN termination device (essentially a cable modem). I told them that the only termination point of the old Foxtel coaxial cabling inside my apartment was right above the entrance door, which is obviously not very convenient. They had no capability to put the termination point where I wanted it (i.e. absolutely no cabling tools, equipment or experience) and told me I had to get an electrician to wire my apartment. Apart from that, they enabled my connection by calling NBN Co and asking them to turn it on. That was it for their visit, so I immediately called an electrician to finish the work that NBN guys were not prepared to do.

Unfortunately, I picked a retail service provider (RSP) that could not deliver reverse DNS, despite offering a static IP address with the package. That turned out to be a mistake that cost me another couple of weeks. Changing RSPs (or in the old terminology, ISPs - internet service providers) was a totally unexpected challenge.

A practice of fast churn amoung ADSL providers in Australia was well established among most, if not all ISPs. That government would set up a company to run a network monopoly without explicitly establishing such a thing for NBN seems borderline idiotic to me. Any downtime longer than it takes to reauthenticate the PPP connection on provider change is simply unnecessary.

I talked to about a dozen NBN support staff during the transition to the new RSP, all of which had a slightly different take on the story and the status of my connection. None of them could actually help me with anything, although I could prove to them that I live on the premises and that I'm in charge of the termination device that was providing layer 2 services (by turning it on/off, obviously).

My new RSP could not help me, because every time they tried switching over, NBN reported to them that the connection was being used by another RSP. My old RSP repeatedly swore they submitted the cancellation.

Just to put things into perspective, we are talking about a back office change here. Nobody had to come out to physically do anything to get this done.

In the end, it was probably the old RSP's error, but that's not really relevant. Why would anyone create a system where multiple parties are required to make such a change, after a long held practice of mobile phone transfers between providers by using only the new provider as a point of customer contact? It simply doesn't make sense. Once again, NBN Co are actively ignoring the experience of businesses that are closely related.

Great speed, persistent outages and degradation

Finally, the connection was delivered. Everything seemed great. The actual speeds I was getting were around 90/35 Mb/s, which was above my expectations. I've read about people's experiences with cable internet before and was actually rather optimistic, because most of them praised it for reliability.

Not so with NBN. A few months in, there was the first outage. Without any notification, the network was being worked on on one of the streets around my building, essentially disconnecting everyone. About a month later, the same thing. A couple of "cowboys" working on physical infrastructure simply disconnected the whole building.

Less than a month later, another outage in the area. This time cause unknown. A couple of weeks after that, degradation of performance down to about 200 kb/s and latency sometimes above 15 seconds, that lasted for about 4 days, with occasional complete lack of connectivity.

Our Prime Minister (PM) often told us in TV interviews that MTM will be fine for streaming of video. By that metric, the latest degradation was actually an outage, because streaming from Netflix or YouTube was not possible during the period.

The HFC has become such a problem that NBN stopped rolling it out.

Ready, but not ready

When my building was pronounced NBN ready, one would think that it would be easy to connect everyone using old Foxtel coaxial cabling that was already here. In fact, many apartments were never wired and NBN technicians that scouted the building never checked. Folks that were unfortunate to live in such apartments were given different answers about the party responsible for providing the coaxial cable connection into their units.

I know all this, because I'm a member of the Strata Committee (SC) of the building and we received a number of questions related to this problem. Some folks in this situation believed the NBN Co staff stories that they had to pay for this installation themselves and already spent money on it. Others got their connections wired within weeks at NBN Co expense. And finally, some had to wait months before NBN Co finally sent someone qualified enough to run the cable into their unit.

This level of disorganisation for a company in charge of a nationwide network rollout is simply amazing. It is no wonder people all over Australia are complaining.

Not just HFC

The problems with NBN are not limited to HFC, unfortunately. For example, a person from the other coast of Australia told me that their old ADSL connection was simply switched off one day. Naturally, they called their provider to see why the connection was down.

Their provider (one of the largest in Australia) could not tell them at first what was wrong. Later they told them that their connection was decommissioned by Telstra, who shut down the old phone lines after NBN went through the area. Without notification. The episode left them without internet and phone connection for over a week.

That anyone would undertake a switch to a new network without notifying existing users that their connection will be switched off sounds like another totally idiotic part of the NBN rollout plan. Surely, such disconnection events are known in advance. Surely, customers should be able to be notified. All providers of old services already have contact details of their customers. Contacting them to secure their business for the next few years seems like a no brainer.


Initial reaction to the above rant may be: "first world problems." Sure, this is a first world problem. I certainly hope Australia qualifes as first world here and should therefore have an acceptable internet infrastructure in place.

Businesses and governments of all levels count on one being present, in fact. There is not one traditional movie rental place in the area I live in, for instance. Renewals of driver licences, registrations and insurance is all done online. So is banking. So are myriad of other services that all had different access methods in the past. Having a reliable internet connection is a must these days, not a bonus.

In my particular case, I purchased a business class connection. That is because I work from home. If NBN allowed me to obtain such a connection, then they should make sure it works like a business connection. Anything less is not acceptable. Because, I'm paying for one.

The only conclusion I can draw from my experience with the NBN is that folks running it don't know the first thing about it. Sending "cowboys" out unannounced that disconnect whole blocks without warning is pathetic. So is days long degradation of speed and latency without explanation. And so is the setup of the NBN back office, their support system, their communication with RSPs etc.

Our PM used an old Irish joke once when it comes to building the NBN, after his party's government took the project over. In the joke, a tourist asks an Irishman for directions. The Irishman replies that he wouldn't start from here. Well, I think our PM needs to know that the joke's on him this time. Certainly, nobody in their right mind would want to start from where we are now.

PS. More outages

10 Jan 2018: Another outage that started in the evening. It's the morning of the next day now, still not fixed.

Copyright © 2018 Bojan Smojver, Rexursive.
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