Waleed Aly's NBN intervention is profoundly unhelpful

One second of buffering is entirely acceptable for almost anything


Australian political commentator Waleed Aly has made a spectacularly non-useful intervention into the debate about the technologies used to build Australia's national broadband network (NBN), setting the ridiculous expectation that streaming video must always load in under a second and must never pause.

Aly's piece on The Project covered familiar territory: the NBN should just be built with fibre because it is more scalable, will require less maintenance and just is the future. The multi-technology mix being used to build the NBN, by contrast, is just not future proof, will bring with it higher costs and an uncomfortably low place on international league tables of broadband speeds, thereby making Australia less globally competitive.

The Register has covered those issues many times, and is currently probing them more deeply.

But Aly concluded his piece with a phrase your correspondent worries sets false expectations for the Australian public.

At the 5:29 mark in his piece, Aly says “If you are watching this right now on the internet and you had to wait for even a second for this video to buffer, you know who to blame: Tony Abbott and the guy who he says 'invented the internet'.” Which is of course a reference to once-communications minister now prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Setting public expectations that waiting a second for data to arrive cannot be borne is just plain ignorant. The notion that data flows must never, ever, stutter isn't far behind.

There are myriad reasons that data can not always flow instantly or perfectly over a network and become visible on a client device. Here's a few:

  • The server where the video resides could be offshore, traverse slow and/or congested international links and have to make many router hops;
  • The video's distributor might not be using a content delivery network, or using a good one;
  • A user's internet service provider might not be peered with a content distributor, meaning the video has a longer journey to make;
  • The client device might be rubbish, like a netbook or landfill tablet, and just take a while to load it or run out of RAM and have a quick hiccup.

You get the picture. And if you work in an office, you probably wait a second for large files to load from your file server, even if it and your device are on 10Gbps Ethernet. Or you might get some spots in the day when downloads are slow. Because that's just the way networks behave, sometimes even when they are over-provisioned. Those of you with older PCs may well wait more than a second for video to move from your hard drive, across the motherboard and into a video-playing app, then play without glitches. But Aly wants that process to take less than a second across contested wide area networks. Every time. Without fail.

Which is ridiculous.

If you've read El Reg's coverage of the NBN, you know that there are myriad other ideas to improve performance of public broadband networks, like virtual customer premises equipment and servers deep in the network. Those ideas have been floated because the medium used to connect your home or office to the internet is only one part of long chain that determines performance. And let's not forget that fibre to the node means fibre is being laid to nodes! Lovely, luscious, high-bandwidth fibre to within a couple of hundred meters of most premises. But Aly kept the debate where it's been for ages, mired in the capacity of the final connection.

Aly's idea that one second of buffering is unacceptable is therefore a profoundly unwelcome moment in the NBN debate, whether he is referring to time-to-load or ongoing performance of video streams.

There are other holes in his arguments, such as the insistence that Australia's falling ranking in broadband league tables can be attributed to the decision to abandon fibre-to-the-premises and adopt a multi-technology mix. Given that nbn, the organisation building the NBN, has to date mostly built fibre-to-the-premises connections, we can see that Australia's ranking has fallen despite the adoption of the carriage medium advocated as essential. Yet in some of the nations that have soared past us on the rankings, fibre-to-the-node has been the dominant newly-introduced medium (see see Akamai's connectivity visualisations and compare Australia to the United Kingdom for data).

I could go on but I hope you get the point: Aly has introduced a reality-defying nonsense metric into a debate that's already unhelpfully politicised and often rests on easily-picked-apart analyses of shallow data. By doing so, he's set unrealistic expectations that some in his audience will use to justify unjustifiable gripes. That he did so while advocating that the prime application for government-funded network builds is to provide fatter pipes for entertainment companies to deliver video completed the farce. ®


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