nbn™ says nobody needs gigabit internet, trumpets XG-Fast at 8Gbps anyway

Placating fibre fetishists has nbn™ in a twist and distracts us from bigger issues

nbn™, the organisation building and operating Australia's National Broadband Network (NBN), has announced trials of fibre-to-the-curb and broadband-over-copper technology XG-fast that hit 8Gbps on 30 metres of copper in lab trials. It's also done tests that produced “5Gbps peak aggregate speed being achieved over 70 metres of twisted-pair copper”.

Which is lovely. But also confusing because nbn™ has previously argued that gigabit-per-second speeds just aren't necessary at home and won't be for the foreseeable future.

nbn™ CEO advanced the gigabit-just-isn't-needed argument at his March 2016 charm offensive. The Register understands his position was developed after visiting telcos around the world and finding none saw demand for domestic gigabit services in the foreseeable future.

Since Morrow's remarks, Google has killed its fibre-to-the-premises effort, citing low take-up rates.

nbn™'s own annual report (PDF) says on page 29 that “14 per cent of nbn’s fixed line services used a 100/40 Mbps wholesale speed tier 49 per cent used a 25/5 Mbps wholesale speed tier and 32 per cent used a 12/1 Mbps wholesale speed tier.”

A year before, those tiers were at 18 per cent, 42 per cent and 35 per cent, indicating waning interest in 100Mbps plans but rising interest in the 25/5 plans.

Which hardly bespeaks enormous demand for gigabit anything.

But does hint, strongly, at nbn™ trying to stave off the criticism that the multi-technology mix plan it is pursuing, as required by policy. Critics say the multi-technology mix is a penny-pinching fraud on the nation that will deprive Australia of the infrastructure required to take a place among the first rank of digital innovators.

Further evidence of this XG-Fast finding being largely political: on Monday nbn™ reported a study it commissioned that found “G.fast will be serving nearly 30 million subscriber homes and businesses around the world by 2021.”

Clearly we're being softened up for VDSL and fibre to the kerb, as part of nbn™'s ongoing effort to emphasise the upgradability of its network to meet future demand it doesn't believe will arrive any time soon.

There's also a Senate Estimates hearing that could touch on the NBN on October 21st.

Meanwhile nbn™ faces other and more pressing issues that will make 2017 a critical year for the project.

First among those issues is the fact that nbn™'s current wholesale charges act as a disincentive for ISPs to sell any nbn™ plan at any speed, because the wholesale cost of NBN connections means resale margins are wafer-thin. If ISPs don't start sending customers nbn™'s way, it will make the task of securing private funding harder. That funding needs to be secured in the next year because Australia's government will soon stop ladling out cash.

Lastly, the company plans to have another 2.5 million premises ready for service by the end of 2017, almost doubling the 2.9m planned to be connected at the end of 2016. Getting that done on time, on budget, without SNAFUs, will be quite a feat.

So it's lovely to know that G.Fast and XG-Fast offer an upgrade path for the NBN. But it would be lovelier to know that the company is on top of the three more immediate challenges it faces and will soon bring broadband to the many Australians who still go without. ®

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