Broadband discussion in Australia may focus on service complaints, billing grievances and partisan politics, but that’s not the whole story. Beneath the surface, there is a lot of thoughtful design and careful planning going on. And, when it comes to the details, everything is very well done indeed.

Australia is quite a large nation, but 40 percent of its population of 24 million live in just two metropolitan areas. There are several other large cities and many smaller centres, but there is a vast distance between these.

It's no surprise then that providing reliable broadband to this population needs legislative support to make it happen. The Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Fibre Deployment) Act 2011 is the main vehicle providing this.

This Act provides the legal framework that governs broadband services for new real estate projects and developments. It amends the existing telecommunications legislation, stipulating significant obligations developers must meet (as well as penalties for non-compliance) to ensure new real estate projects are fibre-ready and free of legacy copper cabling.

Developers are now prohibited from installing fixed-line services that are not fibre optic, and, at the same time, corporate developers of new real estate projects cannot sell or lease building lots or units without fibre-ready facilities being installed nearby.

As a result, all new developments must now come with fibre access. Developers cannot simply get away with leaving out copper cabling. They must ensure fibre is both available and ready to use.

In addition, this legislation means the appropriate pits, conduits and ducting must be designed and built in to new real estate projects and developments as well.

The Act imposes financial penalties for non-compliance of up to A$250,000 for corporations and $50,000 for individuals for each offence. The Act also gives carriers access to fixed-line equipment owned by non-carriers, to keep everything moving.

There is an exclusion clause if an NBN Co (National Broadband Network) broadband provider has said it cannot install fibre optic lines in a project area. In this case, the area will be connected to the NBN using non-fibre technology.

There are some other fine points in the legislation, but, basically, the Act provides the legal framework supporting the Government's original aim to connect 93 percent of all Australian premises to fibre. The Act came into effect on 27 September 2011 – just over five years ago – and had immediate effect, covering all new real estate development projects from that date, where a contract had not already been signed. This included intended building lots or units, as well as urban renewal projects.

Extra legislation modified the Competition and Consumer Act 2011 to set up a level playing field, making it illegal for a superfast network operator supplying residential or small business users to build a network if the operator wasn’t wholesale only. It also needs to supply a Layer 2 service on an open access, non-discriminatory basis. Operators breaching this law may be prosecuted and fined up to A$2 million. A superfast network is presently defined as broadband with download speeds of 25Mbps or greater.

Introducing these laws, the then Prime Minister Julia Gillard said: "All Australians should have access to the benefits of broadband, of fast broadband and of access to the benefits of a digital economy."

It was this same principle that first led to the National Broadband Network being set up. Yet, in the vast country that is Australia, providing a fibre optic service to all areas is not economically viable.

So, in addition to becoming a fixed-line fibre optic pioneer, Australia has also had to become a global pioneer in providing mobile and fixed wireless services.

Accordingly, Telstra has recently announced it will trial 5G in partnership with Ericsson – one of only a few such test-beds in the world. Trials using the 800MHz spectrum revealed download speeds of 20GBps were possible, with lower latency than on 4G networks. Telstra's 5G work is helping define the 5G standard as it emerges.

Meanwhile, NBN Co is busy implementing fixed wireless services to homes and businesses where fixed broadband access proves uneconomic. This technology offers download speeds of up to 25Mbps and upload speeds of up to 5Mbps. This isn’t a mobile service but it does use mobile technologies, again with the aim of providing access to broadband irrespective of where people live.

The same motive lies behind the NBN Sky Muster Satellite service, which has now seen two successful satellite launches. This is not the satellite internet service of the past, but one that delivers a combined 135Gbps of capacity from Christmas Island to Lord Howe Island. As with fixed wireless, Sky Muster should be able to deliver speeds of up to 25Mbps/5Mbps to Australians in regional and remote Australia.

And, while fibre-optic services must be deployed to specific areas on a practical schedule, Sky Muster can prioritise access. Priority has been given to remote schools, to provide much needed educational resources and video-conferencing. Students and teachers will soon be able to connect, no matter how geographically isolated they may be.

NBN Co's 2017 plan details the prioritisation of these under-served areas. The focus is on bridging the digital divide between city and Bush. The meticulous plan also features a product release roadmap, which includes details about fibre to the premises and the node, hybrid fibre/coaxial (HFC), satellite and fixed wireless.

Another big distinction between Australia and other countries is the plan to turn off all legacy networks where fibre has been built to the home. NBN Co, which is a government enterprise, will gradually become the sole network provider for the entire Australian continent as more and more premises are switched over to one central service. 


David Williams is CIO for an Australian
mining company and a part-time freelance journalist for ITWire.