Following their announcement that they would enter the fixed-line broadband game with the NBN, a Vodafone executive has stated ““if you can take traffic out of the mobile network you increase the speed”, raising a new argument in the NBN debate. With the introduction of reliable, 21st century broadband speeds in almost every corner of the country, traffic can be offloaded from an already overtaxed mobile network to fixed line infrastructure in a way that is, right now, patchy at best.
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Vodafone’s GM of public relations, Matthew Lobb, deserves some kudos for raising a very complex technical argument for the NBN. Many technologists are enervated by having to explain exactly why Fibre-To-The-Home infrastructure would have such a long-ranging impact on all manner of services. The government relies on telehealth arguments- an argument that pre-supposes people worry about their health in the abstract. In one of the world’s fattest countries, that argument can only take you so far.
Knockers of the NBN scoff that it will do nothing more than deliver adult content and pirated material faster than shut-ins can get it right now. That’s a position that, like the opposing telehealth argument, has some basis in truth: adult content and piracy make up a truly enormous portion of global traffic. What they’re missing is that copper is only so fast. If you chopped out all the mischief, there are still businesses, education services and government services that can utilize the greater bandwidth. If the internet right now was being used by exactly one person on a copper line, that person’s speed would still be, at it’s very maximum best, a quarter of the speed possible with fibre (and fibre speeds can go up from there).
So how would a new fixed-line solution have any bearing on how mobile networks handle traffic? It’s not easy to explain. But essentially, it’s about how bandwidth, a calculation of how much data can be pumped through the means of transmission per second, is portioned out.
So that clarifies nothing. Let’s take a step back. Due to a quirk of Australia’s landscape (big and empty) and demographics (rich and smart), we’ve come to rely on mobile broadband in a way that other rich and smart countries haven’t had to. What we’ve learned is: if you build it, they will come. If the entire radio spectrum was turned over to mobile broadband tomorrow, we would find a way to use up 95% of that network very quickly. It’s a game you can’t win.
The telcos have to accept some blame for this. For carriers who can support both fixed-line and mobile broadband, there has been a blurring of lines over how fundamentally different the two services provide an internet connection. As a result, people have jumped onto mobile broadband, secure in the belief that it will be just like a fixed-line connection.
Over time however, even the fastest and most advanced networks will run into problems, as more and more subscribers jump on and start using their phone for long stretches of time (thanks to cap plans and unlimited plans) or using lots of mobile data. To get over this issue, companies can upgrade to new frequencies (disruptive), or build more repeaters and towers (environmentally impactful).
There is a different work around. By using devices that offloads mobile traffic onto local networks that are connected to a fixed line connection at home (such as microcells, femtocells and picocells), mobile networks can free up their networks and provide better call quality and data stability across their whole network.
In the current scheme of things, ADSL (copper based broadband infrastructure) is just a little too slap dash. Speeds vary wildly, dependent mostly on how far a premises is from its local telephone exchange. Many exchanges are only supported by Telstra Wholesale, which is much more expensive than other providers. Most new-ish areas have been connected to sub exchanges, pair gain systems and RIMs, all technologies which provide home phone service but which are incompatible with ADSL.
With a fibre connection to everyone’s home, everyone would have a high speed and reliable connection option, regardless of which company they're with. Mobile networks could even set up stations in busy areas with a tower that specifically offloads traffic to the much vaster (in terms of bandwidth) fibre network, so people could make calls with higher voice fidelity and enjoy mobile data that’s more readily available. It’s a better solution all round.
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