Broadband Speed Claims

On July 27th Ry Crozier published an article about the ACCC consultation paper on Broadband speed claims. It contains a number of quotes from this short essay I wrote in response to some questions he put to me. I have edited that essay a bit and publish it here. It may form the basis for a response to the consultation paper. 

Over the more than twenty years I have been designing, building, operating and managing ISPs the constant demand from users has been “make it faster!”

The pinnacle of this fetishising speed was the National Broadband Network, which would deliver fibre, the thing everyone saw as synonymous with speed, to everyone’s home.

Sadly selection for one characteristic often comes at cost to another. While everyone obsessed with how many megabits or even gigabits of bandwidth would be delivered to their houses very few people listened to those of us who questioned what other parts of the network would cost to use and how they would be monitored and managed.

The NBN’s 121 points of interconnect added great cost and complexity to retail service provider networks as well as the duplication of cost during the migration from legacy networks to the NBN.

I believe the key issues for RSPs since NBNCo started designing and building it are:

  • The high cost of Concentrating Virtual Circuits per megabit creates a huge incentive to provision them scarcely.
  • The numerous points of interconnect scattered all over the country impose large standing costs with very few customers, certainly at first, again creating a huge incentive to provision them scarcely.
  • NBNCo refused visibility to the utilisation of their Passive Optic Network or their “transit network” but still insisted that RSPs didn’t need to see that information because they would manage it to suitable SLAs.
  • The worst case scenario would be that a change in NBN technology or project goals would see an RSP with customers spread across their own DSLAMs, wholesale DSLAMs, NBN FTTP and any other access technology in the same region, each with its own overheads.

We are seeing the effects of scarcity of NBN RSP POI backhaul and CVC bandwidth in many parts of Australia. For every example of an end user with a high speed port seeing slow downloads there is an example somewhere else of a user with brilliant performance. We are seeing the effects of the worst case scenario where few customers are downstream of a POI and the initial “free” 150 megabits of CVC hasn’t been exhausted. Those customers are the lucky ones! They have abundant bandwidth in their access network so their Internet experience is governed largely by the quality of their ISP’s network.

In my time as a regulatory manager for an ISP I had numerous arguments with the enforcement branch of the ACCC about “speed” claims. They hated “up to” and could not understand that ISPs had no visibility to the Telstra copper that would be used to provide the Telstra wholesale DSLAM service.

Readers may remember iiNet and Internode publishing line sync heat maps of Sydney and both organisations published network traffic graphs for much of their lives showing how hard the network was being used. Ironically those heat maps became one of the reasons the NBN came into existence and with the NBN there is no transparency to access network performance at all.

Readers may also want to ponder the limited availability of prawns and oysters at the all-you-can-eat salad bar.

While I have great sympathy for the ACCC’s position that ISPs should be able to inform customers of what “speed” their Internet service will work at even with an abundance of bandwidth in a private access network the entire global Internet is not under the ISP’s control and the performance of individual services on the Internet will vary massively. While this is not a reason for ISPs to not disclose their traffic management practices and utilisation it is certainly something that makes it a “wicked problem”.

Traffic shaping is all about picking losers. All that giving a packet “priority” means is it experiences less delay within the network. The least worst case for a packet is to be pushed back in time until a hole in the data stream can be found. This is like a spatula applying icing to a cake. The worst case for a packet is to be shaved off like a plane flattens a piece of wood by removing all the bits that aren’t flat. The effect of this on your Internet is to slow your page loads and file downloads, cause your video player to “buffer”,  your videoconference stream to break up and your voice over IP to stutter. It might even cause some applications to stop entirely or be unusable.

In our with-us or against-us world it is very hard to have a rational discussion about these issues. I’m not laying “blame” or suggesting any player is operating maliciously in the ecosystem.

Retail ISPs can buy global Internet access in capital cities for a few dollars per megabit. They have no incentive to create artificial scarcity in this layer. This isn’t the place to look for a problem with NBN performance.

Operators of legacy DSLAMs have some mixed incentives. Their entire network has been declared obsolete by the very existence of the NBN. There is little incentive to make capital expenditure on improving the backhaul capacity of those networks for the (hopefully) months of operation left before FTTN migration starts and relieves the demand.

NBNCo will doubtless claim that all the performance problems end-users have with RSPs would go away if only RSPs would purchase enough $15 to $17.50 per megabit CVC. Or should I say “up to $17.50”?

In politics you never have an inquiry unless you know the likely outcome. This review is going to make it plain that RSPs need to purchase more CVC. This is only affordable for them if retail ISP prices rise or if the NBN operating company reduce their charges.

Given Telstra warned earlier this year that NBN costs would reduce their Net Profit by around $2b pa once the NBN is rolled out this enquiry is likely the first phase of a plan that will see a significant rise in the price of NBN delivered ISP services in Australia.

It’s time for the NBN company to reduce the CVC charge significantly and to be more transparent about the link utilisation within its network. That will make it clear to consumers which RSPs have sufficient capacity.