NBN 101: Is Australia's NBN world class?

A look at how the NBN compares to the rest of the world

This article is part of Computerworld Australia's NBN 101 series, in which we take a look at the arguments surrounding the fibre-to-the-home network, and dissect them one by one. The articles are meant to be an overview of the debates central to the NBN to give you a grounding as more and more media outlets and commentators speak out on the project. And we encourage people to take the discussion further in the comments section.

Some have called the proposed fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) national broadband network (NBN) "world class," but how far ahead of the rest of the world is Australia? For those who haven't heard, the network will provide committed speeds of 100 megabits per second (Mbps) to 90 per cent (possibly 93 per cent) of the population, as well as at least 12Mbps to most rural areas of Australia through fixed wireless and satellite services. Given Australia's geography and the speeds its more remote constituents have had to deal with currently, it certainly seems like an ambitious project.

But is it world class?

As part of the recently released NBN Implementation Study, co-authors KPMG and McKinsey & Company pitted the NBN against fibre networks around the world, including South Korea, Japan, Sweden, the United States, Singapore, Portugal, Malaysia and New Zealand. Add to that global figures from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and suddenly Australia's proposed network doesn't seem so revolutionary after all.

A top-down look

Let's start from a global perspective. Below, you'll see a graph visualising FTTH availability in several countries around the world in the middle of 2008.

OECD statistics on FTTH availability

See Australia? No? That's because, in 2008, the OECD couldn't quantify the amount of fibre access Australian homes and businesses had. Sure, there's always talk of dark fibre rolled out by the likes of Telstra and companies along residential streets and in greenfield estates – and there are some providers who have fibre backhaul networks and some organisations have rolled out their own fibre - but while ever the fibre remains dark (ie. with no retail service), it remains inaccessible to most of the population.

(See all of the OECD stats and graphs on broadband in our slideshow)

Since 2008, things have shaped up slightly - fibre pilot services conducted by iiNet, Internode and Telstra have given hope of 100Mbps to a lucky few in Point Cook, Victoria, and the stage 1 NBN trial sites in Tasmania are likely to see the first services opened in July this year. However, the fact of the matter is, in its current standing Australia continues to drag down the OECD average which is currently, and continues to be, buoyed largely by Japan's hideously comprehensive fibre coverage.

Things will obviously change once the NBN is completed in eight years' time, but that won't stop the rest of the world from catching up and, in some cases, excelling far ahead of us. Here we compare countries using data provided in the Implementation Study as well as the OECD, namely:

  • A country's total broadband subscribers (over 256Kbps), as at June 2009
  • The average advertised retail price per megabit in each country, as at June 2009
  • The average advertised speed of broadband offered, as at June 2009
  • Fastest advertised broadband speed, as at October 2009
  • Historical broadband penetration, Q4 2001 to Q2 2009 (where available)
  • Availability of FTTH services to homes, as at December 2008
  • The proportion of FTTH subscribers to total broadband subscribers, as at June 2009

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