NBN 101 – Mobility: Friend of Foe?

We delve into the debate around whether mobility will be a threat to the national broadband network

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 (FTTH) network, and dissect them one by one. The articles are meant to be an overview of the debates central to the National Broadband Network (NBN) to give you a grounding as more and more media outlets and commentators speak out on the project. We encourage people to take the discussion further in the comments section.

In our first article we took a look at how Australia’s NBN plan compares to the rest of the world and the statistics and graphs from the OECD, and then we strapped in for a tour of speeds. We also had a look at wireless technologies versus fibre optic, then we delved into the economic argument for a high-speed national broadband network, and more recently we took a look at how applications and potential service packages may play a role in the NBN.

Now it’s time to address what is often perceived as a potential big threat to the success and take-up of the FTTH-based NBN: Mobility.

Substantiating the critique

Of all the criticisms laid against a FTTH broadband network rollout in Australia, it is the perceived threat posed by our newly discovered love of mobility that holds most water.

While the company responsible for rolling out the FTTH network, NBN Co, and the Labor Federal Government, contend the escalating trend of getting connected to the Internet via mobile devices will be complementary to the NBN, others disagree. Those against argue the strength of mobile broadband uptake and the sales of devices such as smartphones, laptops, netbooks and tablet PCs indicate we won’t want to have a fixed-line Internet connection in future; most of us will want to be mobile.

As a result, the conclusion is drawn that the commercial viability of NBN Co and the NBN in general, which require a strong uptake from both retail service providers and in turn their customers, is questionable, even to the point that it shouldn’t be built.

(See the maps of the first sites on the mainland to get the NBN)

Telsyte analyst Emilie Ditton explains the argument well:

“Fundamentally, mobility threatens the NBN because the NBN requires very high take-up of homes passed to be economically viable and ultimately for the government to sell its investments to private investors (and recoup taxpayers funds),” she says.

“Anything that affects the choice of a household or business passed to connect to the NBN to opt for an alternative to the NBN threatens the NBN. Mobility is a particular threat because mobile broadband has gained strong momentum in Australia, and for those users who are not driven by the desire for very high speeds, and/or are attracted by the flexibility and convenience of mobile broadband anywhere will find mobile broadband to be a very cost effective alternative to services from the NBN. The financial implications come down to a numbers game, the NBN requires high take-up and a propensity to pay for higher value plans.”

It is important to note here that there is a general consensus – as we pointed out in a previous article – that from a technical perspective a fibre optic network provides the best platform to achieve the service level goals set out as part of the NBN and the technology has already been proven to support the kind of applications that run on faster broadband networks than we currently have or in many cases, that wireless technologies can provide.

Yet, not everyone chooses their connection based on the pros and cons of a technology. Indeed, just because fibre offers a better upgrade path and consistency of service, doesn’t mean we won’t prefer the flexibility of a mobile broadband connection in future. After all, with continuing trials of potential fourth-generations mobile broadband technologies and the likes of Long Term Evolution (LTE) surpassimg the 50 megabit per second (Mbps) and even the 100Mbps peak speed mark, mobile broadband presents an interesting case against the technological fortitude of fibre.

So we should really re-think the whole NBN idea, right?

Well, not exactly. A closer look at the data behind the argument reveals while there is some supportive evidence, there are also some pretty big holes where unsubstantiated assumptions and precipitous conclusions are made.

Next up: The mobile device love affair

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