Asymmetric speeds plague first NBN plans

iPrimus will offer faster upstream speeds than ADSL2+, but are still a far cry from true symmetry

Residential customers of the stage 1 trial sites for the national broadband network (NBN) in Tasmania will receive committed upstream speeds of two to eight megabits per second (Mbps) on the iPrimus network, the service provider's chief executive officer, Ravi Bhatia, has revealed.

The upstream speeds will be tiered in line with downstream. Users on the 25Mbps line will be able to upload at 2Mbps, 50Mbps users will get 4Mbps upstream while those on the full-speed, 100Mbps package will be able to upload at 8Mbps.

iPrimus has already revealed its first pricing plans for the NBN, beginning at $39.95 for 25Mbps downstream speeds and 15GB of data quota. The most expensive plan is currently at $139 per month, with 100Mbps speeds and 300GB of data quota.

The prevalent broadband service, ADSL2+, typically provides upload speeds of 1024Kbps (1Mbps) with some business services offering up to 2Mbps. The network is technologically asymmetric in nature, in that it can't provide the same downstream and upstream speeds over the same bandwidth. However, Bhatia said that even these advertised speeds are peak, and real world practice hardly reaches these.

"The highest available [upstream speeds] today in practice rarely exceed 512Kbps," he told Computerworld Australia. "It's not digital. [Optical fibre] is digital, so when it says 2Mbps, it's going to be a true 2Mbps upstream."

The optical fibre network on which the NBN will run, in Tasmania and across Australia, is technologically symmetric so it will theoretically allow downstream and upstream speeds of 100Mbps simultaneously. While iPrimus plans to offer symmetric speeds to business customers, Bhatia said there weren't enough residential applications to warrant higher speeds than those offered.

"There isn't that much stuff going upstream except in torrent applications," he said. "The only application which uses significant upstream speeds is video conferencing which, in my experience, works very well at 384Kbps."

However, AARNet's director of e-research, Guido Aben, has urged that "the vision ought to be symmetrical data pipes. The NBN ought to be 100Mbps up and 100Mbps down - I haven't seen that happening."

AARNet already provides fibre-based services with symmetrical speeds of 100Mbps to 10Gbps, to universities and research institutions. The provider is traditionally known as a testing bed for Internet applications that could potentially reach the wider consumer populace, five or more years ahead of mass roll-outs. Current applications include CloudStor, a Rapidshire-like service for distributing massively large files, and Vivu, a multi-party videoconferencing application with desktop sharing capabilities.

Though Aben said that while an application like Vivu - which is already in mainstream use in North America and Europe - can be used on ADSL2+ connections, the NBN's opportunities for higher bandwidth would better benefit the application.

"The quality would be even better if you had more bandwidth and you would be able to conference with even more people," he said. "You won't be hogging the bandwidth from your family members."

According to Aben, the use of symmetric bandwidth for residential customers may not benefit the wider range of consumers, but would be essential to the growing prosumer market in Australia.

"Prosumers are ready for it, I just think the current prevailing business model hasn't caught up," he said. "I point to the countries where this vision has been taken up, and there isn't a single user who complains about the bandwidth being too high.

"Our clear vision is that users - if treated as prosumers - would enrich the community tremendously."

Bhatia said iPrimus was "flexible to accomodate the market and applications as they grow", but challenged AARNet to provide real-world examples of residential applications that already required higher upstream bandwidth.

While an application like CloudStor - released last year - may be five years from mass consumption in Australia, Vivu is consumer-ready, with its technology underpinning some of the features already available in Skype. AARNet is beta testing the video conferencing application through its Brisbane data centre, with plans to scale to other data centres and other consumer markets nationwide. While AARNet's constituency is largely university networks as a whole, Aben said the service provider hoped to reach the majority of students in tertiary education, from university students sharing ideas to TAFE students learning remotely.

"There comes a point where we can only show the point of things," Aben said, "and it's up to other entitites, be that government, be that industry bodies, to decide this is something they want to take up, or not do so."

Another technology in incubation by university IT managers, the Australian Access Federation (AAF), could potentially underpin a mass roll-out of applications like Vivu, by allowing the mass sharing of user authentication information between services. The site already provides a similar, federated user access portal for Medicare, Centrelink and child support services.

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