NBN costs weigh on uni student market

James Cook University plans NBN services through AARNet, but commercial services could outprice student demand

James Cook University has warned of the potential for the National Broadband Network (NBN) to price university students out of the broadband market without continued monitoring of regional fibre backhaul competition.

Appearing before a parliamentary inquiry into the role and benefits of the NBN, the director of the university’s eResearch Centre pointed to growing concerns that a lack of competitive fibre backhaul to towns like Townsville, where the NBN is set to become active by June, would force service providers to “load up” retail costs on students.

While eager to discuss benefits such as high-definition videoconferencing, integrated learning for as well as e-health and regional research projects as huge benefits of the NBN, he warned escalation of internet service providers would prevent use of the network by students.

“We can talk about these wonderful outcomes but if it’s going to cost people $300 a month, then it’s just not going to happen,” Professor Ian Atkinson said.

The announcement of AARNet as one of 12 companies to offer services to the first five mainland NBN release sites is likely to allay some of Atkinson’s concerns.

In what will become one of the provider’s first forays outside of its own fibre network, chief executive, Chris Hancock, told Computerworld Australia that AARNet was in negotiations with James Cook University and New England University - both of which operate campuses in the mainland release sites - in order to potentially subsidise the cost of student and staff access to the NBN for research and educational purposes.

Though a complete business case is yet to be concreted, the services provided would likely be separate from the best-effort internet services to be provided by other retail service prodivers, and instead focus on university-specific functions.

AARNet already operates fibre backhaul to Townsville, an element which would also bring down the cost of retail prices to students and staff. However, Atkinson said that other regional industries, as well as students embedded in workplaces, would be forced to turn to a for-profit provider, which could offer restrictive pricing.

In an initial submission to the inquiry from the university, Atkinson called for the NBN to continue momentum for improvement of regional fibre backhaul originally sparked by the Federal Government’s $250 million Regional Broadband Blackspot Program.

“While many regions have access to adequate fibre backhaul connections, significant numbers do not,” he wrote in the submission.

Townsville was not included in the program, which provided 6000 kilometres of additional fibre at identified blackspots around Australia. However, known backhaul to the town includes Nextgen’s own private fibre, as well as Telstra and AARNet.

In a 2009 submission to the government prior to the initiation of the fibre backhaul rollout, AARNet warned that extension of fibre services north of Brisbane was prohibited by a lack of access to existing infrastructure in the area.

Atkinson acknowledged that AARNet’s inclusion and decisions around the number and locations of points of interconnect could alleviate NBN pricing in Townsville and at other university campuses in northern Queensland, but that without clearer competition guidelines from NBN Co, pricing could be prohibitive.

Atkinson’s concerns come as debate continues to rage between NBN Co and service providers over the wholesale pricing structures of the network.

The wholesaler this week released a pricing calculator as a means of indicating rough prices dependent on some of the basic assumptions the network subsists on.

However, Internode managing director, Simon Hackett, who has warned of the network killing off smaller ISPs, continued to argue that the wholesale pricing was unrealistic.

“I'm just really keen to understand whether $25.82 [per user, per month] is a realistic average cost for any real world scenario, or whether I should in fact be working on the $33 average cost in your published 2013 corporate plan,” he wrote on the Whirlpool user forum following the launch of the calculator.

Satellite a research eye-opener

Though several bodies have recently voiced concerns over satellite as an inferior broadband technology, Atkinson said NBN’s long-term plans to launch two Ka-band satellites to serve the most rural three per cent of the Australian population would provide a significant boost to research into northern Queensland ecologies.

Pointing to existing satellite services as slow and expensive, he said the improved uplink and coverage of the new satellites would prove particularly vital to the success of the Daintree Rainforest Observatory project, a collaboration between James Cook University and other Queensland-based research institutions.

“To actually get communications in that area is quite diabolical,” he said. “Mobile phone coverage just doesn’t exist at the moment, so with the satellite systems we think we can be stepping forward, not just one or two steps but 10 or 11 steps as we go down that remote monitoring.

NBN Co plans to use the 49 regional and outer metropolitan points of interconnect of the 121 final locations listed to deploy the fixed wireless and satellite services, though it is unclear what additional infrastructure will be required to make this possible.

Follow James Hutchinson on Twitter: @j_hutch

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU

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