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Networking

Is cable the answer to Australian broadband woes?

What many of us may have forgotten is that there is already a perfectly acceptable technology for delivering triple-play services — voice, TV and data over a single cable — and doing it cost-effectively and at high volume.

David Braue

Somewhere along the line, it became assumed that xDSL technologies — which run over the last-mile wiring so tightly controlled by Telstra — were the only way forward for Australian broadband. This curious anomaly has of course set Australian broadband into complete disarray, and hindered the development of viable content delivery models.

What many of us may have forgotten is that there is already a perfectly acceptable technology for delivering triple-play services — voice, TV and data over a single cable — and doing it cost-effectively and at high volume.

It is, of course, cable, and it may or may not be available in your street. A decade ago, it became the whipping boy of the day as media beatups and outraged consumer groups caused so much trouble for Optus and Telstra that they decided to terminate the rollouts, leaving Australia with billions of dollars' worth of hybrid fibre-cable (HFC) that fell far short of its potential.

A decade later we're still suffering from that policy disaster. Telstra is stonewalling on network access while the government wrings its hands and funds competitors to build a competing network. All the while, consumers are suffering — especially those in rural areas where there is effectively no competition whatsoever when it comes to broadband services.

Australia's access technology of choice is a decrepit copper network that the Telstra monopoly has been allowed to run into the ground.

As we count the costs of catastrophic political decisions made a decade ago, it has become clear that xDSL is little more than a jury-rigged solution to a pressing problem. Had the government taken a gutsier approach to the rollout of cable — for example, by mandating shared access to a single cable infrastructure instead of allowing Telstra and Optus to waste their money duplicating services — we would have a nationwide triple-play network more than capable of meeting our needs into the future.

Of course, such an approach would have run contrary to the free-for-all mentality the new Howard government was hoping to introduce with its newly deregulated market. But only Telstra has benefited, since the decision to abandon cable for xDSL saved it countless capital costs.

Yet for anybody counting on Telstra to do the right thing, this week we learn that the company is now backing away from its fibre rollout and spending its money elsewhere. And still Sol Trujillo bleats about government favouritism.

In a speech this week to an AIIA meeting in Sydney, Trujillo blamed a history of government incompetence for the current situation — but then went on to say that "giving away a billion dollars ... won't deliver Australia a fixed high-speed broadband network for consumers."

No, it won't. But it's the best chance we have right now, after the rollouts of cable and ADSL were so categorically and completely stuffed up. I don't recall Telstra complaining about government funding a decade ago, when the government was still its majority shareholder and it enjoyed a regulatory monopoly that remains, in spirit if not in law.

Both the government and Telstra are guilty of chronically poor infrastructure strategy (in the spirit of fairness, I should also mention Optus, who did also ditch its cable rollout). The only companies that have been able to make a difference are those that have innovated despite this strategy — for example Neighbourhood Cable a Ballarat-based company that has been able to effectively use cable to offer data, voice and video services at commercial scale.

Couldn't Optus, or someone else with deep pockets, fund similar rollouts in other regional areas and just get on with the progress? The technology has been there for years; all we need is the will.