Wednesday, June 20, 2012

NBN Demonstration in Canberra

Co Discovery TruckThe National Broadband Network Company (NBN Co), have a "NBN Co Discovery Truck" touring Australia to promote broadband use. The truck is located behind Old Parliament House in Canberra today, so I went along this morning for a look (individuals can just turn up but groups should book). There is a standard 20 minute demonstration for a group of about a dozen. I was impressed how the demonstrators were able to explain a complex technology in simple terms.

The "truck" is a semitrailer, with a diesel generator built in (the generator could do with some more vibration isolation) and two telescopic sides, making a relatively spacious display room. Visitors enter via stairs at the rear (there is also a wheelchair lift) and exit at the front. One wall of the interior is wide-screen display made up of a 2 x 6 matrix of high resolution flat panel screens. The other wall has examples of the NBN equipment.

The interior is very plain white and shiny metal, with a rubber floor, clearly being designed for heavy use by many visitors. The space reminded me of a mock-up of the International Space Station which I saw at NASA.

The demonstrators showed the NBN website where details of the roll-out are provided. Canberra's northern satellite town of Gungahlin is being cabled first, which makes sense as this missed out on the Transact fibre optic system in other parts of the city.

There are three examples of the NBN hardware displayed: fibre, wireless and satellite. The fibre system has three boxes installed in the home: one on the outside wall where the fibre terminates, a power supply and a box inside the home which phones and computers are attached to. The power supply has a large lead acid backup battery in it (same size as used in UPS and security alarms) to keep the phones working during a blackout. There is provision for two phones and up to four separate data services.

The NBN equipment looks well engineered. One addition which I suggest householders in bushfire prone areas make is a metal cover for the fibre optic cable and box outside the house. The cable and box are plastic and would melt due to radiant heat in a bushfire, cutting off communications (the cable itself would survive as it is underground).

After the demonstration there was time for questions. Normally with such a demonstration for the public I wince about the oversimplification and inaccuracies which creep in. But the NBN demonstration staff did a very good job under extreme pressure. The audience in this case was not your usual members of the general public, including people from the Government's National Digital Economy Strategy and myself (I helped write the public Internet policy for Australia).

A video is shown during the presentation, which I was amused to find featured Tony Windsor MP's electorate office.

The truck will next be travelling to Coffs Harbour on 21 June 2012. I recommend a visit, when the truck visits you.

There is also a NBN Co Discovery Centre in the Innovation Building, 1010 La Trobe St, Docklands, Melbourne (bookings required).

Many questions remain with the NBN. One of these is about the relative merits of fibre optic cable and wireless. While much of the debate over the NBN has been about the merits, or otherwise, of Fibre To The Premises (FTTP), many regional households in Australia will get wireless, not fibre. The use of wireless was also a key part of the current opposition's policy, when they were in government (and it is likely that a future such government would have a broadband program with the same technology as the NBN, but different political branding). The use of wireless in regional areas and fibre optic cable in more densely populated urban areas makes engineering and financial sense. The question then is where should the boundary between the two be and if they should overlap.

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