NBN 101: The Internet or applications?

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 and, most recently, we delved into the economic argument for a high-speed national broadband network.

This week, we take a look at how applications and potential service packages may play a role in the NBN.

The Internet is often seen as a single entity; one point of contact in which all online communication and activity takes place. This is understandable: While the Internet itself is made up of thousands of inter-connected networks, systems and applications, it usually appears as a single item on your monthly bill.

That mentality has readily become a blanket over all IP-based activities. In fact, most would find it hard to distinguish between the Internet - all online, inter-connected communication - and the World Wide Web (WWW) - the websites, hyperlinks and user interface with which many of us are accustomed.

However, this is changing. Those who subscribe to Voice over IP (VoIP) telephony or Internet protocol television (IPTV) services will already see the service as an additional item on their bill, as well as any associated calls that fall outside the limits of the agreed package. And that is where the idea that the National Broadband Network (NBN) is not just about the Internet comes into play.

One of the key advantages of faster, ubiquitous broadband like that the NBN promises is simply the new kinds of applications possible that can tap into faster speeds and greater availability to provide new experiences. Some of this is already possible – like the recently released IPTV offerings like Telstra's T-Box, or the FetchTV from iiNet - but others argue that the applications future generations will use are yet to be conceived.

With the NBN likely to compete with - and eventually replace - existing telephony and Internet access methods, the availability and growth of applications – and how they are packaged and delivered to customers – is something that must be explored.

Here, we take a look at the different types of applications and services afforded by faster broadband and investigate why they are being used as an argument for rolling out the network.

Applications, applications, applications

For all the speed advantages offered by the NBN, the proposed fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) network isn't simply about loading a web page faster. Sure, when you have a fibre cable running into your home capable of at least 100 megabits per second (Mbps) speeds, the Computerworld home page is likely to load slightly faster than a current ADSL2+ connection. Movie / video streaming, P2P and music downloads will all get a lot faster too.

But the NBN is more about providing a platform - that will replace Telstra’s ageing copper network among others - for new services, new businesses, and new experiences the way the Internet has already done for companies such as Google and Apple. IPTV is one such example that relies on broadband technology.

While Australia has been behind the curve on IPTV technology, the release of several new offerings on the local market has made the application a low-hanging fruit for those championing faster broadband. Telstra and iiNet are just two examples of service providers looking to get into the content delivery market, and television manufacturers have begun implementing similar technologies. Not all service providers believe they need to enter the game, but availability of IPTV services are likely to increase in coming months and years.

However, current IPTV service standards are held back by the state of Australia's broadband environment and, as a result, it is arguable take-up by consumers is being affected too. The first services have built-in quality of service (QoS) designed to deliver a differing quality of experience depending on the available bandwidth at the time. In an ADSL2+ environment where line noise and distance from an exchange can have a severe impact on Internet quality, the QoS limits are a necessity. With faster broadband, however, such quality assurance mechanisms would be simply a formality.

While IPTV won't be a new entrant once a faster broadband network is fully realised, service providers will be able to take advantage of the newly acquired bandwidth for new capabilities and directions to drive new revenue. Telecommunications giant Alcatel-Lucent, for instance, already has a prototype solution for glasses-free 3D viewing, but the minimum 50Mbps bandwidth it requires to broadcast nine different 3D signals are sure to put a strain even on a 100Mbps connection in a single family household.

(See how Australia stacks up with the rest of the world on broadband speeds)

Additionally, a 2009 report from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) noted Internet Television services like YouTube and DailyMotion – as separate from IPTV – could become more prevalent and available on televisions as faster broadband becomes more available. Once the bandwidth is there, the blurred lines between Internet Television and IPTV shouldn't even exist and the opportunities to create new content and businesses become even greater.

Next up: AARNet and government get their day in the NBN

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But the potential applications on the NBN reach far beyond IPTV.

For instance, AARNet, Australia's primary service provider for universities and research institutions, already runs applications like CloudStor - a Rapidshare alternative for massive files - and a multi-party videoconference application called Vivu which requires significant downstream and upstream speeds to deliver a quality experience. These applications don't tax on the 1 to 10 gigabit per second (Gbps) links AARNet provides to its constituents. But an optimal 24Mbps ADSL2+ connection found in many homes and businesses today is unlikely to be able to provide a satisfactory connection to access these services.

In general, it is the education, health, transport and government sectors that are often forecast to be the largest benefactors of a faster broadband network, not only because of raw speed but also because of the ubiquity of the network, and the applications that are made possible as a result.

(Our previous article on the economic argument for the NBN provides several references with more detail on the possible applications in these sectors.)

Though some, like the NSW Department of Education and Training, already have an extensive private fibre network, the connection to homes and businesses at a more equal speed under the NBN provides numerous opportunities for remote education and greater access to more interactive educational resources.

Similarly, the health benefits have been iterated numerous times, with telemedicine and e-health expected to play key parts in health sector's transition to the NBN. Most recently, a neurosciences research facility announced the use of the network to remotely monitor patients playing the Wii while situated in the joint forthcoming mainland trial sites of Minnamurra and Kiama on NSW's south coast.

The NSW Government has also launched a fibre-connected greenfield estate that serves as a test case for both smart metering and tailored IPTV services, in hope of drawing attention from NBN Co. If Energy Australia were to abandon its own proprietary WiMAX network, it could conceivably piggyback off a user's NBN connection to deliver smart meter usage.

The University of Melbourne's Institute for a Broadband-Enabled Society (IBES) provides numerous case studies and hypothetical examples of the possibilities afforded by the NBN in both private and public contexts, with the following conclusion:

The societal impact of the NBN will be profound. The ability to rapidly transfer information to any location via the NBN will transform health care in rural and remote areas. It will open up enormous new opportunities in distance education, it will provide new opportunities for business, entertainment, water resource management, energy conservation, and it will provide huge opportunities in science and technology. As a result, Australia will be able to develop new technologies, applications and services that will be in high demand as other nations follow Australia's lead.

Most importantly, however, is to note that the NBN isn't simply about new and exciting single applications. To be sure, even if these single applications were to require vast bandwidth beyond the 24Mbps currently available, it is unlikely they would need the 1 or 10Gbps connections forecast under future NBN network upgrades. Instead, it's the possibility to use multiple applications on multiple devices and, as we'll discuss further, multiple services from multiple providers. After all, in a household of media junkies watching one or two 3D-capable televisions at 50Mbps each, a 100Mbps link is likely to be saturated quickly.

Next up: The NBN as a private network

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NBN not so national

There are countless examples of applications possible under the NBN – and many that haven't been conceived yet - but not all of these must remain open and on the Internet.

The release of draft exposure legislation around the NBN sparked interest around a particular clause which suggested enterprises could become retail service providers (RSP) in their own right by acquiring carrier licenses. Speculative analogies of Woolworths flogging an Internet connection along with a week's worth of groceries quickly sprang to mind and mouth. But perhaps that wasn't the initial intention.

With the 21st-century workforce increasingly mobile, virtual private networks (VPN) have become the logical access method for those looking to be free of the grey cubicle. While largely secure, concerns remain - after all, traffic continues to flow over the Internet, and an IT department can never be absolutely sure that the home PC or even a work-provided laptop is entirely secure outside of the workplace.

A national fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) network provides an alternative. Rather than tunnelling through the Internet from home to business, it is possible instead to simply connect directly to the business as if it were an ISP in its own right. All traffic remains IP-based, of course, but it is no longer confined to the World Wide Web or the Internet, and arguably becomes somewhat more secure. For large enterprises that already have extensive internal networks, switching on a link to the fibre-connected homes of a chosen few would seem the logical next step.

There are other projects already on the cards that will rely on the more private characteristics of the NBN. Australia and New Zealand's joint bid for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) global astronomy project relies heavily on the NBN and blackspot fibre rollout, with all data transferred directly from telescopes in the Murchison area to the high-performance computing facility at CSIRO's Perth offices. These links, in conjunction with AARNet, will provide bandwidth of up to 40Gbps with potential for 8Tbps or even 80Tbps in the future.

The ability to easily set up a private connection between home and a particular business (or potentially office to office) provides the opportunity for even more applications that don’t rely on the Internet.

A changing market

There are a myriad of public and private applications that could be made available by the NBN, but a change in mentality is required within the service provider industry to make this happen.

The IPTV offerings beginning to emerge from some service providers on the Tasmanian NBN are a hint at what type of innovation may come when those same providers reassess their business priorities and opportunities in a changing broadband market.

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