Interview: Dave Berstein on the NBN, construction and VDSL

xDSL, fibre, construction and gigabits

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The Register: In the fibre rollout, in the business plan for the fibre rollout – we saw what is not surprising, a very rapid escalation in per-premises cost for every percent over 90. The first 90 percent did not vary much about the median price per home. The 91 varied a lot, 92 varied more, 93 a lot more.

In VDSL – here I'm looking at the characteristics of Australia …

Dave Berstein: Anybody who tries to give you a good answer to this, beyond eight-five percent, is bullshitting you. Because nobody has done this kind of node rollout beyond eighty, eighty-five percent.

So they're guessing … for the last fifteen percent they're guessing. Now, the guesses may be fairly well informed. The US Broadband Plan had a team with seven very good people trying to figure out where the costs are, and what was involved in the rural rollout.

What they found was that the cost was utterly and totally brutal – for the last forty-four hundredths of one percent!

Whether the point at which the costs escalate is at eighty-six percent, or ninety percent, ninety-three percent, or ninety-seven percent – expert opinion would differ, and nobody who hasn't spent a week with hard data of where those homes are located and what the distances are, is giving you any answer that isn't bullshit.

I would guess that somewhere between eighty-five and ninety-five, your cost escalates. I wouldn't tell you whether it's eighty-eight or ninety-four without access to a hell of a lot more data than anybody except Telstra or the NBN has access to.

And it would take me a lot of work to give you a good answer.

The Register: There is an inflection point …

Dave Berstein: And there's the fact that the NBN did what looked like some fairly careful work to say “you'll get killed at ninety-three percent”, which is why that's the cutoff. They may be wrong, it may be ninety or it may be ninety-five, and hopefully they put good people on to deciding that before they put money into building.

And some of getting this right is to go out and build some of those, and get some experience from the field, based on the density of the housing, and see what it actually takes with Australian labour and Australian systems.

The Register: In data-gathering terms, it is not a bad idea to start with a mix of territories, as in fact they did?

Dave Berstein: The best experts in the world on this can't give you a good answer until they get out there, and get the data. So, getting the data is why I'm fudging and not giving you direct answers to your questions! Instead of thinking that some expert from Sydney, New York, Berlin or Paris can come in from outside and give you the answer.

This needs real people, real engineers, real world, and lots of experience.

The Register: Final question: There is, at each inflection point – something unexpected happens. History at least suggests that anyone who tries to do a linear projection of bandwidth requirements ends up being proved wrong.

The shift from dial to 256, brought unexpected things – there was Skype ...

Dave Berstein: P2P video. Netflix, and so on.

I can bring you the opinion of some of the very best people in the world on this subject. Because I've had a chance to research some of this!

We don't know.

Dave Farber – called the grandfather of the Internet, because most of the people who are called fathers of the Internet were his students – said “it is utter nonsense to say that we don't need a gigabit, because the experience is that we always need more bandwidth and we'll find a way to use it.”

The guy who built one of the largest gigabit networks in the world is telling me he's only been able to figure out one real application … any time soon … that's likely to need more than 100 megabits.

A network engineer who's looking at the 100 megabits said he's got a big family doing a lot of stuff, but he doesn't ever touch 75 megabits.

So – we don't know if the extrapolation of the curve which says we always need more and more bandwidth is realistic going 20 years into the future, or the practical experience with disk drives is more relevant.

For 20 years in this business, whatever disk drive you had, you filled and needed a bigger one. Until about five years ago, when disk drives got so big that most people don't wind up running out of space on their Terabyte or 2 Terabyte drives, unless they do a heck of a lot of video.

Or have two-and-a-half Terabytes of jazz …

But those are relatively few, and we see that in the declining sales of hard disk drives.

There was a point where you had just about what you needed – so, smart people disagree on this one, and I'll wait 'till I see.

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