On a sidewalk in a northwestern Sydney suburb, there’s a box. A pale green box. It stands 4 feet tall.
Inside the box? The internet.
Known as a “street cabinet” or “node,” this box contains the equipment needed to deliver internet access to hundreds of homes and businesses in the area.
On March 7, an out-of-control Suzuki Swift slammed into the node, squashing it beneath the chassis. The 18-year-old driver walked away uninjured, but the car ripped the box’s cement foundation from the sidewalk. The incident disabled internet access to 280 residents for approximately 48 hours.
Just two weeks later, on March 22, another car skidded off the road and took out the node. This time, the box separated from its cement base, cables stretching to their limit. Local internet services were again crippled for 48 hours.
This humble box in Kellyville, Sydney, may be the unluckiest node in the world, but its misfortune reaches far beyond this tranquil suburb.
This is Australia’s internet problem in a green, box-shaped nutshell. A problem borne of the country’s insistence on using decades-old inferior copper phone lines for internet access as the world moves to high-speed fibre. Kellyville’s node represents how the government turned a blind eye to the future of internet service in Australia, home to over 20 million internet users, favouring outdated technology considered cheaper and faster to upgrade.
Ultimately, it shows why Australia’s long-struggling National Broadband Network, the largest infrastructure project in the country’s history, may be doomed to fail. For
The political circus
Australians complain about their internet access. A lot. And for good reason.
Akamai’s most recent State of the Internet report ranks Australia 50th in the world for internet connection speed, with an average of 11.1Mbps. In contrast, the US ranks 10th, with speeds averaging 18.7Mbps and multiple carriers have offered high-speed Fibre to the Premises (FTTP), including Verizon, Google and Lightower.
Those companies encountered problems of their own — deploying fibre is expensive and doesn’t generate the kind of short-term financial reward that those business are after. Verizon’s highly-regarded Fios gigabit service is only available to around 12 percent of the population and Google pressed pause on their ambitious nationwide Google Fiber service in the US earlier this year, as they find ways to improve the rollout.
However, these deployments eventually led to some huge positives, including lowering network congestion and allowing more devices to be connected simultaneously. Other nations highest on Akamai’s report, including South Korea, Norway, Sweden, Hong Kong and Switzerland, all employ FTTP technology, too.
For fixed broadband services, FTTP is the future of high-speed internet access. So why doesn’t Australia have it?
Politics got in the way.
In 2007, the average connection speed in Australia hovered around 2Mbps, and only 7 percent of Australian households had access to speeds greater than that. Back then, in the US, 71 percent of households were above that threshold, with 26 percent already seeing speeds above 5Mbps. At that speed, most Australians wouldn’t even be able to access Netflix in standard definition, whereas users in the US would have access to high-definition streams.
The Australian government decided something had to be done.
Before the 2007 election, Australia’s Labor government, led by Kevin Rudd, announced that every home in Australia would receive a fibre internet connection, with a total rollout cost of $43 billion. They called it the National Broadband Network (NBN). Australians went to the polls that year and voted the Labor government in to power — a resounding tick of approval for the network.
Two years later, the government established NBN Co and promised the project would be complete by 2017, delivering high-speed FTTP technology to 93 percent of homes and businesses nationwide. But that rollout experienced delays and mismanagement that soured the Australian public’s perception of the project.
In response, the opposition party, led by Tony Abbott, countered with its own pledge, saying it could deliver a version of the network faster at a far cheaper cost. The compromise: using the copper phone cables already in place and taking the more advanced FTTP off the table.
In this plan, Australian houses would be connected to “nodes.” From those nodes, the existing copper network would connect to premises, a technology known as Fibre to the Node (FTTN). Malcolm Turnbull, then working as the opposition’s communications and arts minister, pledged the rollout would be completed by the end of 2016.
Abbott’s coalition won the 2013 election, ousting the Labor government and instating its own NBN plan. Instead of delivering high-speed fibre, the coalition government promised a “Multi-Technology Mix” (MTM) that would see around 71 percent of Australians retain their copper wiring. The remaining 29 percent would use a mix of existing infrastructure, hybrid fibre coaxial connections or FTTP technology.
It was promised to be faster, cheaper and delivered to Australians sooner.
In 2018, this compromised version of the NBN is still not even close to complete. It’s a sore point, a failure so tragic it has become a punchline.
“My internet is down again.”
“Oh, you must be on the NBN.”
The problem with Kellyville
In 2016, a node was installed on Redden Drive in Kellyville, a 40-minute drive northwest of Sydney.
Two years later, on a clear afternoon in July 2018, I’m trying to locate the unlucky internet cabinet twice destroyed by wayward cars. It’s planted somewhere along the road, but I’m not sure where exactly.
I pull onto Redden Drive, heading south, and take a slight curve around a blind, uphill bend. Two bright yellow bollards jump into view, the green node behind them. The fluorescent bollards look out of place among the monotonous suburban fencing and drab sidewalks. They look almost alien.
The bollards were added in May 2018 to “protect the node,” according to an NBN Co spokesperson. Two months after the dual crashes in March, a decision was made to install the bollards on the node’s northeastern side as a barrier between oncoming traffic and the box. If a car were to swerve off the road and into the node, it would crumple against the hard steel of those bright yellow barriers.
Arthur, a senior Kellyville resident who declined to give his last name, believes the node was planted in the wrong place altogether. He describes the bend before the node as “dangerous” and explains that “the road is cambered the wrong way,” increasing the likelihood drivers will take out the box.
Another resident of Redden Drive, who has lived on the road for 17 years, said the street has “become a thoroughfare” for motorists trying to bypass the busy main roads in recent times.
At speed, the node is a target. It sits near the edge of the kerb. If not for the yellow bollards, its pale green exterior would blend into the background, making it hard to see, even on a clear day. When the two crashes occurred in March, it was overcast and had been raining. A perfect storm of conditions.
The two accidents aren’t the first time a car has come off-road at that exact same location.
In 2013, a tree stood in the place where the node is currently planted. In December of that year, the tree was slammed into by an intoxicated driver, causing it to “fall over”. According to the local paper, the tree had been hit multiple times before being removed.
So why put the node there?
And it’s not the only instance of a node being placed in a less than ideal location, either. In Tasmania, a node was built on the banks of the Tamar River, making it prone to flooding. A similar situation was encountered in Bowral, where heavy rainfall saw a node partially engulfed by water.
According to an NBN Co spokesperson, the position of a node is “carefully determined following NBN Co’s network design rules.” That includes assessing access to the property, government considerations and environmental conditions. Notably, the design rules also take into account safety considerations, such as driver’s line of sight and high traffic.
Highway to the danger zone
For two weeks, there’s been a hole in front of Barbara’s house. It’s on the sidewalk.
Over the next month, NBN Co technicians will work to permanently move the node at Redden Drive to this new location. Rather than continue to repair the node, it was deemed “more cost-effective” to move it here, 50 metres around the corner. Residents will experience “minimal service disruption,” says an NBN Co spokesperson.
Recent Kellyville transplant Barbara, who also declined to give her last name, understands why the node is being moved to her street. The old location looks like a quiet piece of suburbia, bordered by two schools and a church, but it might as well be a highway.
Barbara’s street is narrower, quieter. There’s little danger a car would come, at speed, in the direction of the box. It certainly seems like a safer location.
But the relocation comes at a price. An NBN Co spokesperson would not provide a specific figure for how much it would cost, instead saying it sits “within NBN Co’s operational costs.” But most estimates suggest installing new nodes usually cost NBN Co upwards of $2,000 and can even balloon out toward AU$5,000.
A short-term solution to a long-term problem
Between improving security, reducing latency and increasing network stability, there’s little argument FTTP is the superior technology.
Rod Tucker, laureate professor of electrical and electronic engineering at University of Melbourne and a member of the advisory panel for the Labor government’s original NBN plan, says it “offers the largest (by far) potential for high capacity.” Couple this with the ability to easily increase the speed by simply “changing the modem” and it becomes clear FTTP was an ideal long-term solution.
As Australians switch to the NBN, it’s expected the nation’s ranking for internet connection speeds will increase. But using FTTN technology provides a ceiling on how fast internet speeds can really go — the copper wiring is a limiting factor. To simplify it: The farther you are from a node, the worse your speeds will be.
Moreover, as other nations continue to invest in FTTP, any boost in Australia’s global internet ranking is likely to be short-lived, as those countries surge ahead with connections that begin to push 1Gbps — a speed that would allow a family of four to stream, in 4K, on multiple devices concurrently.
“The future holds a painful, probably slow, replacement of FTTN,” Tucker says. He believes Australia is already running into trouble with FTTN connections, but it’s too late to switch over to FTTP because “the money is already sunk.”
The coalition promised to deliver their version of the NBN faster and at a lower cost. In 2013, they scrapped the old model and instated their own.
“The 2013 Strategic Review found that the NBN would not achieve its financial or rollout targets using an all FTTP model, since the project was two years behind target and faced substantial additional costs,” says a spokesperson for Mitch Fifield, the Minister for Communications and the Arts.
“The ambition of universal connectivity is unique to Australia given its expansive geography and population. NBN’s flexible approach determines which technologies are utilised.”
But since the coalition government took over the roll out and moved to the Multi-Technology Mix model, the budget skyrocketed from $29.5 billion to $49 billion and the deadline blew out an extra four years. The current network is now on track for completion in 2020. As of July 2018, it’s activated in over 4.2 million homes, with a remaining 7 million ready to connect. However, only 1.2 million are using FTTP.
“There was broad support in the Australian community for a first-rate FTTP NBN — but the conservative government wanted to play politics for the sake of it,” says Michelle Rowland, communications minister in the Labor government. Rowland notes that the cost of the coalition’s NBN rollout has increased by 54 percent, whereas FTTP costs have plummeted by 40 to 50 percent in the US, the UK and New Zealand.
“They have no concept of the long-term public interest and no vision for this country,” Rowland continued.
But a spokesperson for Senator Fifield said “Australians can feel confident this country will be a world leader in fast universal broadband access in the coming years.”
Clearly, there’s a difference of opinion — and that divide has resulted in an ongoing saga that has crippled Australia’s broadband future.
“The real reason for the stuff up was politics,” Tucker says. “The coalition didn’t want to be doing the same as Labor.”
Understanding in a car crash
It seems poor conditions, intoxication or excess speeds contributed to all reported accidents at Redden Drive.
It isn’t NBN Co’s responsibility to ensure safe driving around its nodes. Nor is it their responsibility to ameliorate the issues of high traffic or speeding. In fact, a local council can object to where a node would be placed. Maybe it should have, in this instance.
But not factoring in the poor line of sight and the history of that particular corner shows a lack of foresight by NBN Co — echoing the lack of foresight that saw the government flip the network predominantly using nodes in the first place.
On this busy Kellyville street, a whole host of problems have arisen that can be traced back to the change in plans. Had an all-fibre rollout continued, there may not even be a node to hit in the first place. But the stakes are higher than that.
And even though Australians have been moving to higher-speed plans in the past six months, with almost 1.5 million households now with download speeds of 50Mbps, how will the technology hold up five years from now? Ten years?
As the residents of Kellyville are acutely aware, once the car has already crashed, it’s much harder — and more expensive — to fix.
So too, it seems, the NBN.
Update Aug. 30, 8:30 p.m.: Additional context added for US services, clarified node placement
Fight the Power: Take a look at who’s transforming the way we think about energy.
Rebooting the Reef: CNET dives deep into how tech can help save Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.