Connecting Australia s NBN Future to the Globe

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1 Connecting Australia s NBN Future to the Globe Ross Pfeffer Whitepaper First published: January 2011 Abstract Is there sufficient capacity, market competition and network resilience to support Australia s rapid move to high speed broadband and in particular the Government s A$46 Billion National Broadband Network that is now under construction? Page 1

2 Five high capacity fibre-optic submarine cables with a total lit capacity of 2 Tbps leave the eastern seaboard of Australia. These are Australia's connectivity to the rich fabric of content dispersed across the globe. Three cables take the shortest path, some 28,000 kilometres across the Pacific to the US West Coast, and two terminate in S.E Asia to interconnect with the trans-oceanic superhighway. But is this enough? Is there sufficient capacity, market competition and network resilience to support Australia s rapid move to high speed broadband and in particular the Government s A$46 Billion National Broadband Network that is now under construction. Australia is approaching saturation in broadband penetration. The number of broadband subscribers at June 2010 is reported at 8.8 Million or 92% of all internet subscribers, with fixed line broadband making up 62% of these subscribers and 92% of broadband data downloaded. Fixed line broadband subscriber growth fuelled the rapid growth in international capacity from 2005 until about two years ago, but capacity growth is now dominated by the combined effects of higher access speeds, larger data entitlements, lower data costs and the dominance of video based applications. As a recent analysis by Market Clarity 1 shows the cost of broadband subscriptions has remained about the same for a number 1 Market Clarity Report: Broadband Download behaviour in Australia, January 2011 of years. At the same time data download costs have dropped dramatically, data entitlements have increased and, not surprisingly, downloads per subscriber have increased. The most recent ABS Internet Activity Survey (IAS) for June 2010 showed the volume of data downloaded per month by fixed line broadband subscribers increased by 22% in six months to around 11 Gigabytes. And the same survey shows around 40% of all Australian subscribers now have an access speed of 8 Mbps or more, supported largely by existing ADSL2+ and coaxial infrastructure. Further analysis of all the available data by Market Clarity indicates that the average data entitlement of fixed line residential subscribers was 44 Gigabytes as at June 2010 six times more than the average download per broadband subscriber (fixed + wireless) 6.7 Gigabytes. There has been an impressive shift in speed and entitlement in just a few years, with more to come. Visions of our broadband future are many and varied. We know it will continue to change at a rapid pace and the NBN will be a major platform for delivery. But it won t be the only one. In recent years the move to wireless broadband enabled devices has been extremely rapid with the July 2010 IAS showing 39% of broadband connections had wireless access, growing at 22% in 6 months compared to a fixed line increase of only 2%. At the same time average monthly downloads from wireless actually decreased slightly to around 600MB. 2 P a g e

3 The wireless implication for international capacity demand is that an increasing proportion of internet experience is becoming wireless based where access speed and download quotas are much lower. Despite this as some suggest wireless may be substituting for additional retail spending on fixed network based services. It s all happening on the demand side, so let s now look at how international capacity supply can cope. For the five installed routes currently out of Australia I estimate total activated capacity to all destinations (excluding any provision for restoration or protection) at about 0.5Tbps. After making a provision for ISPs acquiring above base demand for factors such as protection then gross active capacity is estimated to be around 0.7 Tbps. At the same time total lit capacity is estimated to be around 2.0 Tbps. For the near term, there appears to be plenty of capacity to support demand. In fact over the last few years the industry has been in a state of excess supply having invested too much in cable deployment and subsequent equipping (with a replacement cost of some US$3 Billion) relative to the current level of demand. At the present rate of growth in demand, and with no further investment, the excess supply will likely exist for another 5-6 years. But that s based on historical rapid demand growth as we know it, not the demand that could be. This raises the two key questions about the role of the submarine cable industry in Australia. First, is the cost of capacity too high to realise current latent demand, and second, are we on the cusp of an NBN induced demand change that is so big and rapid that the current excess supply and upgrade capability will not be adequate? Taking the price question first, it has often been said that the cost of international capacity for both Australia and its close neighbour New Zealand (which is solely supported by the two diverse cables of Southern Cross) is too high and this causes expensive retail broadband pricing and inadequate data download entitlements. To be fair international capacity prices (which are equalised out of Australia and New Zealand) are still high by Trans-Atlantic and Trans North-Pacific standards. Despite higher capital cost (estimated at US$128 per Australasian User compared to US$14 per user on these Super-highway routes), ANZ to US capacity prices have declined by an average of around 25% annually for over 10 years. Price has fallen under the combined influence of healthy competition, rising demand and falling upgrade cost, but is price still acting as a demand throttle? A valid way to determine this may be to compare actual data downloads with download entitlements. Over the last few years there has been a steady and dramatic improvement in the volume of data entitlement for broadband subscribers in Australia. In Market Clarity's recent report average monthly download entitlements are 3 P a g e

4 estimated to have grown from 5 Gigabytes per month in June 2006 to nearly 45 Gbytes by June At the same time data downloads for fixed plus wireless broadband subscribers increased from just 2.4 Gigabytes to nearly 7 Gigabytes. To accentuate the entitlement growth trend, over the last 6 months Australia has seen the advent of the "Terabyte Plan Wars" between key ISP s. A Terabyte isn t unlimited downloads but by most standards it s a lot of data to download in a month. It is equivalent to 30GB per day (or roughly six high definition Blu-ray movie downloads), every day of every month in comparison to the 6.7 gigabyte per month used by the consumer as reported by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Leaving aside the Terabyte War the implication of the ABS data to June 2010 must be that Australian broadband subscribers effectively pay much more for their data than they need to (compared to buying a cheaper plan with a lower entitlement). Alternately, if they could, or wanted to, as at June 2010 they could on average download another 38 Gigabytes per user for the same average cost. So it looks like the cost of international data is unlikely to be throttling broadband downloads. 2300% increase) over the period 2007 to As the percentage of subscribers with 8 Mbps access or higher continues to grow from the current 40% the likelihood of access facilitating greater download volumes will strengthen. More importantly as the NBN is rolled out with the objective of providing around 90% of the population with access at 100Mbps there can be little doubt about the complete removal of access speed as a potential constraint right across Australia. But the 200% increase in average downloads over the 2007 to 2010 period, while rapid, was far smaller than both the 600% paradigm shift in access speed and the 900% shift in data entitlements. On the basis of past experience the likelihood of further huge increases in average access speed, of the magnitude planned for the NBN, resulting in commensurate increases in downloads in the future seems very low. That's because access is a facilitator, other changes need to occur before actual download volumes can accelerate to completely new levels. We need to look beyond access speed, capacity pricing and download entitlements, to look at other elements of the internet delivery infrastructure and at the evolving nature of users and their internet experience. There must be other reasons why capacity demand is not higher so we will now consider access speed. Based on ABS reports, the weighted average access speed increased from 300kbps to about 7Mbps (or While it s less true by the day, not everyone wants or needs to download large volumes of data. And for the increasing proportion that does, it could be that despite the increasing access speed, increasing 4 P a g e

5 download entitlements and no increase in retail internet cost that the actual experience of many broadband subscribers discourages or limits high data download volumes. In other words if the internet was actually faster users can do a lot more in the same amount of time they spend now. As a practical but highly relevant example if YouTube video's (which accounts for an estimated 10% of all internet traffic) and video streaming applications stop and start and are at low resolutions then users will download less than they otherwise could. While many internet users need faster access, overall this internet performance bottleneck stems from ISP and Content Provider server loads, caching effectiveness, router congestion, contention and round trip latency. Contention arises from an insufficient volume of domestic and international backhaul capacity deployed by ISP s to support their own customer base during peak time. Round trip latency (to the US) cannot fall below about 120 milliseconds, and in association with the still dominant internet protocol (TCPIP) seriously inhibits a download from reaching the maximum potential of a high speed local access line. Leaving the network elements aside it is ultimately users that drive capacity demand and it s part of an evolving virtuous circle of expanding user needs from improving content and more data intensive applications that will draw even higher proportions of users into the high download environment over time. We now return to our second big question for the Australian submarine cable industry as we look forward. Whatever the massive impacts of increasing fixed line access speed, increasing reliance on mobile devices, expanding user needs and the dominance of video based applications, is the Australian submarine cable industry well placed to support massive increases in data downloads? All Australian fibre optic submarine cables can deploy 40 Gbps transmission equipment for their future upgrades, with Southern Cross already successfully having tested the technology on its longest segments. This paradigm shift has the potential to take supply capability to over 9.6 Tbps, some 14 times today's demand from Australia. Currently demand is growing at about 20-25% pa, so that s 12 years of growth at today s rate. And if the growth rate doubles the industry capability can support 7 years of growth. But this is not the limit of industry capability. Far from it! The next upgrade transmission step, within the next five years, will be transmission at 100 Mbps and that can take supply to multi tens of Tbps. In an environment of rapid demand growth, submarine capacity suppliers can simply extend the equipping of their fibres and with a provisioning schedule of just 6 months 5 P a g e

6 replace existing land based equipment at higher bit rates as technology allows. This is not new. When Southern Cross was constructed in 2000/01 its unprotected capability or potential was just 240 Gbps. Today its capability is around 10 Tbps of unprotected transmission representing a fortyfold capability increase over 10 years of operation. By 2015 our potential is forecast to be over 20 Tbps and who knows what our potential will be by November 2025, our newly committed earliest network termination date. Will we close the cable down and build a new one? Or, as industry observers are suggesting, will Southern Cross (and other systems) continue to operate for longer than their original design life. It s too early to tell but by 2015 we will sufficient additional knowledge to consider another 5 year extension to system life or to begin the process of a replacement build. In the meantime there is little doubt that all cables from Australia will be able to meet rapidly expanding demand while operating in a competitive industry that drives prices down on the back of the rising demand and the low cost capacity upgrades. 6 P a g e

7 About Southern Cross Southern Cross Cable Network provides fast, direct, and secure international bandwidth from Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Hawaii to the heart of the Internet in the USA. The Southern Cross Cable Network comprises two submarine communications cables which were first commissioned in November 2000 and January 2001 at a cost of USD1.3 billion. They provide Australasian broadband users with international connections to the US West coast where global Internet hubs are located. The Southern Cross network has been engineered until at least Network capacity has been expanded on multiple occasions, with the last (G3) upgrade in Q increasing capacity to 1.2Tbps. The current upgrade will increase lit capacity to 2Tbps by Q The Southern Cross Cable Network is owned by Telecom NZ (50%), Singtel-Optus (40%) and Verizon Business (10%). Southern Cross Cable Network has offices in Bermuda, Sydney, Auckland and Wellington. For more information visit Southern Cross at: About the Author Ross Pfeffer is the Director, Sales & Marketing for Southern Cross Cables Limited, located in Wellington New Zealand. Page 7

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