Imagine what it was like when the first networks came online — being able to pick up a phone and talk to someone even if they were in another city. Really, copper wires were revolutionary — and they continue to play a major part in our daily lives. Without them I couldn’t send this document to the editor or do most of my job — of course, without them there would be that much less for me to write about as well.
And yet I keep hearing about the end of the Copper Age — about these great technologies like wireless and cellular and fibre. They will replace the copper lines and are the future and we shouldn’t even be concerned with copper too much any more. Both the Telecommunications Inquiry and Paul Swain have used the rationale that these new technologies are coming on-stream as a way of avoiding the issue of unbundling the local loop, but I fear they’re still missing the point.
The copper network, the local loop, call it what you will, is by far the cheapest network in New Zealand today. It’s already been paid for and only needs maintaining and upgrading. It is also the most extensive network and reaches into areas no other can, given the costs involved.
It would be foolish to build a copper network today when for the same basic costs you could lay higher-capacity fibre, but at the same time it is not economic to lay fibre in sparsely populated places like the Far North or the King Country. No other network comes close to matching the local loop and no other network will. TelstraSaturn is spending $1.2 billion to get fibre laid in the three main centres and to link it all up. Imagine trying to lay fibre throughout the entire country — it’s just foolish at this stage.
Wireless technologies are often touted as an alternative but whether we like it or not wireless just don’t offer the same degree of quality of service a fixed line does.
Anyone with a wireless internet connection will be able to tell you of the horrors of trying to connect in the wind or rain (let alone snow or even, perversely, brilliantly bright sunshine in some cases) and while Ihug is talking about a two-way broadband offering, at the moment we can only get downloads on Ultra — uploads go via something else entirely. Can you guess what that is?
So the local loop is going to be the only ubiquitous network for some time to come.
Designed and built in an era when voice was the only traffic, it is now expected to run high-speed data as well. Fortunately there are a host of technologies to help it do just that. DSL is available in a number of telephone exchanges and one day soon we’ll have symmetrical DSL, which will give us greater upload speeds to match those fast downloads.
A copper network the size of Telecom’s can more than compete with a fibre offering from TelstraSaturn or Clear, both of whom rely on Telecom’s network in the areas their offerings can’t quite reach.
What I can’t understand is why the government isn’t doing more to help open up the copper network to other players, why rural users are being shunned and designated second-class citizens. Telecom has agreed to pay $100 million to upgrade the rural end of its network so users can send and receive 14.4kbit/s.
Has anyone checked to see if the rural users aren’t already getting this speed? Who said it would cost $100 million to do this? What happens when the other telcos are asked to fork out some of their cash to maintain the network, which will begin once the new bill is passed? I’ve spoken in the past with Kevin Stratful, Telecom’s operating chief, who claims the company spends hundreds of millions of dollars on the local loop each year. I think it’s only fair and fitting that the other telcos that want to connect to it pay their share for upkeep, but this process must be carefully watched and will be inevitably argued over by all the parties involved.
The local loop is far from dead and buried — and the same could be said for the debate about it.