the net in
This page considers the telecommunications infrastructure
It covers -
Australia's telecommunications infrastructure
reflects the nation's geography, history and markets.
By the mid-1990s that infrastructure provided robust delivery
of voice traffic to organisations and domestic consumers
across Australia. It has, however, struggled to keep pace
with increasing demand for delivery of data, with consequent
questions about competition, divides, investment and security.
The Australian population reached the 20 million mark
at the beginning of 2004. That population - somewhat smaller
than greater Shanghai but roughly five times greater than
New Zealand - is spread unevenly across 7.6 million square
kilometres. (As a frame of reference New Zealand's area
is 268,680 sq km, China's is 9.3m sq km). Around 56% of
Australians live in the five largest cities. Population
density in remote Australia is often low: half the continent
contains only 0.3% of the population, with the most densely
populated 1% of the continent having 84% of the population.
Telecommunications have been critical in ameliorating
what historian Geoffrey Blainey characterised as the tyranny
of distance. For much of last century there was thus a
consensus that affordable access to the voice network
was a social good, appropriately provided by a monopoly
carrier whose operation featured cross-subsidies and protection
against competition. Most traffic occurred within (and
between) the three largest metropolitan centres. Delivery
of services beyond the 'east coast spine' - particularly
to regional and remote locations - faced formidable problems
of distance, topography (eg mountains on Tasmania's west
coast, severe temperature gradients in central Australia,
periodic flooding and cyclones in the north.
We have suggested
that the monopoly began to erode as early as the 1960s,
with the development of virtual private networks by commercial
organisations (initially media and financial services
groups), government agencies and academic institutions
using lines leased from the then government-owned national
It further eroded with relaxation of restrictions on what
devices those institutional users could deploy at their
nodes on a network that featured a mix of high-capacity
coaxial cable and microwave on trunk routes - the intercity
spines - with electromechanical and mechanical switches
to routing voice traffic over copper wire from the kerb
to the home.
Introduction of 'full' competition in telecommunication
services from 1997 followed the emergence of alternatives
in mobile telephony and high-capacity data networks within
the CBD in the largest capitals, echoing developments
overseas which saw market entrants build new infrastructure
for a handful of corporate clients.
It also followed establishment of fibre-optic (and satellite)
links between major regional and metropolitan centres
and progressive digitisation of switching to accommodate
demands for higher performance and lower cost as the dominant
carrier became increasingly driven by revenue rather than
Ambitious plans for a revolution through large-scale rollout
of pay television infrastructure had not eventuated, with
Optus's cable network and various microwave or satellite
networks remaining beyond the reach - and arguably the
interest - of most Australians. For many domestic and
small business consumers the 'revolution' was restricted
to choice in mobile services, a proliferation of billing
plans and the opportunity to buy rather than lease handsets
and other devices.
By 2003 there was substantial competition in the mobile
voice market, with Telstra's
share having declined to under 75% of mobile phone subscribers.
Telstra at that time offered mobile connectivity in all
metropolitan and regional centres (and along major highways).
Coverage by its competitors was more patchy.
The dominant carrier's share had also eroded in high-volume
data traffic across major centres (in particular financial
areas within the largest capital cities) and between some
centres, with competitors mixing their infrastructure
with leased Telstra lines and switches to provide seamless
alternative networks. 'Public' facilities such as neighbourhood
call-boxes became an endangered species - victims of the
drive to cut costs and uptake of mobile services - and
not offset by the emergence of internet kiosks, cybercafes
or wireless hot spots.
Although was competition in applications, much of the
infrastructure remains in the hands of Telstra. That is
likely to the case for some time, as Testra owns the wire
from exchanges to most kerbs and then beyond to most households
and businesses. Visions of competing suburban infrastructure
- for example rollout of cable by the dominant utility
provider in Canberra - have soured amid lower than projected
consumer uptake, lack of investor enthusiasm and mere
poor management. All Telstra's 5,500 exchanges are now
linked by fibre but in most cases the "final mile"
from the exchange to the home is still on the legacy copper
network Telstra inherited from its days as the PMG Department.
Over 75% of Australian households and 70% of small businesses
may have a personal computer (with 67% having home internet
access), but connection to the internet will generally
involve copper wire that is owned by Telstra and that
was laid when network performance requirements were not
much more demanding than sporadic voice calls. Substantial
investment in upgrading the infrastructure between the
handset/PC and the exchange seems unlikely.
That is of concern, as the landline infrastructure is
proving incapable of providing broadband connectivity
within many suburbs - and certainly outside metropolitan
centres - and alternatives such as satellite are beyond
the resources of most Australian households and organisations.
The following paragraphs highlight particular aspects
of the infratructure, with an emphasis on internet connectivity.
It is important to recognise that much of the
'intelligence' of the internet resides in the devices
on the periphery of the network, rather than in central
switches. It is thus qualitatively different to many institutional
networks, where data storage/processing and network mananagement
functions are the responsibility of a few central servers.
Management of the internet is thus increasingly involving
ISPs and end-users rather that the dominant telecommunications
providers, with attention for example to the closure of
open relays that facilitate spam and consumer acceptance
of responsibility for maintaining anti-virus protection
on personal computers. In contrast to traditional voice
networks, the telecommunication providers won't - and
can't - take responsibility for all activity on the internet.
the GII, NII and PSTN
In contrast to the US, Australian and New Zealand
writers have largely avoided terms such as the National
Information Infrastructure (NII) and Global Information
Infrastructure (GII), discussed in the Networks
& GII guide on this site. The Australasian part of
the GII encompasses traffic over
the public switched telephone network (PSTN), established
over the past century
networks that interconnect with the public network.
PSTN was primarily established for voice traffic and embodies
over a century of investment. Its technological basis
is uneven: a mix of recent digital switches in major exchanges,
1990s optical fibre on the backbone, different mobile
phone systems (including the much-vaunted 3G), copper
wire tying exchanges to households and many businesses
with a technology that has not changed since the turn
of last century and does not accommodate the traffic needs
of 2004. With the introduction of competition it involves
a number of players in Australia and New Zealand.
The private networks may be large or small (linking a
handful of devices or a few hundred, within a building
or across the nation) and sometimes involve dedicated
- unswitched - connections over private lines that are
owned by organisations or leased from a PSTN operators.
Australia's PSTN has two major components - the backbone
(referred to as the trunk network in older literature)
and the customer access network (CAN). It is referred
to as 'switched' because the network operates through
dial-up connections that are circuit switched through
the network of exchanges to the called number, with the
switched circuits become available for other telephone
calls once the particular calls are completed.
Australia's internet backbones, as forshadowed above,
reflect the exigencies of geography.
Most overseas traffic travels via a handful of undersea
fibre optic cables, with the main links terminating in
Sydney and Melbourne.
Within Australia most traffic again involves fibre, with
a high-capacity spine from Melbourne to Brisbane. That
spine is typically buried some metres underground and
links digital exchanges. It is supplemented by microwave
and other links. Traffic across the Nullabor often travels
by satellite. The nature of the internet, discussed in
our Networks & GII
guide, means that much traffic from one point to another
within Australia is in fact routed via overseas locations.
Digitisation of exchanges permits handling of greater
traffic than was possible with manual and electromechanical
switches. It also permits deployment of call enhancement
and other services, including SMS,
voicemail, and caller ID and call waiting indicators.
Access to Telstra's exchanges is emerging as a competition
policy issue. In particular, some ISPs - competing with
Telstra's Bigpond arm and potentially offering VOIP services
- argue that inappropriate restrictions and costs are
prevent them from establishing their own networks, forcing
them to lease Telstra lines and switches.
The adequacy of lines from the exchanges to end-users,
particularly residential users, has attracted increasing
concern. In 2005 Telstra, in calling for special treatment
by the government, indicated that 14% of all lines had
faults. A leaked version of its Digital Compact &
National Broadband Plan (seeking a $5.7 billion financial
partnership with the federal Government) commented on
the need to replace obsolete or non-vendor-supported equipment
and legacy IT systems incapable of handling volumes and
new services currently being offered.
Telstra also claimed that
billion - $3 billion in additional investment in operating
and capital expenditure should have been spent over
the past 3-5 years.
Enthusiasts and vendors have hyped broadband over powerline
(BPL) - aka digital powerline communication (PLC) - for
voice and other traffic to the home or within the home.
Regulatory and commercial issues of that technology are
discussed in a supplementary
note elsewhere on this site.