It might be years before the National Broadband Network (NBN) comes to your street, but it’s best to start preparing your home for it now.
Raaj Menon recently moved houses — and the fact that the NBN will soon be available at his new home in Willunga, SA, helped convince him it was a good suburb to choose.
As CEO of PCRange, an IT vendor that supplies modems and related gear from the likes of Billion and AVM, Menon may have been thinking more than most about the transition to the new network. Like everybody in NBN first-release areas, Menon has faced the question of how to best prepare his home for the massive network — and he has some ideas. Yet while it may be years until the fibre-to-the-home project passes your house, it’s not too early to modernise your home network and get ready for the higher speeds the network will bring.
Have you got the right gear in place to be NBN-ready?
The network truth
There are two basic issues to consider when weighing up your home’s NBN readiness: how you bring your NBN feed into your house, and how you distribute it.
We’ll address the second point first: you’re going to need some sort of network to make sure you can bring the NBN feed, in all its 100Mbit/s (or, in some cases, 1Gbit/s) goodness to everywhere you’ll need it.
The challenge lies in considering just where you might realistically need that much speed — and where a somewhat slower wireless LAN (WLAN), with effective speeds of several tens of megabits per second (depending on coverage and interference), will be adequate.
Understanding of this difference has been compromised by some serious FUD in recent months: a newspaper report just before last year’s election suggested punters would be up for $3,000 each to wire their homes to be NBN-ready. That figure raised eyebrows around the country until it was pointed out that it reflected the high-range cost of installing home networking and a port in every bedroom, bathroom and broom closet in the house.
Sure, wired networks — based on Category 6 cabling capable of carrying data at the 1Gbit/s maximum currently being bandied about by NBN co. — are the gold standard for in-home networking. And sure, they’re a nice thing to have — if you can. Unless you or a mate are adept at running cables behind walls, however, you’ll probably want to wait until you’re doing renovations to your home in the next few years and your walls are open.
If you’re laying network, spend the time and effort to get cable run and an Ethernet port installed in your bedrooms, study areas and so on. At the very minimum, you’ll want a port near your desktop computer and one behind your TV, since today’s internet-connected TVs, Blu-ray players, T-Boxes, PVRs and home theatres will benefit from the extra bandwidth a hardwired network provides. But you can leave the loo alone — there’s probably enough fibre in there.
Wireless is more
What the newspaper report failed to consider is that fully wiring your home is simply not necessary; as long as interference isn’t a major problem, a WLAN will likely provide more than enough speed and connectivity for your needs. The main exception to this rule is if your needs include delivery of streaming high-definition video — and they soon may — but we’ll get to that in a moment.
The role of wireless is one of the most pervasive, insidious misunderstandings about the NBN. Despite analyst claims that in-building WLANs are already handling, and will continue to handle, the majority of connectivity for portable devices, some NBN sceptics continue to argue that broad availability of 3G and 4G wireless services will eliminate the need for fixed connectivity.
This is, of course, utterly untrue: if all the data currently going to mobile devices over WLAN-connected fixed networks were shunted onto 3G and 4G networks, they would collapse in an instant. Most current ADSL2+ and future NBN customers need wireless to support mobile devices, but no matter how wireless your home, you need a big fat pipe to carry all that traffic to and from the internet. That pipe is your NBN connection.
You’ve got the power
Wireless has its issues, of course: signal attenuation due to steel, brick or distance is a continual bugbear. Yet this issue is easily solved in the home by using powerline networking — a well-established technology that uses the existing electricity circuits in your home to move data between power points at 200Mbit/s (although some units claim up to 500Mbit/s).
The beauty of powerline networking is that it provides Ethernet-class speeds with the flexibility of a WLAN. Plug one unit near your NBN connection and the other where you need connectivity and — voila! — your network port is up and running. If you need connectivity in another room, just move the second unit and plug it in. If that home office in the garage gets a terrible WLAN signal, powerline gear will (unless your office is electrically isolated from your home) get you an internet dial tone at full speed. They’re particularly great for renters, for whom the thought of physically running network cable may invoke nightmares involving rental bonds and angry landlords.
Even if you use WLAN communication for mobile devices, investing in powerline connectivity will ensure you've got the high-speed communications you need to bring full HD video throughout the house, which is the one area WLANs still fall down horribly. Expect powerline to come into the fore as more and more consumers realise it’s the best way to get their internet-connected home theatre online. Foxtel, for example, recently started reselling NetComm’s NP204 200Mbit/s powerline adapters so consumers can get their Foxtel iQ boxes online without having to rely on patchy WLAN coverage or forcing technicians to run cable through walls.
If you have several home-theatre devices that like to get online, buy an unmanaged 4-port or 8-port Gigabit Ethernet switch and plug it into your powerline adapter, then connect your devices to it.
Accessorising the NBN
The right combination of fixed and wireless networking will get all your devices online as quickly as possible. But what about the first part — the interface with the NBN?
This is one area where a bit of forward planning can help. Even though it’s running fibre to your home, you won’t have to deal with the fibre: the NBN will manifest as a single Ethernet port installed in your home; it’s how you use that port that will determine what you can make of it.
The easiest solution is to get an all-in-one home gateway that will manage the NBN connection and provide communications services: WLAN, VoIP, fixed and cordless phone communications, fax capabilities, and even an answering machine are all available in existing home gateways. Future devices will also integrate links with utility-supplied smart meters and built-in telco-supplied femtocells, which will act as mini 3G and 4G base stations and use your NBN connection to link back into the telco’s network.
Yet these devices aren’t all about the future: many current devices have dual interfaces — an ADSL2+ port for existing conventional phone lines, and an Ethernet WAN port that can be plugged directly into the NBN’s Ethernet port. That means you can buy now with confidence, and just switch ports in the future.
“When you’ve got something like fibre that can go very fast, that’s half the battle,” says Menon. “At the end of the day we’ve all got to get prepared at some stage. It’s better to be ready now than leaving it until later.”