Tassie tech companies ask: where’s our NBN?

Not all businesses in multi-dwelling units would be happy with a VDSL solution

Several IT businesses in Hobart are struggling to get connected to the National Broadband Network (NBN), including one startup that relocated back to Australia from the United States on the premise that the network would be available soon.

Paris Buttfield-Addison is the co-founder of the Secret Lab, a game and mobile app developer whose apps include the ABC’s Play School art marker and messaging program Meebo.

His current office is a heritage-listed multi-dwelling unit on Macquarie Street in Hobart. The building has an ADSL2 connection with speeds of around 24/1Mbps. With the studio often uploading up to 20GB of data a day, he is keen to access faster speeds through the NBN.

After receiving a letter from NBN Co that the property could connect to the NBN and requesting a service, NBN Co reps failed to turn up to scheduled appointments.

“We repeated this procedure several times and had five or six different appointments,” he says. “They were basically not sure when they were going to be able to service us.”

He says he’s been “harassing” NBN Co as much as he can to get a fibre connection and would even pay for it to speed up the process.

“[NBN Co] don’t really know how to handle the MDUs. They don’t have a series of steps in place or pass it off to RSPs … It’s really convoluted,” Buttfield-Addison says.

He says he has been told the problem is a heritage issue and Heritage Tasmania rejected a proposal to install the NBN. However, Heritage Tasmania has told him it has not rejected requests for the property.

He has now been told a detailed design of the building needs to be done in order to deliver fibre to each individual tenancy in the building. He was running his startup in the US, but moved back to Tasmania and is finding the long process stressful.

Buttfield-Addison says he has been told his order has been pushed to the head of the queue.

“That might just be because I’ve been loud and annoying to them or that’s just something to shut me up,” he says.

Ionata's experience

Martin Anderson, managing director at Ionata, a Web development company, has had similar issues.

His office is located in a heritage-listed MDU on Collins Street, Hobart and is currently achieving speeds of around 7-8Mbps. He says he has been trying to connect to the NBN for six weeks.

“We are finding that we’re maxing out the ADSL2 regularly in terms of just the number of people trying to pull stuff through the pipe and that extra speed would give the staff more efficiency in what they’re doing,” Anderson says.

Like Buttfield-Addison, his building was letter-dropped by NBN Co to say the property could connect to the NBN and he organised an appointment for a technician to visit the property, but no one showed up.

“They just marked our building as a multi-dwelling unit and said that we’d receive more information by when they would have a plan to [connect] the building,” he says.

“But when we checked in it turned out they’d cancelled the order, stating that they didn’t have the capacity to roll out the NBN to our building at this point.”

A request through the building owner has now been lodged with NBN Co.

“It’s a very frustrating time for us. We would love to see this resolved, but it does feel a little bit like someone is playing a bit of a practical joke on us at the moment because we can’t actually get the service that’s being promoted,” Anderson says.

Like the Secret Lab and Ionata, website developer One Tonne Graphic is in a heritage-listed MDU in Hobart. The property is currently being serviced by two ADSL connections – one to the top floor and one to the middle floor – with speeds of around 20Mbps.

Founder of One Tonne Graphic, Nathanael Jeanneret, has been trying to organise an NBN connection since early August.

After organising a provisioning appointment and no one showing up, he says he was told there were problems due to the building’s heritage listing.

He now has a revised provisioning date for mid-October, but Jeanneret said he doesn’t have any confidence that someone will show up.

“If something doesn’t happen on the revised [provisioning] date in October, then I’m going to be a bit pissed off and then I’m going to start chasing things,” Jeanneret says.

“The pit is outside my front door. For physical reasons it should be reasonably straightforward…

“I think if [NBN Co] got it into the basement it would be reasonably feasible for us to work out a way to get it all around the building.”

The NBN Co process

NBN Co has a three-step process to connect MDUs to the NBN. This includes an inspection of the property by an NBN Co construction partner to develop installation plans. Once this has been completed, the property will be connected to the fibre optic cable in the street.

NBN Co says it will then contact residents once a connection is live.

NBN Co says 180 unique MDUs have now been connected in Tasmania. However, Buttfield-Addison says although he knows of people in horizontal MDUs who have NBN connections, he is unaware of anyone in a multi-storey MDU with a fibre connection.

While NBN Co did not comment on whether there are issues with connecting heritage MDUs to the NBN, a spokesman said, “Connecting MDUs is a complex task usually requiring a bespoke design.

“[The] government’s interim Statement of Expectations gave NBN Co the ability to use a wider range of advanced broadband technologies to connect businesses and homes to the network, including VDSL.

“NBN Co is working with the new government on the means by which the new policy to deliver the NBN should be implemented.”

Paul Budde, analyst at BuddeComm, says connecting fibre to MDUs is a “daunting task”. While VDSL would be a better solution, Budde says it is unclear whether consumers and businesses will be happy with it.

“This will be something the government will have to deal with. It would be good if the government would preempt this and indicate what they believe will be the policy to eventually also provide fibre-to-the-home to these apartments,” Budde says.

In the mean time, Ionata and the Secret Lab both said they would be unhappy with a VDSL solution.

“VDSL is only effective at useful speeds at up to 300m or so, so no – to my knowledge, it would not be useful to us,” Buttfield-Addison says.