On the NBN: If Obama is turning America into Sweden, what are we turning in to?

A smarter way to get all connected | The Australian

The Labor government is betting its $36 billion National Broadband Network can only be built by government and must rely almost universally on a fibre optic network.

But last month US President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address went in the reverse direction, promising the American people a nationwide wireless network among other technoligical solutions built by the private sector. The question is does Obama know something Communications Minister and NBN champion Stephen Conroy does not?

Obama is constantly being attacked in the US for implementing some kind of socialist regime, which is why it’s funny to compare his broadband scheme to the one currently being pushed by Steven Conroy and the Gillard government. As outlined by Mitchell Bingemann in today’s Australian, Obama’s plan involves auctioning-off airwaves previously reserved for analogue TV and government service and then providing subsidies for broadband to be implemented by private industry, with some funds specifically for extending broadband to remote communities. Most importantly, he isn’t restricting the kind of technology to be implemented – it can be anything from fibre to 4G wireless. The cost of the whole thing ? About $7.2bln.

Compare that to the Australian plan. Our government wants to roll-out the most expensive technology out there to every home in Australia, creating a centralised monopoly wholesale operator at a cost of $36bln and taking 10 years to complete, which in the technology world is several lifetimes. To compare, that is $24 per American vs $1600 per Australian. As Ian Martin observes, also in today’s Australian:

Tied to cable yet future is wireless | The Australian.

More important, President Obama chose to support wireless broadband over fibre access because it has more to offer. Bearing in mind that the backbone of wireless networks is typically a fibre core, it’s wireless broadband, not fixed broadband, that is growing with advances in wireless network capability, wireless devices and applications. Obama’s firefighter is downloading the design of a burning building on to a handheld device, not knocking on a neighbour’s door to plug a laptop into the local fibre network. In fact, they would probably download it in the fire truck on the way to the building.

Cisco, a network equipment provider, has forecast that Australia’s monthly mobile data traffic will double each year in the next five years, a 32-fold increase as wireless broadband grows. That is about 150 petabytes (or 150 million gigabytes) a month, the equivalent of 16 text messages per person every second.

Ericsson, another network supplier, has recently demonstrated peak mobile download speeds of 168 megabits per second on existing network technology, although it would require new consumer handsets. That’s four to eight times the peak download speed offered by Telstra’s NextG network at present. It’s likely that peak mobile speeds will be greater than the 100Mbps offering over NBN Co before it has even met 10 per cent of its rollout target.

Even if cable broadband is the absolute best and fastest technology out there and will be for the next 50 years, which may be the case, I am in no way convinced that every single household in Australia needs it. There are definitely benefits to providing broadband to rural Australia, so too with implementing a cable broadband network between hospitals and schools, to allow better healthcare and education in remote areas; but can’t we find a cheaper way to connect some people? Why do they all need 100Mbps?

It also is just folly to put all of our chips down on one technology at a time when communications technology has a massive revolution every few months and is barely recognisable from year-to-year, especially when everyone seems to be going 3G and 4G technology is in the pipeline. No one can doubt the importance of broadband, but an infrastructure project this size needs to be far more carefully considered and its extent needs to be weighed more thoroughly, there’s no reason why we have to be “all or nothing”. The American plan is supporting market forces and innovation – companies will be competing to provide a cheaper and better service and the technology with the highest demand (i.e. what the American people most want) will be the most common. We are getting an expensive service, whether we want it or not. If America is becoming Sweden, Australia is becoming China.

And it’s not like we have nothing else to spend the money on – when a country our size has such poor roads, no high-speed rail, no inner-city metro systems and such bad water infrastructure, should broadband to every home really be the top priority? I am very worried about the whole policy to be honest, it seems very rash and excessive.


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