Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Rudd-Gillard National Broadband Network (NBN)

From the outset, let me say that I agree that we need a decent ubiquitous and reliable communication network in Australia. The benefits of being interconnected far outweigh the risks and make our lives richer and our economy stronger. My internet connection plays a regular role in my life, and permits me to work from home, watch my favourite shows and communicate with you good people.

However, I have some specific problems with the current National Broadband Network plan. I hope I can articulate them here clearly enough to make my point.

DISCLAIMER: I am not an expert on legislation or specific broadband technicalities. Nor am I paid by anyone to put my view. I am an ordinary tax payer with real concerns about where my tax dollars go and how effectively they are spent. I am not affiliated with any political party.

Time to ration the Kool-Aid!

The first issue I have is the group hysteria surrounding fibre optics. The Labor party has succeeded, it seems, in creating a culture of hysterical dependency in the minds of some people (on Twitter at least) that the future of Australia is tied to them having a fibre optic cable into their home. Nothing else is good enough. There is no middle ground. It's not open to debate, and we must have it at any cost.

These people have swallowed the whole keg of Labor Kool-Aid in one gulp, but they're ignoring the real world issues with the NBN that are occurring all around them. It's way behind schedule, major contractors are leaving, communities are being left with no connections at all, and revised cost estimates are starting to climb to staggering levels.

This unreasonable level of expectation has been placed in their minds because, in my view, it serves the Labor cause.

Not only that, they seem to be ignoring their real levels of use. If they measured their bandwidth usage, I suspect many of them would be quite surprised how little they really use.

And yet here they are, convinced that if they don't get fibre in their home, some great calamity will befall them and their descendants forever. There needs to be a calmer perspective. These people need to step back a little and consider their priorities.

I suspect this hysteria would disappear pretty quickly if it wasn't taxpayer funded, requiring them to pay for it out of their own pockets (which I suspect many of them could do now without an NBN, if they really thought it was life or death).

The Legitimately Needy

I recognise that there are legitimate flaws in our current infrastructure. It's clear that expansion by market forces results in an uneven structure that gives better service in some areas than others. I know first-hand of people severely affected by intermittent connectivity. It is those people who deserve priority, in my view. Government should direct resources to bringing their connectivity up to the levels of the rest of us, not into political priority areas or the 'easiest' to upgrade.

Cost/Benefit Analysis? Huh?

I still haven't decided whether the omission of an up-front Cost/Benefit Analysis was a deliberate act by Labor, or whether it was just incompetent bungling. Either way, the act of 'skipping it' has resulted in a torrent of claims and counter claims by all manner of 'experts' regarding the costs, benefits, capabilities and flaws in the NBN. Labor has benefited from this lack of clarity, but is now finding itself struggling to explain some of it's actions and counter the backlash from a growing number of businesses and economists concerned with the costs and lack of process transparency.

Labor didn't even pass it through their own major infrastructure assessment department, Infrastructure Australia, specifically set up by the Rudd Government to comprehensively assess large infrastructure projects!

A properly constructed, independent, wide-ranging Cost Benefit Analysis would go a long way to clearing up all of this mess. So far, only the LNP has committed to one (for both plans). I wonder why Labor hasn't?

What are we going to do with all that Bandwidth?

The people and organisations that will benefit most from super-sized data pipes into every Australian home are the entertainment giants. The bottom line here is entertainment. It's not life-saving e-Heath, or improved education opportunities. It's a golden opportunity for these giants to sell you something. And they're going to go to town. You're going to find your super fast data pipe clogged with meaningless crap so fast your head will spin. They have to. For NBN Co to make the mythical 7% commercial return on an NBN that some commentators are speculating may cost $80-$100 billion, they're going to have to charge some pretty large coin.

E-Health and internet-based education has been around for years. Neither of them need huge data bandwidth to work, because not only is the amount of data involved very small, but the very nature of that activity has the limitation that it's one-on-one, particularly in the home. Existing ADSL pipes are more than adequate to the task of video conferencing and streaming. Unless you have a household with 6 children all needing to stream classroom lectures at once, an ADSL quality link will do just fine, and will continue to be adequate for a long time to come.

I recognise also that there may be households out there that legitimately need huge data pipes. Perhaps those people are hosting massively online role-laying games. I suspect in these cases they've already ponied up the cash and installed fibre, or they've moved their hosting to a business that provides that service.

Babies and Bathwater.

There's a very well-known axiom that applies here. It's "Don't throw out the baby with the bathwater". We already have an national established, functional, high-speed broadband network. It has flaws, yes, but it's largely very reliable, profitable and paid-for.

I will always advocate a gradual, sustainable approach to expansion of such a ubiquitous piece of infrastructure. A pure market-based expansion model can leave gaps, so some government involvement is appropriate.

But to have government just bulldoze it's way through it all and spend huge amounts of taxpayer debt (there's no real money left!) just so that we can download our entertainment faster, well, that's something I will never advocate.

Even if Labor were doing it right, which they obviously are not.

What of the LNP Approach?

The LNP plan suffers from the same lack of Cost/Benefit Analysis mentioned above. There is considerable speculation by everyone about all aspects of the plan. I feel this plan is a reaction to the poor performance of Labor's NBN rollout, and a reflection of the LNP political platform, which recognises the role businesses and market forces have to play in nation building.

I am encouraged by the rhetoric, but I am not convinced at this stage that all the claims are reliable. Only a full Cost/Benefit Analysis can put some 'meat on those bones'. There is enough there, though, to convince me it is a superior approach to that of Labor.

The Technology Race.

One of the more common comments I see on Twitter is that Labor's NBN will 'future-proof the Nation'. Not only is the term complete nonsense (nothing is future proof when you can't predict the future), but it applies less to the telecommunications industry than to most others.

There are few areas of human innovation more active than the field of data interconnection. There are new discoveries in all aspects of data interchange being announced almost every week. A great example is one announced a few weeks weeks ago: Hollow Fibre. What would that make of our $100 billion state-of-the-art NBN if this new technology becomes the norm?

In any case, the current world-wide uptake of mobile devices is arguably setting the trend away from fixed-line data exchange to wireless connectivity. Even in a wireless world, there will still be a need for high-capacity backbone fibre, but it won't be needed in the home.