Who needs the NBN?

Well, here I am in suburban Canberra on a modestly effective ADSL2+ connection with Bigpond. I’m reviewing a nice new LG TV which can, amongst other things, connect to Bigpond Movies. Here’s what it has to say about my Internet connection:

Bigpond Movie Speed meter on LG TV

Yes, apparently it is quite good enough for high definition movies (where high definition is loosely defined, I wouldn’t be expecting Blu-ray quality!) Like a few million other Australians. There are those outside the reach of ADSL2+, for sure, but I don’t quite understand why it is necessary to rip out a working system, rather than simply extending its reach.

I know Senator Conroy reckons we’ll all be able to perform surgery upon each other thanks to the miracle of high speed IP video feeds over the NBN, but somehow I just don’t quite see it.

Update (a couple of minutes later): According to this site, my connection speed is about 5,300kps (kbps?), or a bit below the average for Australians who have tried the meter.

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7 Responses to Who needs the NBN?

  1. Simon Reidy says:

    I’m amazed that you of all people can’t see the need for the NBN Stephen. Many people can’t access ADSL2, or are stuck on exorbitantly priced and unreliable wireless, and even the lucky ones that can access ADSL2 (myself included) are limited to a paltry 1mbps connection upload speed! So while downloading might be fine for a single HD movie, trying to upload a handful of files to DropBox chokes the entire connection.

    Plus above you’re talking about 1 device that meets the specs for “HD movie downloads” (which are no doubt low bit-rate HD movies I might add). What about all the other devices people have in their houses that need to access the net at the same time? At our house we have no less than 18 devices connected to our router (included smartphones, set top boxes, laptops and iPads) and it’s really struggling on an ADSL 2 connection that manages 16mbps. For a future house to be truly connected, 100mbps minimum will be required for everyone to do what they want at the same time.

    And then you have the argument for ubiquity. Giving everyone FTTH will allow for some amazing next generation applications, real-time HD video conferencing, and really open up the door for exciting new TRUE HD IPTV services at high bit-rates. Given how poor our current FTA services are with their pathetic low bit-rate SD multi-channelling, I’m excited to see the IPTV services that will no doubt grow from the massively increased bandwidth we’ll all have to play with.

    Think of it like a next generation infrastructure that will last us 60+ years. Imagine if people had argued against the introduction of copper back when that was being rolled out? We already know 1gbps is possible with fibre, and at the rate the tech industry is evolving that will probably be the norm for everyone in 10 years.

    Either that or we stick with a patchwork of dated technologies, with many people not able to access broadband at all or paying ridiculous prices for unreliable high-latency wireless that slows to a crawl when multiple users share the same limited spectrum. The coalition’s idea of broadband is 12mbps peak speed with no mention of uploads. That’s already dated, let alone thinking about what we’ll need in the future!

    The NBN may not be perfect, but it’s the only way forward. It will create countless new industries and jobs and put Australia at the forefront of technological innovation.

    Bring it on! 🙂

  2. Simon, I probably shouldn’t have raised this issue here, but I thought it was cool how TVs have nice friendly speed meters. This one was an LG but a Samsung I had here last week had a very similar display.

    My mistake was in introducing politics. So, to clarify, I pretty much agree with all you say about the desirability of high speed Internet. I want it too. I would certainly like my connection speed to go up twenty-fold, and even more so two hundred-fold.

    My problem is the means by which the improvement is being introduced. And we may never agree because it depends on how each of us sees the world. I look at the world as a place of dispersed knowledge, great current unknowns and a largely impenetrable future. I am profoundly suspicious of making detail plans about anything much that is set for culmination in the future. Especially anything technological.

    For example, you mention that this will last us for 60+ years, but also say that we may hit what could be the speed limit in ten years. Ten years is about the time that the roll-out is due for completion.

    A sixty year plan or horizon in tech planning is plainly nuts. Sixty years took humanity from the first heavier-than-air flight to manned orbiting of the planet. It took us from the discovery of radium — with no real knowledge of what the radiation it produced was — to the fusion bomb and more.

    Not quite sixty years have passed yet since the delivery of the UNIVAC 1 (‘the first American commercial computer’). No-one has the first clue about what the world will look like in sixty years. Heck, maybe the ‘singularity’ will happen by then.

    So I’d suggest that things should continue on a steadily improving path along the lines that it has in the past. Of course, private investment has been largely on hold for the last few years for the very reason of the mooted NBN, so there’s a bit of catching up to do. So I’d say it should continue to be done entirely privately on a user-pays basis, with the possible exception of certain areas where the government decides to pay subsidies in order to ensure access in remote areas for reasons of equity.

    I note that this is being handled under the NBN not by fibre but by wireless.

    The bill for this kind of thing would probably be in the billions, rather than the tens of billions.

    So, in brief, I want fast, fast, fast Internet ASAP. The NBD will, not doubt’ deliver this to me.

    But at a horrible cost. The NBN represents the hubris of the governing class, thinking it can predict the future with great certainty (on its own assumptions, which are likely rather generous to itself, the NBN will return only the safe-as-houses bond rate!) The taxpayers will be left with a very big bill, most likely, and the monopoly communications wholesaler, NBN, will act as a positive brake on further innovation.

    I’m old enough to remember comms monopolies in full force with Telecom. The ages it would take to get a phone installed. The couple of models available. The refusal to certify 3rd party devices for connection to the network.

    And now it’s all coming back.

  3. Mark says:

    If left in the hands of private enterprise aren’t we more likely to see localised monopolies? For example if company X buys the license to upgrade your suburb or district then they will most likely have sole rights as a service provider for that area. If you have some dislike for X or Y offers cheaper rates, tough. I think leaving to private enterprise would create the problems of old.

    Also as private enterprise are, quite rightly, in it for the money then rural areas will miss out or be charged at much higher rates as less people will mean less profit.

    I suppose we could liken it to the role out of digital TV. How long did it take for Canberra to get commercial HD while Sydney and Melbourne had it?. If the infrastructure had been left to private enterprise I doubt we would be any better off now and it would be tough luck to rural areas.

  4. Much of that is the common ‘natural monopoly’ argument. Odd that a potential natural monopoly is addressed by the imposition of a certain legal monopoly! In reality, a monopoly cannot long survive unless supported by government. If a company puts in fibre in a particular area, it still won’t have a monopoly under our current system because of competition from existing ADSL providers.

    You may protest that their competitive service isn’t the same. But the market constraint on monopolistic practices doesn’t rely on identical services being provided by the competition, merely by the existence of a viable alternative. Consult an economist if you want more detail.

    What we are actually getting is the destruction of competition. Telstra is being paid $11 billion to get out of the game. The NBN will be able to raise prices because there is no competition. Oh, no doubt the government will have some price control body in place, but NBN Co. can always make an argument because it gets to set a large part of its own cost structure. If it gets flabby through poor management (since there will be no competition), it can just ask for higher rates to be approved, and the customers are stuck with it.

    Already it has started. NBN Co set aside $12 billion for the major build. That was to be a fixed price, and it couldn’t get any takers. So it has just negotiated a deal for the major build priced at $12 billion. What’s the difference? The new deal shifts a proportion of the risk for cost overruns onto NBN. That is, it is no longer a fixed price. NBN knows that when that extra bill comes due, it will effectively be a monopoly and can pass on 100% of the additional cost to the retailers and, hence, most of it onto the consumers.

    As for rural areas, as I noted in the previous comment, if the government judges that for reasons of equity they should have Internet access better than provided by the market, then it should subsidise that. But it should be on-budget. Under the NBN, the subsidy to rural areas by city areas will be opaque. You will have no idea how much of your broadband bill is going to pay for Farmer Joe’s connection.

    Digital TV. Look, I love digital TV. But I think it is appalling that my particular interests and loves should be imposed on others by the government. Hey, why not have the taxpayer subsidise Blu-ray because it is much better quality than DVD? Don’t I have a right to that better quality?

  5. Simon Reidy says:

    “For example, you mention that this will last us for 60+ years, but also say that we may hit what could be the speed limit in ten years. Ten years is about the time that the roll-out is due for completion.”

    I didn’t mean that was a “speed limit”. As I know you have a good background in science, forget the politics for a moment and think about the technology. 1gbps is what we already know is possible. The reality is the NBN could provide speeds WELL above that by simply upgrading the technology at either end of the cable. Just as we didn’t know that one day we’d be using the existing copper network for ADSL, it’s just as likely that we’ll find new ways to push data much higher than what is available now.

    Nothing in the universe can travel faster than the speed of light, and fibre optic cable is just the conduit. All sorts of technology and applications can be built on top of it. All it is the underlying physical infrastructure.

    As far as wireless goes, it’s a physical reality that you have to share spectrum. Fixed wireless can achieve good speeds with LTE, but you’re sharing that bandwidth with other users, and it can be adversely affected by things like weather conditions. It also suffers terrible latency in comparison to fibre. Not to mention for LTE to be the future for everyone, we’d need a mobile tower on every street corner to provide people just with 100mbps. FTTH on the hand can provide 100mbps “uncontested” bandwidth already. In other words 100mbps average speed (not peak speed) unshared per user, and MUCH faster uploads (25mbps all the way up to synchronised 100mbps). Transitioning to broadband uploads (something very few people have now) will in itself allow all sorts of new real-time video and gaming applications. Plus the obvious benefit to health, education, military etc.

    It has already been left up to Telstra and other companies to fill the black holes and provide ubiquitous high speed broadband to Australia (Fibre to the Node was on the table for a while which would have been a good interim measure) but they stuffed it up royally. The initial tender process for this failed because of Telstra’s greed. The government had no choice but to step up and build a new FTTN infrastructure that will last us the better part of this century.

    Not only is fibre phenomenally fast, but the cable itself is incredibly durable and doesn’t degrade in the same way copper does. I listened to a leading NBNCo engineer on a podcast the other day, who was also saying it’s a dream to repair compared to copper. He was saying they are also running multiple strands that aren’t even being used yet. In the future we’ll probably have many layers of different services (basic secure government services, smart grid monitored power, phone, internet, multicast IPTV) over the same pipe, but on different layers.

    That’s why you have to think the of the NBN as a true wholesale utility. Just like water or electricity. It’s up to ISPs and other service providers to provide all the exciting stuff on top of it.

    I think if all goes well and Labor gets a chance to finish this network we’ll look back in twenty years and say “can you believe people were arguing against this? Imagine if we didn’t have it and were stuck with copper?!”.

    It’s going to be so essential for Australia to become a competitive digital nation. I truly do believe its capable of bridging “the digital divide” too. In terms of bringing rural and metropolitan areas closer together and giving everyone a ubiquitous experience. It will also allow many people to work from home, cutting down on all the polluting cars jamming up our highways.

    I don’t agree with everything Labor does by a long shot, but as far as the NBN is concerned I think it’s the most exciting and innovative government project ever. After hearing the digital economy strategy launched at CeBit this week it’s really starting to come together, and there are already some exciting projects in the pipeline (no pun intended 😉 )

    Not to mention if the NBN achieves even a modest take-up rate it will have paid for itself within 10-15 years so it’s also a solid investment.

    I could go on all day, but I think you get the point 🙂

  6. Simon, I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to leave the field uncontested for the moment. Got to do other stuff.

    One thing I do know for certain, none of us will really know whether the NBN is a good idea or not for another decade or more! And I’m not going to let my in-principle objections to it hold me back from availing myself of the speed (if it isn’t too fast) when it rolls past my house.

  7. Simon Reidy says:

    No problem Stephen. I apologise for my long winded rant. It’s obviously a subject I’m very passionate about 🙂

    We’ll take up our debate some other time (perhaps in 4 years time in 1080p via live video chat on the NBN 😉 )

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