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Australia’s love-hate relationship with the NBN

The-Great-NBN-Fail

This article was originally featured on ABC Technology and Games and is written by ABC journalist Nick Ross.

I’ve had enough and something has got to be done. I’m pretty much certain now that, outside of the tech sector, the majority of Australians hate the NBN. Many people hate it because of its ties with Labor. Some hate the idea of the (perceived) massive amounts of tax money being spent on an infrastructure for geeks which is irrelevant to them. Some are hating it because the Coalition is telling them to. And I no longer blame them.

This is long article but it needs to be. It’s a digest of a dozen other articles I’ve been planning to write, but as you’ll see, they’re going to take a long time and time is running out. If you hate the NBN then you really should read the following.

Too Long; Didn’t Read

In a nutshell, Labor and NBN Co’s failure to explain the NBN’s benefits is undermining the entire project. Viewing the NBN simply as a business which delivers fast web access is utterly wrong. The cost savings to health and power industries will pay for the entire build. Healthcare, education, business innovation and, in many quarters, society in general will be revolutionised for all Australians – particularly for those in rural areas, plus the elderly.

Labor and NBN Co’s failure to inform the public about these benefits means that media entities have to waste time describing any situation before analysing it. All too frequently the media has no idea about technical details and resorts to interminable “he said, she said” reporting based upon spurious facts which aren’t held to account.

However, the Coalition still believes in a Cost Benefit Analysis even though its policies are often reduced to cynical “too expensive” soundbites in the media. Considering the public’s attitude to the current global financial climate and the realities of a struggling minority government, pressing on with an expensive infrastructure surely needs to be justified to the nation and not just thrust upon it.

A total lack of information

When the government sprang its Satellite NBN announcement on the country recently, even the techies struggled to analyse this niche area. The 7.30 report did a good piece but ‘balanced’ it by showing Malcolm Turnbull saying it was too expensive. He wasn’t held to account and so 7.30 essentially validated what he was saying which meant the viewers could choose who they wanted to believe regardless of merit.

It wasn’t only 7.30. The Financial Review’s top tech journalists (who are very good) couldn’t drum up much more analysis before deadline than the same Turnbull soundbite plus a quote from a company with an axe to grind. There was no holding to account and readers once again got to choose who they wanted to believe.

I do not intend to be harsh to colleagues, these were the two best reports that I saw and it took some of Australia’s other top tech journalists almost a fortnight to analyse everything and establish what was really happening. But far far far fewer people would have seen these articles than saw the immediate news reports which have much shorter deadlines. In short, even the best news journalists in the country can struggle to get a hold on the NBN and even reports with positive elements are unlikely to change the mind of cynics.

The lack of information in the public or media domains means there’s virtually no positive coverage of the NBN at all. It’s also resulted in the deployment being politicized and people choosing who they want to believe rather than basing their opinions on all the facts. The blame list is long and leaves few politicians, NBN employees and media people untouched but the underlying cause is that the NBN is currently the victim of what must be some of the worst marketing in the history of Australia.

If the public knew the truth about the NBN, and believed that the Coalition wanted to destroy it, then Labor would have an unassailable lead in the polls right now and the National party would have ditched any association with the Liberals. I’m deadly serious. However, if the public and the Coalition knew all the facts, then the Coalition could not, in good conscience, oppose it.

Marketing

It’s against my instincts to heavily criticise anyone for their marketing prowess. After all, NBN Co is head down, bum up concentrating on building the NBN. Stephen Conroy, who’s in charge for Labor, has simply said that it’s the media’s job to inform the public about it.

This might be well and good when a government has a healthy majority and is acting in the public’s best interest – why waste time and money justifying your actions when you don’t have to? But the myopic refusal to acknowledge the realities of widespread and open hostility towards the NBN is making me question both organisations’ judgment.

To spell it out, as things stand right now, in the next couple of years we will likely have a new government that will have sold NBN Co, destroyed much of its work and vision, spent a fortune doing so and all with significant public approval.

In the meantime, NBN Co has publicly stated that it hasn’t made any plans for a change in government.

I can’t think of a worthwhile, positive NBN message that’s relevant to the greater public that’s come out of Labor, or NBN Co in the mainstream media, well… ever.

What the public think the NBN is

If you know little about technology, this is what I’d expect you to think about the NBN based upon what’s been reported: that it costs $50 billion. That its business case (based upon selling fast internet) is deeply flawed because the returns are lower than with other businesses. That we don’t need these speeds. That new wireless technologies undermine the need for fibre. That we don’t need to build in redundancy for the future.

None of this is true. Yet even Labor and NBN Co frequently appear to validate these accusations by responding to them in kind. Fast internet should not be the key selling point or justification for the build as most people don’t currently need it.

What is actually going on

People who have been reading my articles will note that, for a very long time, I’ve been threatening to write a Cost Benefit Analysis of the NBN. The reason I haven’t published anything yet is because locking down numbers is a nightmare. Furthermore, this is something that a multi-million, government endorsed study should be doing, not an ABC journo when he’s got a moment. But I can’t hold off anymore.

What follows is my work in progress. All that’s missing are the final figures. Right now I just know (and will illustrate) that they are enormous. There’s no point preaching to the choir here, I need to be convincing people who downright hate the NBN, so future refinements will appear. What’s important is to get people thinking differently about the NBN right now.

Business Proposition

Paul Fletcher, one of the Coalition’s top anti-NBN spokesmen, is about to engage on a speaking tour, telling us how the returns on the NBN’s internet subscriptions make a poor business case. I don’t doubt they do. But that’s because the NBN is an infrastructure which provides a platform for business, services and innovation. Did anyone query the direct profitability and “business case” when building Australia’s sewer infrastructure?

Viewing ‘internet subscriptions’ as the business case for the NBN is like viewing the Sydney Harbour Bridge as a business entity which derives profit through charging tolls: worst business case ever. But when viewed (correctly) as an infrastructure we see how it opened up Sydney’s North Shore and led to the development of several CBDs which have generated trillions of dollars for Australia’s economy. It’s also proved so globally noteworthy that it’s generated a fortune in marketing Australia to tourists. What are the exact figures in all this? How can we tell? All I know is that they’re huge and dwarf the cost of the original build.

The lack of preciseness here is exactly why Stephen Conroy has said he won’t do a Cost Benefit Analysis – there are too many variables and inscrutables. But all he needs to do is come up with figures to justify the overall expenditure.

This is what the public now absolutely needs, this is what Coalition wants and I completely agree with them. Even using the Coalition’s ridiculous $50bn figure (which continually appears unchallenged in the media) it’s still doable.

The entire NBN will be paid for by the cost SAVINGS to the health service

… oh, and healthcare will be revolutionized for ALL Australians, particularly the elderly and those living in rural areas at the same time.

If you think the cost of the NBN is large – and remember to spread it over 50-odd years (even 25 years if you like) – it is nothing compared with Australia’s ANNUAL health budget which is in the region of $100 billion – every year! Savings, efficiency boosts and improvements in real care actually mean it’s worth the health service building the NBN on its own. In some places (eg Melbourne’s Alfred hospital), they’ve already started to!

Here are just some examples:

1. It can cost several thousand dollars just for an ambulance to make a single return journey. With remote diagnosis – which costs $200 per instance – many of these journeys won’t need to be made. This won’t just save a fortune, it will mean more ambulances are available when they are REALLY needed and hospitals will be emptier and able to provide faster, more-efficient (and hence cheaper) diagnosis to everyone.

Instant Triage makes diagnosis and first aid quicker. One demonstration at Melbourne’s Alfred hospital showed how a quick, remote, diagnosis of suspected meningitis in a baby meant that potentially life-saving first aid was administered straight away and that the hospital was waiting for the patient when they arrived. Without that, a lengthy wait would have put the patient’s life at risk and, on the all-important, depressingly-necessary pecuniary note, meant that a lengthy and expensive hospital stay was not needed (either for the child or the parents).

2. People being monitored at home. Many hospital beds are filled with people who are simply being monitored. Many of them could be monitored at home if they had a suitably-fast and reliable internet connection. It costs more than a five star hotel to put someone up in hospital – they need to be administered, washed, fed, medicated and, well, monitored. With the NBN, many people could be monitored at home saving hundreds if not thousands of dollars per instance. They also get better quicker and beds become available for other patients.

3. Various universities are developing systems whereby houses are monitored with Microsoft Kinect motion cameras. These can sense that someone is getting up in the morning, moving around, hasn’t had a fall, and is even doing prescribed exercises as set by the doctor. For the elderly and those with elderly relatives who worry about them living on their own, this is huge – people can be delayed being put in (very expensive) residential care for much longer. This doesn’t just improve the quality of life for seniors and their families, it saves a fortune and reduces human monitoring requirements. All that’s needed is a fast, reliable internet connection.

Also linked to this is the ability of seniors being able to communicate with doctors, in high definition, just by talking to their TVs using Skype – no need for expensive specialist equipment. The cost saving of not having to regularly transport them via taxi or ambulance is such that it would be worth buying suitable TVs and webcams for everyone involved. And it would still save a fortune, in each case, for potentially every senior in the country.

4. Whenever I’ve gone to hospital I’ve had to wait about four hours to be seen. Many of the people in front of me have kids who have a temperature or won’t stop crying. Some may have had a fit in the middle of the night and parents just want to be reassured. Yet taking one’s self or one’s child to hospital is half a day off work in many cases. The cost to the economy of people taking family leave or sick leave just to get checked out by a doctor will be astronomical. There would be an enormous saving through being able to chat to a doctor locally (it could even be abroad) just by conferencing with them over the internet.

Once again we’re talking about broad statistics here which are very hard to quantify but which will obviously make a significant on-going dent in the monstrous, tax payer-funded, annual health budget while providing knock-on savings to other areas of the economy too.

5. We can be specific in some cases. Medical services like Cochlear Australia (which lets 250,000 deaf Australians hear by using bionic implants) has already saved a fortune thanks to remote testing. They’re adamant, the more people that have access to reliable, high-bandwidth internet the better and more efficiently they can do their jobs. Their team of twelve people saved $500,000 in just six months by calibrating patients’ implants remotely using laptops and webcams rather than having to travel around the country – and that’s one tiny, miniscule niche of medicine.

I could go on, but those are some of the main benefits to having the NBN. Critics, like Abbott and Ackerman don’t understand that the reliable and high-bandwidth speeds required for these services aren’t available to most people now and that wireless isn’t and will never (at least in the foreseeable future) be nearly reliable enough.

Furthermore, the demand for other internet bandwidth is continuing to accelerate exponentially: sure there might be redundancy in some places now, but in 20 years it will be a different story. The notion that households may have to consider unplugging Granny from her health monitoring just so the family can have enough household bandwidth to watch the Friday Night Super High Definition 3D movie should never be accommodated. Building an infrastructure that doesn’t future-proof capacity and speed requirements is the equivalent of building the Harbour Bridge with only one lane.

Smart Wiring

Experts and overseas studies are showing that the savings to Australia’s enormous energy budget are so large that they too could pay for the entire NBN on their own. Chattanooga is the unlikely defining example here. Its Fibre To The Home smartgrid saved so much money through smarter management of power distribution that the savings paid for the entire infrastructure on their own. In an age of ever-rising power bills, it becomes even more attractive to Australians. That it would save enormous amounts of wasted energy will please Greenies too. Once again, the figures are very difficult to pin down, but they’re huge. Oh for a Cost Benefit Analysis!

Business, innovation and the future

Sydney’s Harbour Bridge isn’t regarded as a business entity – it’s an infrastructure which promoted the growth of business development (and social benefits). In exactly the same way the NBN will promote Australian business interests, only this time every home and business in Australia will be connected to it – not just Sydney’s North Shore and CBD. The potential is as large as it is unquantifiable.

Another business case concerns innovation. Australia’s innovation levels have been collapsing over the past decade – apparently we’ve become addicted to our mining money. Our economy is so skewed towards mineral wealth that we may as well pack everything in and go dig holes in the ground.

But what happens when the mining boom is over? What will Australia have left? Well have a look at the UK for a start. For all the complaints about how bad Australia’s economy is, we’re the world’s millionaires compared with our cousins in America, the UK and Europe. The UK used to profit greatly from North Sea gas resources. But it squandered it all on feel-good tax breaks and handouts – sound familiar? The legendary UK journalist Jeremy Paxman discusses it here. Now there’s nothing left and their economy is stagnant in the face of the GFC. But at least they have innovation. What will Australia have to fall back on once our mining boom is over?

Putting a figure on innovation is practically impossible, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important. You can have religious discussions about it forever but, at the very least, the innovation salvation idea is a bonus to the benefits of health and smart wiring services.

Telepresence and video conferencing

A few months ago the government announced the results of its telepresence trial. By creating special meeting rooms which had half a normal boardroom facing a wall of massive high-definition televisions government employees could participate in proper meetings with participants from all over the country. Everyone was looking at high-definition, life size counterparts and there was no lag or signal drop outs. The system cost $24m to set up and, in two years had recouped $12m in travel cost saving alone.

One individual meeting, which was held simultaneously across 12 locations, saved over $100,000 in travel costs to Canberra alone. In one meeting! That’s raw, taxpayers money right there. The people involved were amazed that so much money had been recouped so quickly. But the benefits didn’t stop there.

The full-sized screens meant that delegates could have proper, emotionally-charged meetings – it wasn’t like looking at a small computer screen with someone struggling to communicate on Skype with terrible audio. Ministers were raving about it, especially those from Perth. Every occasion where ministerial staff didn’t have to travel to Canberra meant that they weren’t out of the office for three days and didn’t come back jetlagged and travel weary. How much do we ordinarily pay these three people to travel for three days?

In a separate example, someone missed a flight and had to appear at an overseas meeting using telepresence. When he got to the next meeting, everyone thought he had been at the previous meeting – they’d forgotten that he’d attended remotely.

The trials are so successful that Telepresence will be rolled out to smaller legislative centres over the coming years – they could be using NBN infrastructure rather than separate tax payer-funded fibre networks – but just imagine what it would be like if everyone had access to this?

Panasonic is a leader in this space. It doesn’t just make telepresence equipment it uses it too. The management has cut down greatly on travel to its head office in Japan. The savings, I’m told, are huge AND people don’t have to be paid to travel or spend days out of the office and they don’t come back wrecked etc etc. They also don’t have to spend so much time away from their families.

Rolled out to the public, many people simply wouldn’t need to commute to an office ever again. How much time will that save? How much money will that save in company office space rental? What would it do to the roads and traffic in metropolitan centres? What would it do to affordable property prices if people didn’t have to live in the city anymore? Where would you like to live? The Sunshine Coast? The local industry there is tourism based. What if heaps of city workers moved in and worked from home? How much would that boost the local economy? What would all the diminished commuting time and reduction in traffic in the city mean to the economy? What would we spend our time and money doing with all the extra hours in our lives?

Yet again, the benefits are enormous and fortunately, in this instance, they can be quantified to some degree in government and business spaces. Telepresence in the public space has the potential to revolutionise society and make nationwide and local economies evolve. Putting a price on that, however, is something else.

Schools and Rural benefits

All schools will benefit from NBN access – being able to tour remote museums and being taught by some of the world’s best teachers and lecturers is already being implemented by companies like Google and Panasonic. I’ve also seen few better ways of engaging kids in schools than watching a class talk to counterparts in Japan using HD video conferencing and discussing language and culture. This is already happening in trials at some Australian schools.

Quick aside: many education authorities have already wired schools up with fibre – if and how those networks become part of the NBN will be interesting to follow. Everything is being paid for by tax payers at the end of the day.

But the main beneficiaries will be those in rural areas. Country kids have the opportunity of being given access to the best teachers and lessons in the world thanks to the NBN and yet the National party, which generally represents them, supposedly supports its destruction. That doesn’t make any sense. I suspect that, once again, the lack of information is key in this regard.

There are plenty of discussions to be had regarding the super-remote rural communities who will only get satellite access. One hypothesis I’m toying with is that if you can get copper somewhere, you can get fibre there. If we managed to install copper almost a century ago, can we really not manage it now while in a mining boom? I’m well aware that the cost of servicing remote communities is comparatively huge according to the McKinsey implementation report. But just think what bargaining power the Nationals would have over Labor right now? There’s a cat amongst the pigeons for you. But we’ll focus more on that another time.

As for a straight business case for funding NBN-derived improvements to education: if all that’s being discussed is money, it’s difficult to make a hard-nosed business case without getting into “Children are out nation’s (economy’s) future” style arguments. I’ll leave that to others.

What Labor and NBN Co says

I don’t blame people for not knowing any of this. I’ve spent a year and a half digging up this information and virtually all of it has come from stumbling into it unawares through chance meetings with industry experts and academics who don’t usually mingle with media.

NBN Co and Stephen Conroy are aware of them but the way they casually discuss them before focussing on comparatively minor and unimpressive benefits beggar’s belief. The most famous example is that of the smart dishwasher – because apparently people need to know about that more than telehealth details. (It even spawned a fake Twitter account.) Conroy also didn’t help matters after he isolated himself by alienating virtually every natural ally he had in Australia’s tech sector – by pushing his deeply-flawed internet filter, which he still perseveres with. The subsequent fallout means he has no working relationship with many technology journalists and that isn’t helpful when you’re the Government’s technology leader.

I’m not convinced NBN Co even has a marketing department – it’s failing massively if it does. It has some of the best PR people in the business but are they being used effectively? The recent launch of its blog run by top tech journo, Dan Warne, is an excellent step in the right direction, but these are all parts of the PR side of the marketing fence. Where’s the advertising? That’s what informs the bulk of the general public and the mainstream media – the people who ultimately decide who gets elected.

Labor’s NBN PR comes in the form of sporadic, dry, email-based press releases which are mingled in with announcements on digital TV and other matters. They barely mention any of the above.

The one occasion that I’ve met NBN Co CEO, Mike Quigley, and Senator Conroy – and I’m the ABC’s Technology Editor who has met just about every senior technology representative in the country many times over – was at a Doonside demonstration. We were shown how the NBN will provide future homes with many digital TV channels and the ability to Skype in HD. That was it. That’s the most interesting announcement-cum-demonstration I’ve seen regarding the NBN (from Labor or NBN Co)… ever.

People with ADSL can do all of those things now. Yet these were the main examples used for justifying Australia’s most expensive infrastructure project. I even pushed Conroy into telling the large press pack about the telehealth cost benefits by citing my initial research. He casually agreed with me but when I asked for figures he said to have a look at trials in America before pressing on. Brilliant.

What The Coalition says

After a Twitter exchange with Malcolm Turnbull I had a lengthy chat with one of his chief NBN advisers. It’s clear that what the media is reporting does not accurately reflect the Coalition’s policies – but it’s hard to blame anyone here. In the media, the time and space left for counterpoints usually allows for little more than negative soundbites which aren’t held to account. This is reflecting badly on the Coalition in some tech quarters as they are simply coming across as a group of technologically-ignorant naysayers who have no valid alternative. While the media’s validation of negative comments and not-holding-anything-to-account might be useful in skewing the opinions of the uninformed masses during an election campaign it’s being disingenuous with the truth and alienating everyone else. But I was relieved to hear that a Cost Benefit Analysis is still very much on the Coalition’s cards.

Lately, with all the negative soundbite reporting it seemed like they were painting themselves into a corner where they’d have to kill the NBN or risk losing face – what an inexorable travesty that would be. However, the Cost Benefit Analysis requirement is still there – but they need to remind people of that.

But there are still big differences. The notion that we won’t ever need all the current spare bandwidth is downright wrong – my above examples illustrate just some of the reasons why. Interestingly, a reason for the disparity in views was proffered by Turnbull’s office: they’re economists whose priority is getting everyone on a reasonable connection sooner rather than later (instead of waiting ages for the NBN) while technologists (like me) are more focused on future technologies and requirements. However, if arguments like the former had won through in the 1930s then the Harbour Bridge would only have one lane. Instead, all of its eight lanes are now packed and we had to build the Harbour Tunnel to further accommodate the load. That’s usually congested too. Recently there were calls to add an additional layer for extra rail services.

Another big sticking point is wireless. Techies have already balked at the notion that wireless undermines the need for fibre. It really really doesn’t. Two articles saying why are here and here.

There’s also the public opinon factor. If you think that the public hates the NBN or that many people despise things like having Green Powered Windmills on their doorstep, it pales into insignificance when compared to the opposition against having high-powered mobile phone/internet masts on every street corner. Then there’s the requirement of having a smaller transmitter/receiver in every house and neighbouring house to communicate with them. I simply can’t imagine the public standing for that whatever the actual health risks may be.

What Labor says it costs

Labor has been accused of costing the NBN by writing everything down on the back of a napkin. Well that napkin is a $25m implementation study by McKinsey and KPMG. Sure, there are issues with it, but it’s the most authoritative document available.

The overall figure is $43 billion dollars. $27 billion will come from tax payers (many people are already completely unaware of this). Furthermore, after 15 years, the whole thing will be sold off meaning that we’ll get the $27 billion back. (How often have you see that reported in comparison to the Coalition’s $50 billion figure?)

As time goes on and more applications are being announced, it’s looking increasingly likely that the public’s $27 billion investment (and remember it is an investment, not a cost) will be returned to the public purse… with profit.

The fact it’s also being sold off illustrates how it’s not a government monopoly. Yet critics still insist that it is. This is particularly bizarre coming from people who are (directly or not) defending the current situation – that of the Telstra monopoly. Yet how often do you see these claims held to account?

Then there are the accusations that the build itself is a government controlled monopoly. Here I will defer to Four Corners. If there’s one thing that program did it was illustrate how a government-led rollout was inevitable because there was no commercial market for building it – not without cutting rural Australia adrift (Telstra has also said this). Disagree? Go and call Four Corners liars.

Note that, sensibly, after sell off, the government will retain some control to ensure that maintenance will be conducted by private entities who historically deem the expense as a loss of profits and not necessary. This is an absolute good. Telstra too-frequently doesn’t bother to maintain its infrastructure and only fixes things once you’ve jumped through hoops and backed it into a corner.

Then there’s the Telstra split which will knock several billion dollars off the overall build costs. There are few things that make Australia’s Telco industry swear and rant more than the existing Telstra monopoly. The breakup is long overdue and ends a 30-year, cross-party “clusterfail”. I’m disappointed that NBN Co is only getting to lease the infrastructure after the split. But you can blame whoever you want for this one – the queue is thirty years long. There’s a huge amount of scrutiny that needs doing in this regard. But suggestions that it is too difficult and expensive and should subsequently be abandoned are anything but wise.

What the Coalition says it will cost

I see and hear the Coalition’s $50 billion NBN price tag more often than any other figure. Read the following and tell me how justifiable it is. The Coalition says that there is no demand for the NBN and that it is a white elephant. As such no private entity will want to invest in it (you’ll hear complex financial terms like Capex used here) and as such the government will need to pay the whole hog and not get any money back. Once it’s built there will be no reason for anyone to use it and so it won’t be possible to sell it. On top of this there will be $10 billion worth of cost blowouts, or more, and the government will have to pay for all of those too. Ergo, $50 billion of tax payers’ money spent with no return.

If you only look on the NBN as an internet service which generates income through connection fees to a fast internet connection, then you’d have a point. Even if that was the case, it’s arguable that the benefits to society would still be worth the money. But that’s an idealist argument not suited to a battlefield of figures.

As I hope I’ve demonstrated by now, the NBN is far and away more about Australian infrastructure. Providing access to the World Wide Web is practically incidental. As such, the Coalition’s $50 billion house of cards figure starts tumbling.

We all need healthcare. The entire country will benefit enormously through smartgrid benefits to the energy infrastructure. Therefore there is demand for the NBN and therefore it cannot be a white elephant. With that in mind there’s no valid reason to think that most people won’t subscribe to it and that it won’t generate an income in internet subscriptions. As such, new evidence is required in order to state with any authority that investment won’t be forthcoming for the NBN and that no one will want to buy into it. How would the backbone infrastructure that supports healthcare, power and all manner of business platforms, NOT attract investment down the line? The notion beggars belief. And I’m afraid, so does the resultant $50 billion figure.

As for cost blowouts, the equally-valid counter to that is the promise of cost savings through improved efficiencies as the build progresses. As for who’s right, only time will tell. Someone will get to say I told you so. Bully for them.

Personal affiliations

I really don’t give a monkey’s about who’s running the country after the next election. But I do care about the NBN. I’m passionate about technology (did you notice?) and being a public servant I’m duty bound to inform the public of the truth. If the public knows all the facts, then my job is done. But with the threat of the public having the NBN taken away from it because of perceived ignorance and political spite, I’ll be continuously speaking up for it until someone can convince me that I’m the one who’s factually wrong. I’d be failing in my job otherwise.

There’s a difference between being held to account, and only writing negative stories. The reason I don’t spend too much time analysing the nitty gritty build issues is because that’s already being very well covered elsewhere. There’s virtually no one covering the Big Picture NBN issues – you can almost count them on one hand – and it’s a lonely job considering we have to explain what the issues are in the first place, before analysing them (just look how long this article is!). Marketing (in particularly advertising) to inform the public (who then look to the media to analyse everything) is more lacking than an arse kicking contest with no arse.

I freely admit that what’s above is not 100% nailed down in some areas and I am fully prepared to accordingly adapt my conclusions to the evolving facts upon which they are based. But then I also won’t tolerate idiocy which concludes that one error proves that I have ‘no idea what I’m talking about whatsoever’, either.

I think it’s a facet of modern media that there will always be readers who know more about specific subjects than a journalist does, so if you have any expertise on any of these areas, please get in touch so that we can further refine figures and discard erroneous assumptions.

Conclusion

If you didn’t already (and assuming you got this far), you now have some understanding about the true impact of the NBN. Furthermore, you’ll understand how the enormous number of variables, industries and inscrutables involved make doing a proper Cost Benefit Analysis such a Herculean task.

I’ve barely scratched the surface, but after talking to experts in all of the above fields, over the past year and a half, I’m adamant that I’ve mentioned enough to justify the Coalition’s $50 billion price tag.

Ultimately, I hope that if I’ve illustrated one thing to members of the public, mainstream media and the Coalition who read this, it’s that the NBN represents far more than a fast internet business and that a Cost Benefit Analysis absolutely MUST be done before any decisions are taken to destroy the NBN and rob Australia of this socially and economically transformative infrastructure.

While ignoring naysayers and getting on with building the NBN should be the order of the day, it’s abundantly clear that significant swathes of the public won’t countenance the implementation of what it perceives as an overly-expensive and unnecessary infrastructure (that primarily benefits geeks) in the face of the bleak, global, economic outlook. The subsequent media coverage, which too often feeds off public opinion, is consequently becoming a vicious cycle in which facts are ignored and political agendas are coming to the fore. There is virtually no information in the public or media domains to inform people otherwise.

Where does the buck stop? Well who do you want it to stop with? You can point the finger at anyone and make a compelling case. Let’s be more constructive. Labor and NBN Co have the power (and the funds) to stop all of the poisonous bickering and misinformation dissemination by focussing on the proper, universal benefits of the NBN and advertising them to the nation. Ignoring petty arguments and giving the country proper information will solve a world of ills and guarantee survival of one of the most exciting and important things to happen to Australia ever.

9 comments

  1. Peter Ondracek says:

    If I can offer an alternative viewpoint, I’m actually all for fibre to the home as an eventual endpoint technology.

    Sure, if you’re laying down 5 or 10 cables, copper is cheaper than fibre due to the difference in production costs, but if you’re laying down 5 or 10 million, silicon *is* cheaper than copper, kilo for kilo, metre for metre, before even considering the density difference. (This is primarily the reason we already have fibre to the node in very many areas by default. The market case for it always made sense as density and scale went up.) On scale, a digital fibre network takes less energy to run, has nowhere near the same attenuation problems of the analog network, and is just naturally the way forward.

    However, getting to that final destination poses some problems. A fair few of which aren’t being addressed, period.

    Let me just illustrate, for the layman reading this comment, that the plan is to have dual-channel fibre mirroring the current hfc network’s functionality, in the sense that many houses will share the one connection at the exchange, in a loop. HFC was primarily designed for a fixed bandwidth-per-household based on a tv channel’s consumption. It’s only because of poor foxtel uptake that so much bandwidth remains unused and it’s an attractive way to deliver internet with a stringent signal to noise design brief on initial installation that the PSTN system never had. If everyone who’s currently using ADSL was using HFC instead, you’d see contention ratios that have made internet startup companies in the US infamous.

    This is not fibre to the home, this is x% of each individual fibre to each home once you tally up the loops. Let’s call it ‘fibre to the street’.

    All we have is a promise that contention ratios will be kept low when laying the fibre cable the first time around. There’s no redundancy that I’m aware of (how cheap would it be to lay twice as many cables up front, with subdivision very high on the list of ‘solutions’ to the cost of property? There is so much dark fibre between nodes *right now* and I see no proposal for adding any at a residential level.), there probably won’t be switching equipment between the loop and the exchange, and indeed, anything that you send to the internet, your neighbour is probably going to be able to read if they’re smart.

    So this brings us to the next point. Hopefully, because your traffic is broadcast to your neighbours on the way back to the exchange, your signal is going to be encrypted. This is how HFC currently works, to a large extent. Except the HFC encryption is absolutely critical to Foxtel’s business case. If it was cracked tomorrow, it would be fixed as fast as privately possible because people would be stealing a service that is already not doing so well. The underlying resources devoted to attacking it are also nowhere near the NBN’s case, because the potential value of an attack is several orders of magnitude smaller than ‘one network to end them all’.

    Furthermore, encrypted traffic takes longer to travel than unencrypted. Latency is higher than fibre to the node would be. Compared to ADSL, there is no *massive* latency differential, since analogue to digital isn’t exactly efficient either, but fibre to the home vs ‘fibre to the street’ will be discernable. It’s also either not established or not released how quickly NBN co would be able to respond on a national scale to a break in their encryption. It’s not like the customers can switch to a competing service after all; all competing services have been removed legislatively already. We have a switchoff date and everything. (I guess wifi qualifies as a competing service now? It has exactly the same problem with even more people being able to intercept the signal, however.)

    What’s more, if your neighbour’s box fails, or is maliciously replaced by someone sticky taping a laser pointer to the cable, every single service is affected. By someone possibly just seeking to be malicious from the privacy of their own living room.

    (Part 2 follows which addresses the NBN policy failures)

  2. Peter Ondracek says:

    Now, at least we’re getting this wonderful technology that’s worth so much, right?

    Except, some houses are already better off than if they’d had the NBN yesterday. And they can’t choose to remain with the superior service. That’s how competition would work in theory to seek the best outcome for every consumer.

    We’re also making sure that nobody is able to build a competing network. Either now or after the NBN is released. There’s no guarantees being made about the number of hops, the latency of switching equipment, the peak capacity density which will raise a fault that causes actual upgrades to occur, or antyhing like that. In the absence of those guarantees, I’m one consumer who would very much prefer a competitive environment to limit the potential damage of poor implementation.

    We’re also making sure that nobody is going to spend money until the NBN is released. Because the business cases says “you aren’t allowed to make a long term commercial return” now. So in the interests of getting yesterday’s speeds 10 years from now, we’re crippling speeds that we would have naturally had with upgrades to existing infrastructure for the next 9 years as well.

    Furthermore, and you alluded to this in your article, the entire project is being spearheaded by the same member of parliament that is spearheading the great firewall of china — I mean, Australia. And if you’d watched his coverage of it, in his own words, Q and A sessions, youtube videos, it’s very clear that he doesn’t even know the details of the project he’s so determined to inflict on the greater population. If I wanted to filter everyone in the country with my own filter, stamping out competition and forcing everyone through the one stream would be exactly what I would focus my attentions on before I released such a system.

  3. Peter Ondracek says:

    If *I* was releasing the NBN, it would be a mandate that all new residential areas would be created as fibre to the home (as is already largely happening in private enterprise anyway), and allow private enterprise to sort it out otherwise.

    Some areas may end up with more than a 10 year turnaround until they get internet (regional areas in particular), but very many would not.

    If regional areas are to be neglected, then there becomes scope for releasing a ‘fibre to the town’ rollout and letting private enterprise manage the infrastructure from that point. ‘Fibre to the 200 acre residence’ is already being covered by satellite as-is.

    I also believe that there is some very significant scope for scheduling concurrent burying of power lines along with the NBN rollout, since digging one bigger trench is a smaller blowout than maintaining overhead lines or building two trenches. It would also win a lot of support from voters who couldn’t care less about the NBN otherwise.

  4. Adrian Esdaile says:

    I work in a small but significant field that traditionally Australia doesn’t do terribly well at. One of the main reasons for this is our distance from the worldwide centres for my profession – Europe, the USA, Japan.

    Overseas, massive progress is being made towards collaborative digital projects – the ability to have a worldwide team of professionals working on the same project no matter where they are geographically. To do this successfully requires very high-speed, high-bandwidth connections – you CANNOT do this over wireless as the smallest of our projects are usually 250MB in size or more, and must be accessed real-time. You can’t send 250MB emails. We can’t site around waiting 15mins for the file to update. Overseas, the expectation is that you can access data of this size in seconds – a couple of minutes at most.

    Our current networks in Australia lock us out of competing on a worldwide scale – we are denied work because we are overly reliant on old, slow networks, and the high-speed networks that are available (satellite? laying our own cable to Singapore?) are prohibitively costly.

    Allowing our industry to access the global network as equal players would also immensely improve our domestic industry in this field; which is falling further and further out of date.

    The industry? CONSTRUCTION.

    My field? ARCHITECTURE, specializing in BIM – Building Information Management.

    You don’t have to be an IT field to benefit from the NBN.

  5. Daniel says:

    You fail Peter.

    You fail, both sides of Parliament have dabbled in Internet Filter, back in Howard years.

    Also, There is only so much Fibre can be rolled out, as it is, 93% of it is being rolled out via Fibre.

  6. Susan says:

    thank you for explaining so many things

    in my work as a First Aid Trainer I get alot of people who ask me about the cost of calling an Ambulance, they are worried how this will be done, and they think more about that than how to help a person needing First Aid

    this explaination of how the NBN can help is wonderful and I would like to put a reference to this article on my FB page

    thanks again for a great overview
    Susan

  7. Jack Cola says:

    Great article.

    I am all for the NBN. But if the NBN saves money in healthcare (like it will), can you just imaging the backslash when the government says “We’ve cut funding from 100bn to 75bn”.

    With the mindset I think most people are in, people won’t realise the cut is from saving money, and will get upset on this.

    Just a small thought.

  8. Thanks for sharing!

  9. marketing says:

    Today, I went to the beach front with my kids. I found a sea shell and gave it to my 4 year old daughter and said “You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.” She placed the shell to her ear and screamed. There was a hermit crab inside and it pinched her ear. She never wants to go back! LoL I know this is completely off topic but I had to tell someone!

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