The National Broadband Network: The Diamond in an Election Turd Sandwich.

I think I speak for a lot of Australians when I say I was tired of this election 2 weeks ago. I didn’t have the same buzz I had 3 years ago when I made my way to the ballot box, eagerly waiting to cast my vote that would bring the change that Australia desperately needed. That night was filled with elation as my prime minister of choice was elected and Australia’s future started looking a lot brighter. The next couple years were a tumultuous time but we came through the other side with nary a scratch on ourselves. However Rudd’s non-negotiable stance on several key issues rubbed people the wrong way and the Liberal attack dogs were let loose, utterly destroying the once high approvals that Labor once had. In the end we ended up in a position where neither party really won the election and we’re now stuck with a minority government and 3 years of pork for a few regional seats. There’s really little good to come out of this election.

Still there had to be a winner and it was the Labor government. You’d think that by my glowing recollection of the first years of the Labor government that I’d be happy about this but in truth I’m indifferent. I voted for the Greens this year because they aligned with my ideals the best out of the lot, but they were still far off the mark for a lot of their other policies. Don’t think for a second that I was just voting for them because I was disillusioned with Labor; I voted below the line on this one ensuring all my preferences went exactly where I wanted them, not where the Greens thought they should. Still it mattered little for the electorate I’m in, but that’s just how it goes in representative democracies.

Probably the only good thing to come out of all of this is the fact that the National Broadband Network will not be scrapped in its infantile stages and will live on for the next 3 years. I commend the Labor government for initiating this project as the time frames are far past that of their current term (and then some) showing that they at least have some long term vision for the future, even if it’s only in this one area. The good news is that should they not win the next election the NBN will be far enough underway that cancelling it would be political suicide and it will keep on rolling until its fully realised. There’s still a chance that it might get scaled back or mucked with in another way by a future government but 3 years is long enough to secure the vast majority of its infrastructure to ensure that a good majority of the original NBN idea gets implemented within its original time frame.

However the NBN hasn’t come out of this election turd smelling of roses either. As funneling pork to the regional independents was key to securing this election for the Labor government the NBN, which would eventually bring significant investment to the regions anyway, has been rescheduled to first target regional Australia. Now it’s really here nor there on whether this is a good or bad thing in itself, I mean I’m all for them working out the bugs on the regional folk before rolling it out here, but the highest value places for the NBN are the CBDs of major cities. Rolling out to the regions first means that Australian businesses will be waiting longer to make use of these upgrades, potentially stymying them for a couple years. It’s not that big of a deal, but it does open up the potential for criticism when the NBN is only delivering on its promises to a small subset of Australia.

There’s also been an increased amount of scrutiny and criticism levelled at the NBN due to its increased visibility in this election. During its construction the NBN is going to require up to 25,000 workers to get it all rolled out by its current deadline of 2018. According to industry union estimates there are only 7,000 workers in Australia right now that are capable of performing the required work and their estimates show that there will be a shortage of 10,000 workers over the course of the NBN’s implementation. Such a skills shortage does mean that there will be an upward pressure on wages in this particular industry and that has the potential to increase the projected costs for the NBN. Most of this has already been taken into consideration however and I believe the potential impact to the project should be minimal if action is taken to address it immediately. It’s unfortunate that Australia has a tendency to be so xenophobic when it comes to migrant workers as there’s more than enough skilled labor overseas that could be imported for the required duration.

Can’t imagine how the unions would feel about that one either… 😉

Strangely enough one of the most common criticisms I’ve heard has come from my IT cohorts who say that the NBN goes too far with its planned implementation. Their reasoning is mostly based on the fact that the Internet they have now is quite adequate and there’s little reason to overhaul the network. However this does not take into consideration that the current copper infrastructure can not scale in the same way a fiber network can and whilst their broadband is fast enough now it won’t be in 5 to 10 years time. Additionally such a network would make Australia quite attractive to overseas technology companies looking to trial new services, especially those coming out of the United States. This has the potential to build Australia’s service industry up for the time when our natural resources run dry and our current source of economic success is cut off.

The counterpoint many of them use is that wireless technologies are rapidly and will render a cabled network useless. Indeed the LTE specification is designed to give peak performances that are very comparable to that of the NBN and there have been demonstrations of the technology to that effect. However the amount of work to implement such a wireless system on the same scale as the NBN requires investment on almost the same level. The wireless towers would all require a fiber connection back to the dark fiber back hauls in essence requiring a scaled back NBN that did fiber to the node. Additionally none of the towers in Australia are equipped to broadcast on the frequencies required to achieve speeds comparable to that of the NBN, somewhere on the order of 2.6GHz (most carriers are on the 850/900/1900/2100MHz bands). There would also be a need to increase the number of towers to ensure adequate coverage, further increasing the cost required. In the end the argument that a wireless NBN is the cheaper and better alternative is nothing more than a distraction, it’s just not as viable as a national fiber network.

It’s no secret that I’ve got a lot invested in the NBN idea, what with my dreams of starting up my own private data center in my basement so I can host all my web applications cheaply.  But the NBN is so much more than that and whilst I might be unhappy with the way the election turned out this year I’m glad that the NBN didn’t get the chop. The next 3 years of pork barrel politics will be long forgotten when the NBN finally reaches its goal of bringing extremely fast Internet to the vast majority of Australia’s population and I can’t wait to see it happen.

3 Comments

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  1. If that is the reasoning of your IT cohorts then they should get out of IT. Anyone in IT should understand the limits of copper and the amount of bandwidth we will need just a few years down the line.

  2. “2.6GHz (most carriers are on the 850/900/1900/2100MHz bands)”
    When doing comparisons of values try to be in the habit of listing them in the same unit (including the prefix multiplier). While this instance isn’t really that consequential it’s still a bad habit to be in and people could accuse you of being intentionally misleading. I’ve been looking at clock chips in the low GHz range recently so I’m used to converting between thousands of MHz and a few GHz, but not everyone is. There are only a few steps of bands between 2.1GHz and 2.6GHz (which is enough that the towers that run 2.1GHz can’t support 2.6GHz) but the way you presented that data made it very hard to see the difference between the frequencies.
    Also, while I’m here bitching about your writing. Don’t forget to put spaces in after your closing anchor tags. Too many of your links run into the next word in the sentence.
    As long as the roll out doesn’t stop when the regional areas finally get a decent service then we’ll only have wasted time and a small portion of the benefits. The thing that worries me is getting three years down the track and people start saying “we’ve rolled out this NBN to all these regional areas; now where’s our remote doctor and training services?”. Existing services will be better for the regional areas but there wont be as many new high bandwidth services because the centres, where all the IT service deliverers are based, wont be able to get 1Gbps data out to those NBN connected users. That works both ways though if the cities get built first the regional areas wont see the benefits.

  3. @Dave Most of them see the NBN as wasteful due to how much it costs. Personally I think Australia will extract that amount back out of the NBN and more over the course of its life, but they don’t see it that way. It doesn’t help that the majority of them are Liberal supports and fiscal conservatives so most of the opposition stems from non-technical reasons. I still agree that it’s highly unusual behaviour from those in the tech crowd.

    @Adam When I was researching this piece the numbers I found were presented to me exactly as I saw them there, so it’s really sheer laziness on my part. Being a man of strong maths and science background you’d think I’d remember to keep the units comparable, but I just copied them verbatim. I can understand how it would be misleading (although realistically I believe the readers of this blog are capable of knowing the difference) and I’ll make sure to keep an eye on it in the future 😉

    I’ve fixed the links. There seems to be an issue when I post these articles that after I schedule them they delete the white space after links. I think it has something to do with the way the WordPress editor inserts links which deletes the space in HTML but, for some reason, doesn’t show up in the editor. I’ll have to see if it’s just an Internet Explorer thing as I’ve only noticed it when I write posts on it and not FF or Chrome. I might have to go check my past posts to see if it’s a common theme.

    That’s one of my concerns too and it’s very much a chicken/egg scenario. Hopefully we’ll have a couple early adopters that will work with NBN co to deliver some benefits so they’re not just given a 1Gbps connection and left wondering what to do with it.

     

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