There’s little doubt in my mind that the National Broadband Network will be a major benefit to Australia, way past the investment we’re making in it. It’s one of those rare pieces of legislation that will almost certainly outlive the government that started it and the Labor government should be commended for that. Indeed something like the National Broadband Network is almost a necessity if Australia wants to keep pace with the rest of the world in a technological sense as otherwise we’d be stuck on aging copper infrastructure that really doesn’t have any legs left in it. Still whilst anyone in the IT or related sectors would agree that the NBN will be good for business it’s not entirely clear what those benefits will be.
News.com.au ran a story this morning that pointed to research showing only 30% of Australian businesses had a “medium to high” understanding of the benefits available to them through the NBN. Making a few assumptions here I’m guessing the survey didn’t ask actual questions to gauge their true understanding so it’s likely that that number is actually a lot lower than the survey lets on. I’ll admit that for a non-technical person, who was likely the one answering the survey, the benefits of ubiquitous high speed Internet for your business are not entirely clear especially when the Internet they have now is probably doing them well enough.
The businesses geared to make the most of the NBN are ones with multiple offices spread throughout Australia. Right now getting a good inter-office connection, whether a full WAN or just some trickery using VPN tunnels and a regular ADSL, is either an expensive or complicated affair. The NBN will provide high speed interconnects at prices that many businesses will be able to afford. This means you’ll be able to get almost 100MB connections between offices giving you LAN like speeds between disparate offices. It might not sound like much but even small government agencies currently struggle with this (I’ve worked for more than one) and the boost in productivity from better connections between regional offices is very noticeable. This would also extend to remote workers as well, since it’s highly likely that they’ll have NBN access as well.
Having a large connection also enables businesses to move services out of expensive hosted data centres and onto their own premises. Right now it’s nigh on impossible to host client facing services internally unless you want to shell out a lot of money for the business type Internet plans. The NBN will bring data centre level speeds to almost every home and place of business in Australia enabling current businesses the opportunity to migrate inwards, saving on rental and administration costs. Sure the facilities they have might not be as good as what they can get elsewhere but the cost savings of not using a co-located service (believe me, they’re not cheap) would be more than worth it.
There’s also a host of services that are currently infeasible to operate, due to their high bandwidth use, that would become feasible thanks to the NBN. Such services won’t be available immediately but as the NBN reaches a threshold of active users then we can expect either local innovators to create them or for current Internet giants to localize their services for Australia. Predominately I see this taking the form of cloud based services which are accessible from Australia but have yet to have local nodes due to the lack of supporting infrastructure. This would also help cloud providers crack into that ever elusive Australian government sector which has remained resistant due to the restrictions placed on where their data can be stored.
The NBN will also bring about many other ancillary benefits due to the higher speed and ubiquitous access that business will be able to take advantage of. Indeed the flow on effects of a fully fibre communications network will have benefits that will flow on for decades for both businesses and consumers alike. Realistically this list is just the tip of the iceberg as over time there will be numerous services that become available in order to take advantage of our new capabilities. I personally can’t wait to get onto it, enough so that moving to one of the fibre enabled locations is tempting, albeit not tempting enough to make me move to Tasmania.
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.