The NBN – Fact and Fiction

The National Broadband Network, NBN for short, is getting much air time these days. Hardly surprising, really, considering the 36 Billion dollar price tag!

So what’s all the fuss about? Do we need it? Can we afford it? Is there a better alternative?

To answer these questions one needs to consider just two, relatively simple, concepts: USO (Universal Service Obligation) and BANDWIDTH.

USO is meant to guarantee equitable access at fair prices to communication services to ALL Australians regardless of where they live. Now, it doesn’t take a genius to understand that delivering services in cities is cheaper than in low density regional areas.

Before the Howard government’s privatisation of Telstra, starting in 1997, subsidising regional areas to achieve uniform pricing was simply a matter of ministerial directive. Private enterprises, however, set prices according to commercial reality. Telstra, moreover, had turned from a government monopoly into a private one, caring naught for fairness and equity. To keep the bush happy Howard put into law the USO, compelling a reluctant Telstra to provide services accordingly. Successive governments battled with Telstra over USO and other issues until the NBN finally allowed the Rudd/Gillard governments to bring Telstra to heal.  

However, the primary reason for the NBN was quite another: BANDWIDTH or the lack thereof! Bandwidth is a term used to define the amount of information passing through a data connection. A data connection can be old copper wire, fibre optics cable or wireless (electromagnetic waves). The wider the bandwidth of a particular method, the more information can flow.

How much bandwidth do we really need?

Nobody knows for sure, but one thing is certain: The ageing copper network Telstra inherited when privatised, is no longer up to the task. Fibre optics cable is the only technology that has the capacity to cope with future demand, with most of its bandwidth not even unlocked yet. An overwhelming majority of industry pundits believe that bandwidth demand will continue to increase exponentially.

As usual, asking a politician, will NOT yield a useful answer:
Turnbull argues that wireless technology can do the job at a fraction of the cost. He used to support the NBN until being charged by Abbot “to wreck it”. Telecommunications companies like AAPT argue that they can deliver fibre optics at a fraction of the cost. Gillard tells us that the NBN can be delivered on time and budget.

They have one thing in common – they are all wrong or being economical with the truth!

Wireless technology is NOT able to deliver the kind of bandwidth we need in the future. It completely ignores the widely held believe that most applications and services requiring large amounts of bandwidth have not even been invented yet! AAPT’s fibre optics promise is based on delivery to city dwellers only and completely ignores USO and the fact that the private sector will never be able to build a truly national communications network like the NBN. As with other nation building and nation defining projects before it, the tyranny of distance and commercial reality make the NBN a project that can only be delivered within the framework of a government monopoly, however unsavoury that may sound.  And lastly, of course the NBN will not be delivered on time and budget!

Yet, we do need the NBN to continue to be a competitive and viable nation, there is no real alternative technology and we can’t afford NOT to build it.