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Australia's National Broadband Network Debate I

By Dan Byrnes

At last we know who is going to govern the country! And a good thing too! If the indecision had lasted much longer, some malcontents might have started claiming that we don't require politicians to keep the machinery of government running! (God forbid!)

Dan Byrnes, Armidale writer, poet and historian is fed up with hearing "piffle" from politicians ... He is afflicted with serious "piffle fatigue". He asks Do we we care about broadband? - And if not why not? If we had taken this long to decide whether or not the Sydney Harbour Bridge was worthwhile -- We would probably have never built it.


Australia's National Broadband Network Debate - Part 1

Australia's National Broadband Network (NBN) debate - Anything here been only half-baked?

Hello out there in Australia's cyberspace? Do you read me? Copy this.

Are you too suffering grave piffle-fatigue from the remarks of politicians in Australia since we last punished them with a hung parliament they can't cope with? Only a few weeks ago now. My own case of piffle-fatigue is getting quite burdensome. I'm mad as hell and I'm not gonna take it, them, or the cliches, any more!

As satirist Stephen Colbert in the USA would say, "Now, nation, listen up!"

Your present scribe feels moved firstly to declare his biases. He is from Tamworth and now lives in Armidale. He is pro-Tony Windsor, Australian Federal MP for New England. The voters of Tamworth and Armidale vote in Tony Windsor, or not, as they feel. Tony Windsor is The Man!

Windsor is an independent MP of impressive gravitas about appropriate parliamentary activity. Would to God that Mad Monk Tony Abbott, allegedly the leader of the Australian Liberal Party, had such good gravitas, common sense, penetrating words and an ability to call a spade a spade.

Your present scribe is secondly, seriously outraged at the determination that most of Australia's politicians have to continue to talk piffle and thus weaken their grip on the Australian future, whether we hold them in contempt for doing so, or not. He is thirdly for the idea that Australia should have a national broadband network, on a why-not basis. It'd be interesting technical infrastructure for us all to enjoy, ok.


Point One Re NBN: It's Been Mis-named. It's A Misnomer. It Could Become A Deceased Parrot.

The misnomer is already part of the history of Australian mismanagement of infrastructure in Australia. It's not a "broadband" network. It's a fibre optic cable (FOC) network that would deliver Internet-based and data-based (digitised) goods and services far more optimally than anything you've ever experienced if you don't already have a FOC-type connection.

Telstra, (or Telecom, or once, Australia Post) having been split and sold off by a thoughtless Australian government, hasn't yet had the brains to add FOC slowly or quickly to its existing, century-old copper-wire network, which it inherited from my grandfather and yours. We currently do "broadband" with an overworked copper-wire connection, wireless, or those of us who are lucky, FOC, depending on where we live. So getting "broadband" is a lucky-dip of citizen or computer-user location and differing plans available from various ISPs. Where "real broadband" is, and just what it is, are very hard to ascertain.

We can perhaps blame Rudd for this failed sales pitch, this misnaming of the service being talked about. This failed selling pitch, this misnaming, is a cause of great misunderstanding.

Context-wise, nationally, Australia already has a set of ports that could have better infrastructure, including railway junctures. A national telephone and telecommunications network, however mismanaged by Telstra since it was split up and sold-off. Various sets of highways and railways however mismanaged or badly maintained. Various rivers which are badly mismanaged, as the greenies say. Idiotically, three different states used three different rail gauges when building our railways. We still all suffer the economic fallout from these nineteenth century mis-decisions.

We have a system of state governments currently with their copy books blotted by the awesomely-shaming shenanigans of the NSW State Government. So why can't we continue to be traditional and have a national broadband network, however well or badly managed? Let's move forward, then, as Julia Gillard used to recommend before she was told that "moving forward" was a seriously banal slogan (which it sure was in her hands).

Your present scribe is already infamous since in 2004 he lodged an article on the Net, still there, to the effect that in Australia (Oz), where people are known to be outrageously enthusiastic as early adopters of new technology, so, so what? What if, when the IT Revolution set in, Oz folks bought all the new IT gadgets, including computers hookable to the Internet, but missed the point. The point being, actual communication between human beings. Why would Australians miss such a basic point about international cyberspace? Because of The Great Australian Cultural Cringe, is why. A form of national inferiority complex.

Your present scribe feels that this cultural cringing problem is somehow at the heart of the current debate about a National Broadband Network. The world out there is to be afraid of, be careful how you talk to it and talk to it little.

Somehow, it must be from his unconscious mind, his political id, Tony Abbot has picked up on this and decided that nationally, broadband is not an option, as it would nullify the Cringe, which seems to be his view of our natural Australian inheritance. Strange logic in modern days. His view sure isn't that of your present scribe!

Your present scribe thinks we also need to inspect the cultural value of large-size data downloads (a lot of information), which culturally, Australians simply haven't been used to dealing with outside universities. Any kind of data, for medical or any kind of research work, hobby work, music, video/film material, medical diagnostics. The value of handling large data size tends to give Australians cultural indigestion, we are still getting used to new possibilities. It's the cultural multi-dimensionality of "data", real and potential, that is one of the more subtle issues the broadband critics just can't seem to get their head around ... All our copper-wire network can give us are mere hints of what real data multi-dimensionality might look and feel like. In this sense, nationally, we are all still babes in the woods, more so outside the major cities.


Point Two re NBN: The Economists And The Cost-Benefit Analysis.

With it's usual propaganda sheet-gusto for the continued promotion of an Australian 1960s-style interface with the rest of the world, our largest national broadsheet, the Murdoch owned Australian had a front page headline, "Web Guru Joins Attack On NBN" (The Australian, 22 Sep 2010).

This alleged guru was Graeme Wood, founder of the successful online, international travel bookings agency, wotif.com, a $1.4 billion business by now, which is based in data-humming, downtown Brisbane. He's more a businessman than an IT guru, we have been told. Founder or no, Wood is lately just a wotif.com shareholder. He is quoted as saying the NBN risks being a "43 billion hi-tech babysitter". He regrets that most of us would be just downloading entertainment data, games and movies and feels this can't justify a major public expenditure. Wood complains (and he's right about it) that the public debate hasn't yet been conducted. However, it seems that Wood has not lately been talking earnestly to medical associations, state teacher organisations, universities, people in remoter parts of Australia. Or web-literate people such as your present scribe who lives in a quiet country town that in modern IT terms is basically information-disadvantaged.

It appears, there's a lot of things that Wood doesn't get. He suggests (it being the case the digital industries in Australia are not actually in good shape) that government give incentives for Internet innovation (not a bad idea, though it could be rorted), along the lines of tax breaks that helped the film industry in the 1990s.

And really, helped the Australian film industry do what? If you want to know the history of the Australian film industry since 1945, just read anything written in the past decade on the topic by Phillip Adams!

We'd be best off in this scribe's opinion if we blamed (read, scapegoated) Rudd for lack of any useful NBN debate. Not that your present scribe thinks any debate is needed, much as we needed no debate about building railways, though we did need debate, not feasible to conduct at the time, apparently, about which rail gauge to use.

It seems, The Australian refrained from asking questions of anyone except those in the corporate sector. No one in universities, medicine, astronomy, CSIRO, anyone important overseas who feels amused by dealing with Australia in any useful way. The same 22 September article quoted Forrest, founder of Fortescue Metals Group, lamenting that there's been no feasibility study done. Which introduces the issues of a cost-benefit analysis. Dick Smith has lamented lack of cost-benefit analysis. The same 22 September article quotes iiNet guru Michael Malone calling for more transparency on costs and benefits. Vocus Communications guru feels that providing an Australian FOC would be like giving everyone a Ferrari when they'd probably be content with a Commodore.

Your present scribe has just such a Commodore. It's located/registered in Armidale NSW and it's a 1-gigabyte per month capped broadband connection from an ISP in Perth costing $34.95 per month, fitted to an ordinary Telstra-connected fixed-line phone (costing about $30 per month for a given rental plan) that usually delivers about 26 kbs, hooked to a telephone number I've had since about 1994. It's barely adequate, but I get by for present purposes. There's a lot of cars on the highway faster than my now-old Commodore.

In pre-broadband days, or dial-up days, I used to have a locally-owned ISP located in Armidale, that I could talk to personally, but they were bought-out by a group based in Adelaide and ultimately answering to parties in Malaysia. Between Armidale, Adelaide, Perth, my latest ISP adventures with a D-Link DSL-5047 ADSL router that my nerdy son helped me set up, Rudd, Telstra (avoid Bigpond at all costs, I advise) Abbott, idiots who want to sell me a mobile phone I don't need, adventures with yet another ISP in Melbourne whom I talk to agreeably when he's not having lightning strikes, I dunno where I am - except in the electorate of New England, where I agree with Tony Windsor's views.

Sure, we need a cost-benefit analysis on the NBN. Like we need a hole in our techo head as big as the one Tony Abbot has. Remember, Yes Minister? Never have an inquiry if you don't know the answer beforehand.

Sure, let's have a cost-benefit analysis on broadband. A few extra facts would be useful. Let's also have a cost-benefit analysis on people deliberately and maliciously getting older. On young people wasting their time and their minds drinking to excess. On being at war. And on employing economists who can agree about little.

On cleaning up or not cleaning up the reliability of Adelaide's water supply. What about a cost-benefit analysis on the costs of politicians talking piffle? If this sort of indecision keeps up, we'd never have built a Sydney Opera House, or a Sydney Harbour Bridge. Or built our railways, badly as we handled the questions of rail gauges when we did it, because at the time, we had no proper sense of national unity, we were mere colonials.


Point Three Re NBN: Misuse So Far Of Test Locations.

In fairness to all concerned, it seems that so far, customer demand for "NBN" or "broadband services" has been questionable. Not that we have evidence coming from many directions. The same Australian issue of 22 September notes that five ISPs operating in Tasmania, well aware of NBN installations there, say that demand for FOC-based services has been "questionable". There is no mention of the price asked for the services. Otherwise, all your present scribe has heard from Tasmania about NBN enthusiasm, or lack of it, is that three or four blokes reported on TV have had it connected, and think it's a fantastic improvement. That's all I've ever heard about NBN doings in Tasmania before 22 September, when the Australian noted something about it from Telstra, which had just condescended to inspect "broadband" in Tasmania.

But well the Tassie blokes might be enthusiastic. I saw the same kind of improvement at University of New England in the later 1990s when it was FOCd across-campus. A university tutor friend, who managed a website at the time, had just had his room connected. He turned his computer on, and voila! Speed! Power! Urgency! Communication possibilities re-powered! It was quite dramatic compared to what he'd been used to in his faculty building.

The NBN would apparently give me up to one gigabyte per second of download. Really? With my existing broadband connection, in September 2010 it took me hours to download a new computer operating system of a little more than one gigabyte. (It was Ubuntu 10.04, if you must know.)

Maybe, while I was twiddling my thumbs waiting for the download to finish, I should have rung Tony Abbott's office to discuss a few "tech head" issues. And to mention to Mr. Abbott that while he and a lot of others are wondering about download speeds and the worth of the NBN, no one seems to wonder if Australians have any big UPLOADS to execute. Nope, it seems, no one assumes that Australians are going to want to be doing big uploads of anything -- not data, not information, not knowledge, not wisdom.

And in Armidale the town, since the later 1990s? Zilch. Except, it was announced early 2010 or so that a special NBN trial would be made in West Armidale (Armidale First Release Site), which area is anyway out toward the university, which already has FOC. (Inquiries here can be made to freecall info line 1800 881 816 or e-mail to connectme (at) nbnco.com.au) Since this trial was started, NBN, which has no office one can call into in Armidale, has had at least two begging press releases in newspapers asking West Armidalians to sign up to for broadband, possibly for free unless the installation would be non-standard. Local newspapers have displayed photos of blokes in trenches installing nice blue cable. And so on. It seems the take-up rate is low.

Living in East Armidale, this is no good to me yet. It's October 2010 already and I've yet to hear of anyone, anyone at all in West Armidale, even a business, hooking to broadband and developing an opinion for or against. Armidale is not a techo-enthusiastic town unless it's deep in domestic privacies or in-house industrial normalcies, unadvertised. And it's fascinating to conjecture, that if-and-when parliament was hung, if Tony Windsor with his enthusiasm for the NBN, as he hasn't done (it should be stressed), might have said to the powers-that-be, why not now do the rest of Armidale, east, north and south? God forbid! FOC an entire town in the New England electorate? For the sake of an enlarged trial?

In my opinion, since I know both cities in the New England electorate, apart from the needs of University of New England, Tamworth would have been a far better place to trial the NBN. Tamworth has a bigger population, is pacier, is more economically motivated than Armidale in general, has a bigger hospital (and larger demand for general medical requirements), and as far as spin-offs go, has much more an impressive regional and industrial clout and reach across northern NSW than Armidale has had or ever will have.

Meaning, a NBN investment in broadband in Tamworth would have provided far more and better feedback than a trial in Armidale would. Maybe more mismanagement here, and some politics with it?

But let's look at FOC in general. Let's look at a crikey.com article on "understanding the NBN" of 24 September by Bernard Keane, Crikey's best effort so far at trying to understand the issues and an effort that could have been better. Keane thinks the government (read Rudd et al) has done a poor sales job. (Correct.) He thinks that people generally don't actually "get" the NBN. (Correct.)The economists think it's a dud idea and/or needs a cost-benefit analysis, while telcos and IT people think the economists have no vision. (Fairly correct about the division of opinion.) There's a lot of inconsistency in all arguments advanced so far. (Correct). That no one has been asking about what it costs Telstra to maintain its copper wire network. (Correct). And Keane complains that almost no one is talking about Australians executing sizeable *uploads* for any reason.

Two things Keane doesn't mention. That for a decade or more, Telstra on its own initiative hasn't been keen (or intelligent enough) to complement its copper wire network with FOC. That no one is mentioning the general, and nationwide, cultural benefits of better communication facilities. It doesn't matter if copper-wire is doing more than it was originally imagined it ever could. It's time for an update.

And as Alan Kohler observed in the ABC's online Drum column (27 September 2010), Telstra does know Internet-wise that content is the issue, while its fixed-line business shrinks alarmingly. Of course, different content means different - and maybe larger - data sizes. But it also seems so odd, so very strange, so very odd, that Sol Trujillo when he was in the Telstra saddle used to talk on TV in pontifical ways about "growing the business". It never occurred to Sol, apparently, to grow the copper-wire network by way of some FOC add-ons.

So let's try some facts, or, apparent facts. We can open this up with a nice practical question regarding the trial NBN installation in West Armidale. If and when it's connected, what will it be connected *to*? That is, what will the bits of nice blue cable to talking to? The Armidale telephone exchange? The University of New England? It seems to me, living in East Armidale, no one knows or cares. (I'll get back to these questions in a follow-up post.)

Fact is, University of New England is probably already riddled with nice blue cable. So presumably is Armidale telephone exchange, which is close to the new Armidale police station, just down from the Armidale CBD. In West Armidale is located the medical sector, Armidale's hospital which has doctor's practices near it and several busy medical/pathology labs. Residential West Armidale is merely between the university and the hospital, so it looks as though the trial NBN area embraces the two already-most-wired establishments in this small city, apart from the exchange/police station location in the CBD. Whether the hospital and/or the university are wired to the exchange, I don't know for a fact. It's an obvious question to ask, which Armidale people are not asking.

Let's see. Doctors in the New England electorate, or anywhere else. Since the later 1980s in Tamworth and Armidale as far as I know, ordinary doctors, general practitioners, have been able if they want to, to dial-up a giant medical diagnostics operation in California. Presumably by copper-wire, in those days. Presumably, if they now had FOC, they could send much larger data sizes to California for diagnosis? What would be the cost-benefit analysis on helping or saving lives here? (Tamworth has a regional base hospital of good reputation, UNE now has a developing medical faculty.)

Let's see. What if this were the case with most small cities in Australia, let alone the larger ones, that they all have a patchwork quilt of broadband already installed? That all that NBN Co - or anyone else -- has to do is go about joining up more FOC nodes, depending either on commercial demand or governmental largesse, it hardly matters as a technical matter. Except perhaps as a question of scale and the speed and intensity of installations.

Depending on who so far manages those nodes? Telstra? Word is that Telstra is dying to offload its copper network to NBN Co. But this situation, its why and wherefore, seems to be under close media wraps. We hear nothing of the deep inner yearnings of Telstra, or the frustrations if any that the NBN Co. might have. Is this because most people just don't get the issues? Or is it because Australia's journalists can't ask questions?

We come now to the views of someone (requesting anonymity) in the New England electorate who knows enough about electronics, radio broadcasting, satellite FM transmission and reception, computing, and New England electorate politics, to be reliable. He makes the following points and asks the following questions:

  1. Are most journalists in Australia qualified to comment on any of these issues? Certainly not! Implying, they won't be asking useful questions of the telcos or the politicians.

  2. FOC is impervious to most water-based problems. It is not subject, as satellites delivering wireless broadband might be, to meteor showers. It is faster and carries much more data capacity than copper wire, because it uses light. With data transmission, faster is always better, by definition, due to the packet-system used for defining, sending and receiving digitised data.

  3. To date, telcos don't use satellites for large data transmissions, they use undersea FOC. Because they are aware of the issues.

  4. Wireless broadband can suffer shadows for reception due to topography, which doesn't apply to FOC.

  5. No one needs extra transmission towers (for wireless) littering the landscapes/cityscapes.

  6. Our Asian neighbours (competitors?) such as Singapore, are already heavily into data-handling. (South Korea is the most heavily-wired territory on earth) What about our regional competitive advantages?

And having worried about all this, your present scribe asks in final despair ... With all this not-getting it, or worrying about the cost, or political infighting ... Why on earth hasn't anyone yet suggested that our Federal government simply mounts a national lottery to help pay for a NBN? Something that simple?

Dan Byrnes, Armidale, October 4, 2010.

Go To Part 2.



Writer, poet and historian, Dan Byrnes has been loading material to The Net since late 1997.
This most recent article arose after a a letter to the editor which was published in the PGTS Humble Blog. It was also published in several regional Newspapers in the New England electorate of independent MP Tony Windsor. Part 2 of this article can be found here.