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Australia's National Broadband Network Debate II.

By Dan Byrnes

Dan Byrnes, Armidale writer, poet, historian and ex-journalist has been living and working in country NSW for most of his life, with the exception of eight years of the 1970s spent in Melbourne. He has seen the dismantling of Telecom and the heard rumours about the management consultants who arrived in the 1980s to rip up even the stuff that they thought was nailed down. Now Telstra has discovered that they need to concentrate more on customer service ... And suddenly with rural independents holding the balance of power in Canberra, government is discovering that they really should pay a little bit more attention to "Regional" infrastructure ... Stuff like education and ... Yes, even a National Broadband Network!

In part 2 of his discussion of broadband, Dan asks yet again ... Is any of this half-baked?


Australia's National Broadband Network Debate - Part 2.

Anything been only half-baked here?

Between the dream and the reality falls the shadow.
- TS Eliot.

As we saw in Part One, Australia's proposed National Broadband Network has probably been only half-baked, and might cost as much as, gasp, only $43 billion.

Not to worry. Money is only money. Apparently, Australia has been grappling with spending only $36 billion on 12 submarines - if they were designed and built in Australia. This, following our recent disasters with noisy, "ailing", Australian-built Collins-class submarines. If bought from a European supplier, the submarines might cost only $9 billion. (The Australian, 8 October, 2010, page 7.)

That's fine, a nice saving, but we can't buy a cheaper NBN from Europe! One wonders though, if Australia does manufacture - can it manufacture? - its own fibre-optic cable?

(Government may or may not issue Aussie Infrastructure Bonds to allow people to invest in the network. It would be interesting to know if individuals respond, overseas investors, or what we call, institutional investors such as banks and financial funds, who could look more comfortably on a plan to wait 15 years for a return on investment.)

Dismally, we find that if anyone really wanted to assess the debate about Australia's projected NBN, they'd be better off if they also understood how government finances wend their way through arcane accounting practices and economic and monetary theory as well as arguments in parliament, as well as understand in detail how share prices and stock exchanges work. Behind that nice blue cable that the NBN proposes are several centuries of the modern history of western cultural And technical civilization. Ever since, say, Benjamin Franklin was fooling around with lightning and electricity.

And you thought the NBN was only about sending email or downloading music or YouTube clips? Silly you!

Is the NBN as someone has called it, "a black box"? And what might that mean?

It can get much worse.

Did you know that if you type "google" into Google, you'll break the Internet?

And did you know that if you type "NBN" into the Australian future, you'll get a visit not from the Federal Police, but from The Great Australian Cultural Cringe?

(And if the reader guesses that the present scribe just happened to have a pile of old weekend-edition newspapers lying around, and slowly went through them for this illuminating run-down on a contentious roll-out of nice blue cable, that's exactly right!)


National Broadband Network: The Costs

A fact or two.

A return from the NBN of about six-seven per cent by year 15 would be considered modest, saith a management consultancy named McKinsey by May 2010. (W/E Australian, 8-9 May 2010.) The said report cost $25 million. The findings of the said report are disputed by other analysts. It is unclear if about $26 billion of the necessary would come out of capital account instead of anything funded from a deficit. (Meaning, your present scribe asks, just what, financially?)

Meantime, the NBN - speed and capacity - would deliver us IT services worth about $130 per month at 2010 prices, with a 60gig download allowance monthly. (Andrew Colley, W/E Australian, 20-21 February, 2010.)

The IT scene generally remains technically volatile, prices of computer components keep falling, there is no telling what the future holds for the IT scene, good, bad or indifferent. A good deal of any of it is relative in terms of the observer's position and equipment. Anyone making any kind of investment in IT matters knows this before they act. The Australian government ought to know this when considering the NBN. So it does no good for the scaremongers to angst about costs (which might go up or down), or risks (which will probably change complexion from year to year, things are so volatile).

Because it's true, none of us know what the future holds. We live by faith and hope.

Magic in IT matters, though, is possible. As Arthur C. Clarke once said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

This is precisely the kind of magic that the NBN proposes. Don't ever let any non-tech-head tell you otherwise.

A computer scientist, Alan Kay, once said, "The best way to predict the future is to invent it."

That just might be American tech-bullshit, too. Whatever, don't ever let any non-tech-head in Australian politics tell you otherwise.

And, like volatile. It used to be thought that Australia's digital TV [spectrum] would be worth millions. Turns out, data-casting by this means has already lost its million-dollar niche. (Sydney Morning Herald [SMH], 8-9 May 2010.)

We guess, too, that any such digital-TV operators in Australia would have been gazumped, if not gobsmacked, by the revolution represented by 3D-movies, made known world-wide by the recent success of the movie, Avatar. Across all IT scenarios, new formats are always arising. Many but not all need to be carried by bigger-capacity data-handling systems.

By 2010, US publishers have felt moved to cut new deals with Amazon.com, which shifts so many books online, publishers cannot sensibly fail to notice Amazon.com. (How many small booksellers has bookseller Amazon.com crippled in the world so far?)

"A cold war between publishers and [literary] agents over the profits from e-books has erupted into open conflict that could reshape the book industry." (Item, W/E Australian, 24-25 July, 2010.)

Today, O'Riley computer book publishers in California can any day email your present scribe to sell him E-books in at least four formats. Which format would sir prefer?

No one knows quite what the future might hold for anyone relying on digital technology. Government policy might change. So might technology and the IT industry. So might commercial projections change. So might computer-user preferences change. The question is, can and should we rely on government decision-making in the IT sector?

There comes a time when a government's gotta do what a government's gotta do!

We Australians are feeling a lot of ambivalence about the NBN. Mark Reid from Bulleen Victoria wrote to the W/E Australian, 6-7 February 2010, complaining that no one is talking real numbers about the costs of the NBN. He figures, it will cost about $1955 for every man, woman and child in Australia. There is no "assessment of investment, return, or prices, only vague platitudes about driving productivity, improving education and health service delivery and connecting our big cities and regional centres." Reid feels that ICT opportunities are too risky and speculative for tax-payer-funded ministries, ICT matters are best left to private enterprises willing to take the risks. But then he admits we get a lot of poor service from our existing IT suppliers, and has to suggest, putting up with poor service is preferable to the NBN folly.

The Australian newspaper itself has been ambivalent all 2010. Some of its reportage has been valuable. But in August it got a case of collywobbles, reporting front-page that "NBN could cost households 'an extra $3000'" So saith the electrical industry to PM Gillard. Ms Gillard receiving this dire news had just had a fight on a radio frequency with Sydney shock jock Ray Hadley, who irascibly wanted to know from her just what it would cost him to NBN his own house - $2000 or $4000? But it seemed true that some homes or businesses might pay extra to be suitably wired, and that households would have to make decisions on which way to proceed into their technology-using future. (W/E Australian, 21-22 August, 2010)

Your present scribe can't make up his mind whether to face the devil or the deep blue sea, so he is abruptly going off alone into the desert from whence the prophets come. Australia needs the NBN!

Paul Kerin is appalled with Communication Minister Conroy's "contempt, arrogance and spin" as Conroy fielded TV-reporter questions on the NBN. With this interview, Conroy said the NBN won't cost $43 billion, only $27 billion (plus $16 billion borrowed). Conroy said, that sort of borrowing would only result a cost of in 13 cents per potential customer per day. (Which makes us remember that the ABC and its interesting radio and TV programming costs us only 8 cents per day. Do these sorts of figures make us fully realise that the submarines are going to cost us much less than 26-28 cents per day?) Kerin insists the real cost is $43 billion. (W/E Australian, 3-4 October 2010).

Kerin thinks that Access Economics' positive view about the NBN is not to be trusted since it is run by IBM, and IBM has a vested interest in the NBN. Conroy feels that the NBN will generate revenue such that interest on the debt incurred will be met, which would keep citizens happy. (But what about paying off the principal?) And in the light of his outraged objections to Conroy's "spin", Kerin wants an independent cost-benefit analysis done. (W/E Australian, 3-4 October 2010.)

Well, a cost-benefit analysis. Let's have far more of them. More economic rationalism is exactly what we need. Why not a cost-benefit analysis on the cost of keeping zoos, because children don't actually need to visit zoos, they merely find it extremely interesting and entertaining. If people can read things on the Internet, let's have a cost-benefit analysis on a proposal to close down all the municipal libraries in Australia and sell the books to wholesale second-hand book dealers in Wales. Who needs libraries these days? They're distinctly old-fashioned by now, aren't they?

What about a cost-benefit analysis, if people can read things on the Internet, on closing down a few newspapers around the country? I'd like to see a cost-benefit analysis on the costs of politicians talking rubbish in parliament and avoiding answering relevant questions. And a cost-benefit analysis on the costs of running cost-benefit analyses would be useful, too.

Costs? Conducting a cost-benefit analysis? Your present scribe doesn't feel the NBN will roon us all, whether or not it's true that the private debt of we Australians to overseas lenders is truly as horrifying as it is in recent years.

Part One of this article wondered if for comparative reasons, we shouldn't have a cost-benefit analysis on going to war? Try these percentages on, dear reader. In 1915, the Australian government issued its first-ever bond issue to raise debt to go to war. As a percentage of our GDP, our government debt was 50 per cent at the end of WWI. Government debt was 120 per cent of GDP at the end of WWII (not so many years before we embarked on the ambitions of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Scheme.). In 2009, our government debt was 16 per cent of GDP . (Jessica Irvine, economics writer, w/e SMH, 13-14 February 2010.)

But would you be willing to bet Australia's Future Fund on the NBN being a commercial success? I doubt it, and neither would I be willing. That would be asking far too much of our future retirees and their small fortunes. If we can't ask the Future Fund to help along the NBN, who can we ask?

The future. Doesn't looking into it give you angst? Every time I do it, I go plain weak at the knees. I try to give myself courage by saying yet again, "There really comes a time when a government's gotta do what a government's gotta do."

Costs? "We'll all be rooned", said Hanrahan. Despite the fact that Australia came through the 2008 GFC relatively unscathed, we're still short of folding stuff, apparently, and ambivalence continues ro rule, Ok. The SMH tells us that if we enlarge our population to say 36 million, inside 40 years we're going to need more roads (173,000km), schools (3250), cinemas (1370), and so on. Price-Waterhouse-Coopers (PWC) tells us so. We'll need an extra $2.6 billion to add to the $6.5 billion we already pay annually for rail, roads, ports and community infrastructure. Where will the requisite moolah come from?

Here, PWC resorts to really old-technology Economics I to remind us that (in a post-GFC stringent climate for banks) if banks are able to lend, they'll be constrained to lend from money given them by savers, you and I. It appears that there's a direct correlation between savers, you and I, and what banks can loan to the nation. But contrary to that outlook, and for any variety of reasons, including taxes on savings, Australian banks import a good deal of funding.

Thankfully there are naysayers to this sort of Economics I caution, which banks hadn't been observing for years anyway, which was one of the reasons the 2008 GFC happened.

A spokesman for the Industry Super Network thinks superannuation companies will invest in future infrastructure, ok. And an economist at JP Morgan thinks personal savings would make a very small scratch on the costs of infrastructure. So it's back to importing capital, which Australia has been doing enthusiastically since 1824, actually. While a Macquarie Bank economist wonders who should pay the cost of infrastructure growth, the present or the future generation? And the present scribe thinks, that the cost would be evened out by government across intervening generations. What could be fairer than that? (Items, SMH, 6-7 February 2010.)

Is the NBN a good commercial bet? The Australian put it succinctly one February weekend when it was noted that the Australian government, its NBN Co. and Telstra had been in talks about the NBN future, and whether NBN would buy or otherwise make use of Telstra assets. (Such as its fixed copper-wire network that is up to a century-old and has maintenance costs that Telstra will not reveal as far as you present scribe knows). Telstra has to justify any deal to its shareholders, NBN Co has to try to look decently commercial in its dealings and government has to justify a major investment for the future. "Otherwise, the estimated $43 billion cost would have to be added into the federal budget."

While ... Telstra, whether it now has a dismally low share price or not by now, is said to regard a NBN as a "spectre" which will nevertheless mean huge changes for Telstra. (W/e Australian, 3-4 October 2010).)

A spectre? Oh, dear, I being afraid, being very very afraid ... Telstra changing if not improving? What could be better than that! Cream in my coffee? Extra sugar in my toffee?

Here's the rub, apparently ... Where confidence in the NBN project is fully-underwritten by government, first up, or not. Therefore, any cost-benefit analysis would need to take this into account, one way or the other, while the current commercial actors, Telstra and NBN Co., can't agree on a price for century-old copper wire due to billions being at stake. Assumptions of value can't be agreed on. Government has the dilemma of implying that the NBN is commercially viable, or not. The lower the Telstra share price falls, the worse it gets.

Any Australian who has shares in Telstra, and is a voter, is in a wonderful bind, about having faith, or not, in a new venture that makes an up-to a century-old copper wire network increasingly redundant. (Or, the left hand with its finger in the pie of the present knoweth not what the right hand doeth with the pie of the future.) The NBN project would be better off if Telstra actually co-operated and made its trenches and ducts and so on available, and helped shift customer bases churn around the country. God forbid that anyone might think that Telstra itself has become somewhat redundant. Meantime, will the NBN Co act only as a wholesaler, refraining from dealing in value-added services? (Jennifer Hewett, W/E Australian, 27-28 February, 2010.)

All we can say here is, anyone willing to debate the ins and outs of telecommunications wholesaling and retailing in Australia truly deserves to be an ISP! And to bear the costs of running a Help Desk. There's an awful lot of people out there who don't know that the plural of a computer mouse is mouses, not mice!

Q: Listen, mate, I really like your horse. What's he worth? A: I bought him at an auction.

The NBN and eternal technical argument. Is wireless technology inadequate for the best Internet usage, the bigger-capacity data transfers? Can the NBN actually be justified commercially? Should the nation invest in a quite-new type of fixed-line network largely devoted to Internet-type usage?

Your present scribe lives in a country town - Armidale - that is broadly speaking, IT-disadvantaged as to infrastructure. He lives only four blocks from the Telstra exchange beside a fixed-line phone hooked to a copper-wire network that's up to a century old. Years ago one midnight in pre-broadband times he noticed a peculiar phenomenon in cyberspace, for about half an hour. It was as though bandwidth was expanding and contracting, so that his speeds of accessing the Net kept changing. It was as though bandwidth wafted in the skies, as individual clouds might expand and contract in the sky on a still day. Next day he happened to mention this to a fellow who worked at a local ISP. The fellow had been on the Net at the exact same time, and noticed just the same thing.

That's right, dear reader. Bandwidth behaves. It has a kind of being. Bandwidth bloweth and listeth like the size of the clouds. In Armidale in days of dial-up only, it used to be noticeable that around 4pm, when teen lads were home from school, access to the Net became slower, because the lads were into their computers and maybe online games. I got so used to this, I used to avoid reasons to use the Net between 4-pm-6pm. But this peculiar midnight phenomenon was unexpected, and actually startling.

In short, bandwidth, which gives us our access to the Net, re speed and capacity, is a resource that so to speak expands and contracts. Sometimes, it's a limited resource. With a NBN, bandwidth would expand more and contract less. Where does bandwdith come from? Well, that's one of the really serious technical questions, and we're wimpishly going to avoid it here simply because we lack the backbone!

But those anti-NBNers, Liberal Party non-tech heads, Messrs Abbott and Turnbull, feel we can do without the NBN because bandwidth would be provided by the sorts of commercial providers we already have, including wireless-using providers. Your present scribe doubts that either know where bandwidth comes from or what it is, and how it behaves. Actually, Australia might be better off with a mix, a kind of national crazy quilt of the provision of bandwidth, with NBN-style broadband a major tributary of national bandwidth, not even the main river.

It's this crazy-quilt that the future-faithless non-tech-heads of the Liberal Party are relying on. Across Australia we already have a hybrid mix of copper wire network, fibre-coaxial cable installation, and wireless-satellite delivery of bandwidth. If we all wanted more of this, we can easily go out and buy it. But what we can't buy is a NBN, because only our government can afford it.


National Broadband Network: Assumptions

Part of the debate about the NBN is an assumption that has bedevilled the IT Revolution as a social phenomenon for years, since we first heard about the legend of the paper-less office ... An assumption that IT gadgets propose a replacement of older technology (and styles of human interaction we are used to in relation to them).

Hence, IT productions would replace books and newspapers. Which is rubbish. Hence, video conference would replace face-to-face meetings. IT does not in fact propose outright replacement of anything, it proposes complementarity. And a mix of technical styles for bandwidth provision might just suit Australian geographic conditions better. But these would be geographic and historical dictates and outcomes, not the result of a do-nothing, knee-jerk response from non-tech-heads in the Liberal/National parties.

So your present scribe floats to a conclusion about a mix since [1] we already have a hybrid mix of technologies, and [2] since he lives a four-hour drive from Coffs Harbour on the eastern coast, but gets his bandwidth from a provider in Perth on the west coast. So to get onto the Net he has to more or less move across the continent, and he doesn't fully understand it yet, either.)

To emphasise ... IT products and gadgets are complementary and supplementary. They do not replace old technology outright, nor should they. This too is part of the NBN debate.

There's another unexplored assumption lurking here in Australia's days of so-called ongoing IT-Revolution. It's with the distinction between information providers and information consumers. As journalists can discover any working day, the world is divided into two kinds of information handler, consumer or producer. Consumers are the newspaper readers. The producers are the journalists, editors, printers, interviewees, writers of press releases, etc.

Sometimes, and especially in the media outlets themselves, individuals are ferocious consumers of information while they produce. The same can apply to IT workers. Yet in Australia we see the paradox of journalists (who use computers and often file stories into multi-media platforms) reporting on the NBN while seeming to assume that most Australians (as potential NBN-users) will be information consumers, not producers. This too is where The Great Australian Cultural Cringe is making fresh attacks on our collective communication confidence, much aided and abetted by Messrs Abbott and Turnbull.

It's not on!


The National Broadband Network: For and Against

Messrs Abbott and Turnbull of australianliberalparty.com.au are ludicrously agin it. Kerin is agin it without an cost-benefit analysis. A telco-tourist to Australia, Mexican telco billionaire Carlos Slim Helu, says the cost is excessive. Helu, perhaps doesn't quite feel the facts: that Mexico has a population of 111 million, more than five times that of Australia, and is much smaller than Australia with its vast distances. His view of normal costs might not be directly transferable to Australian conditions. Much as Japanese car-makers decades ago found that they had much to learn by test-driving their products in outback Australia!

(A few other NBN sceptics are noted in Part One of this article.)

Intel's managing director in Australia, Philip Cronin, also with the Australian Information Industry Association, feels it's time to leave politics behind, time to start building the NBN, and to discuss the social benefits and what will actually happen on the network. Intel meantime has arrangements with government to brainstorm on finding ways for e-learning, e-health, e-government and energy conversation to be distributed in both metropolitan and regional areas. Interestingly, Intel in Australia has a social services division.

(Gee, don't you wish Telstra actually answered its own phone, had a social services division, and had less of so many different kinds of mobile phone to sell!?)

The first time I ever overheard anyone using a mobile phone, it was a lass about age 22 on a bus stop, telling her friend, "It's a very good movie."

Second time, there was the bloke in the Mall late one afternoon, pacing angrily back and forth near the Armidale courthouse, abusing his ex-wife for all to listen to.

That's right, most people are not using mobile phones for earth-shatteringly important discussions. Just, stuff.


National Broadband Network: The Social Benefits

Surprise, surprise, about what if Australians bought all the new IT gadgets and missed the point about communication between people?

We find that problems persist with the Rudd government's debacle in making small laptops (netbooks) available to school students, and its problems with rolling out the wireless technology needed to hook students to the Net. The netbooks incidentally are intended to have a working life of four years. Much as some years ago, university students were able to buy computers deliberately intended [for reasons of likely changes in technology/software in the timeframe] to have a working life for as long as it took them to get a degree, three-four years.

And Yes, Messrs Turnbull and Abbot, wireless also needs roll-out to get moving, sorry if that's tech-head stuff.) Apparently, everywhere we look regarding using IT gadgetry, and as with life, it's just one damned thing after another, ain't it! (W/E Australian, 6-7 March 2010),

Secrets and sub-texts

There are a good many sub-text debates living a secret life inside the Australian NBN debate, some of them cultural, social, even historical, not political, technical or commercial ...

Quite obviously, any question of the Australian NBN would dive square into the space opened up by wonderment about whether we should as a nation invest in major, publicly-owned infrastructure or to leave it to private enterprise. Today, these questions are often falsely-premised in terms of ideology, free enterprise versus socialism, mostly with free enterprise to be given free rein (certainly in the American or US view).

Today, the more real question is about efficient management of an operation, not its ownership. It might also be said that today, in the light of questions about whom could or should invest in large-scale projects meant for the public good, government is the investor of last resort. It is a political question, but not necessarily an ideological one, about whether to invoke a government investment. Bi-partisan agreement on any such move would be optimal, but in Australia we can't manage this for any NBN.

Historically and as a question of government investment, the NBN debate reminds us of decisions Australians have made about provision of railways (by government), the early spread of electrification (often by private enterprise), use of gas (often by private enterprise), roads and bridges (mostly by government, with the first workers being convicts), a Sydney Harbour Bridge (government). Touristy icon internationally, The Sydney Opera House (pretty much a work of art, partly funded by lottery and supervised by government).

The Snowy Hydroelectric Scheme (government). And any variety of large dams in various states (government). Not to speak of government oversight of national park-type areas which might have fallen victim to either neglect, careless private development, or a bad mix of both.

In Australia, government has stepped in, or been asked to step in, where private investors might quail. There is nothing the least objectionable about this. Governments can impersonally wait out the effects of a slow or minimal return where private investors would be worried. Government can wait generations for the social benefit of an investment to pay off where private investors might worry.

A population able to move freely across long distances, using railways, is far better off. Assuming the use of railways and cars, a Sydney with a harbour bridge is better off, and its workforce is more mobile. And an Australia with a NBN will be far better off.

Calls for a cost-benefit analysis of the NBN take no care of social benefit concerns, optimism about cultural [multi-cultural?] development, nor cross-generational pick-up of the benefits. They are short-sighted, ignore the volatility of the technology, ignore our inherited, rather prodigal-with-space patterns of settlement in white Australia, and are mere excuses for either ideological pig-headedness, lack of political will, or embarrassment about not being the first to dream up a good idea for the national future.

Debate about how to actually best use the technology of the IT-Revolution?

Much of modern tech-social life - young people walking about or sitting in coffee shops, eateries, and at bus-stops, using mobile phones - are merely street-conspicuous and fashionable aspects of current tech situations. Your present scribe feels that for good or ill, modern IT has had and will have a divisive effect on society, dividing people into information-rich or poor, into computer-technology haves or have-nots. The NBN will only intensify this sort of dividedness. And it's a matter which will also come to the attention of Centrelink in a big way, if no one else in Australia.

Another subtle debate here is about web literacy. Educated Luddites of the literary persuasion have long been lamenting the demise of letter-writing (snail-mail?), loss of the art of handwriting /calligraphy), that people read fewer books and watch more video than they should.

(Which is true of your present scribe, even while he is writing a book on a certain topic, with the aid of two computers and the fruits of looking up a vast numbers of websites after 30 years of reading books on the said topic).

Such Luddites tend to overlook the fact that the truly web-literate person is quite literate (in the old way), numerate too, and has an extra streak of savvy about new tech and how to assess the worth of digitally-delivered information.

The best of the NBN customers of the future will be far more web-literate than most people that you and I know so far in our lives!

It's called, education. If teaching children to read, write and use numbers is culturally valuable in itself, the value of adding web literacy to whatever abilities children might have is inestimable.


National Broadband Network: The various tragedies

So what about the old network of fixed copper-wire? Well, it's just something to further build on. This might be inconvenient for shareholders in Telstra, but the more real tragedy is that Telstra as a Federal government instrumentality was sold off. Telstra can no longer simply be ordered to add nice blue fibre optic cable to its lesser-capacity copper-wire network. Now, Telstra has to make a decision. And it is hard to say what just what Telstra will actually look-and-feel like when and if it decides to sell its copper-wire to NBN Co.

Your present scribe predicts that a great many Telstra shareholders will soon look elsewhere. Without its copper-wire network, Telstra will have no stick to beat anyone over the head with, anymore. Telstra's copper wire network is a great asset, but Telstra has so far sat on it while Sol Trujillo rubbed his hands with anticipation about Telstra "growing the business" and then he sat on it too and did nothing.

Let's be clear, though. Telstra has been put in its place, whether or not it has been symbolically or actually holding anyone or anything to ransom due to its prior ownerships of "assets", as some have claimed. It's a fact. That this tech-head stuff is so much fun, it is so "creative", so flexible, so malleable, that "the broadband network can be built without Telstra's involvement". (Ari Sharp, SMH, 8-9 May 2010) That is, we don't actually need Telstra anymore. Telstra is merely one player amongst many.

One wonders deeply where NBN-type resources would fit into the following sad scenario outlined in Sydney. The NSW Government by 2001 had outlined a $30 million IT plan - The JusticeLink Project - to modernise NSW Courts. The plan by 2010 is a year behind schedule and about $8 million over budget. Staff are stretched and stressed, document transfer is delayed. "It's a totally stuffed system," "it's "substandard, late, over-budget and now it's just not delivering", say those involved. The estimated cost has blown to $48 million, not including extra training and implementation costs. (Check jgibson@smh.com.au, SMH 2-4 April 2010, Joel Gibson.)

It seems, regarding communication and not missing the point of it, we have no room at all here for Rudd's amazingly intimidating "programmatic specificity". It's all going to be a bit more chaotic than specific.

Communications Minister Conroy (by 8-9 May 2010 in SMH) had noted that part of his plan, partly to stymie the Nationals' scheme with Liberals to torpedo the NBN, would involve 540km of backbone construction to connect regional areas. Your present scribe doesn't actually know what "backbone construction" means in this context, so don't feel poorly if you don't either. He wonders though if 540km of it would be enough, because 540km is just over half the distance between his home area and Melbourne. It's quite a drive! But what about all of Queensland?

In response to Conroy, Warren Truss feels perhaps as your present scribe might, that a blend of technologies would help ensure that regional people are not left out. Brilliant insight, Mr Truss! A blend is what we've already got, what we'd have whether or not the NBN went ahead.

What might we get? In Tasmania, as many as three towns have been rolled into the NBN roll-out. Town residents are incentivated to sign up for free installation of "network termination units", a box allowing them hook their home into the NBN so they can then buy a plan from an ISP for 100mps broadband services. But just what is technically involved here in "hooking", we won't find from a newspaper. It's right here, at the connection point, sociologically, that computing as a peer-group activity, email and the role of word-of-mouth advertising, are going to matter vastly to NBN Co. as it tries to find a commercial return.


National Broadband Network: The End

And so for your present scribe, it's back to Armidale where in a full-page advert in The Armidale Independent, 6 October 2010, if we live in West Armidale but not north, south or east, we are invited by NBN Co. to sign up now (by 8 October) to become NBN-ready and enjoy the benefits of superfast broadband at no charge. Get your consent form in. "Any upgrades to or installation of wiring inside premises is not included as part of this offer." (Check out nbnco.com.au.)

This advert depicts any kind of two-garagey, color-bonded-and-brick-style home built in the past twenty years, housing two parents and two kids about six-eight. If you know Armidale, this is not exactly THE West Armidale demographic, it is more John Howard's white picket fence-family that never quite existed. The parents depicted would be the upper crust of West Armidale (not including the University of New England part of the area), IF they lived there.

Several questions are being asked in Armidale. Why not all Armidale? When is the NSW Housing Commission going to start talking to NBN Co. about numerous premises they have? How much would it cost the individual residence? Has anyone heard of any businesses hooking up with enthusiasm?

It's probably best to phone your favourite ISP about all the what-ifs, of which there are many.

That's just what we need. Someone to do a survey of the views of all the ISPs in Australia about the NBN. So far, your present scribe has not yet seen the ISP industry association viewpoint reported in any newspaper. And it would be disastrous, while the take-up rate so far is as "questionable" as it is, if the NBN plan was half-baked from inception, and we were to find that newspaper reporting on the matter was also half-baked.

Seriously, it could all be so much well-baked. All we need is a good baker. That baker is not named Telstra, so who do we talk to? Ghostbusters? Or NBN Co?

Your present scribe suggests last of all that building a NBN would be rather like creating a huge, nation-wide people-park for communication. Rather like building a national park, truly national, though nothing to do with appreciating nature. But dealing equally with healthy informal education, recreation, and healthy interaction between people of all persuasions, a national opportunity.

There's also no reason why NBN-building couldn't first concentrate on wiring all the awkward spots in Australia, making them more accessible, if only, virtually. Our first telegraph installations went in without fuss and were greeted with enthusiasm. There's no reason why the same could not be said of the NBN in the future.

What if the NBN plan all fell in a heap? We're no worse off, really. All we'd have extra is three towns in Tasmania, Armidale NSW and a few other early-release sites newly-wired with nice blue cable in a half-assed way, and that's that. There's a lot of the country already wired in a good-assed or half-assed way.

Which is what you'd get in a large country with long, indefensible coastlines and several arrogant and over-stuffed major cities and otherwise vast distances, populated by people who are not- so-good/confident at communication, educated by under-funded and over-stressed, yet-broadbanded universities, suffering a serious cultural cringe for a century and more.

Today, a country tragically burdened with often-ignorant politicians and IT-gadget using people who don't yet realise that IT-revolutions major and minor have to do with real live communication between intelligent human beings of capability, not just interaction between gadgets.

If Australian politicians were musicians, and the future was a gig, there's a lot of them would never get the gig, and who should also be fired from their day job! Which is just one of the things our hung parliament is about.

But communications-wise, they're either living in the past or they still don't get it. Your present scribe wonders if he should email them?

Bugger it! Easier to just post it on the Net! Where doubtless they'll never see it!

As with the old joke about national security matters in the James Bond movies. If you seriously want to hide something, put it on public display.

Dan Byrnes, Armidale, 9 October 2010

Go To Part 1.



Writer, poet and historian, Dan Byrnes has been loading material to The Net since late 1997.
This is the second article on the NBN debate. The first one can be found here .
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