Why Malcolm Turnbull is wrong about the NBN being unnecessary

malcolmturnbull
The always-interesting tech journo Renai LeMay has posted a controversial article on Delimiter, In defence of Turnbulls’ NBN speed claims. The crux of Malcolm Turnbull’s argument, that Renai supports, is that current broadband technologies, while not as fast as the limitless potential of fibre, are fast enough for what people need to do on broadband today, and therefore spending $40 billion on the NBN is a waste of money.
I strongly feel that looking backwards in technology terms is not the right way to evaluate whether an investment in new technology is worthwhile.

Here’s why:

– In the first few years of broadband availability, the vast majority of people couldn’t see why they’d need it, because dial-up was perfectly fast enough for their emails and web use of the day (which probably meant internet banking once a week and a few Alta Vista searches a week).

– Before home VoIP became possible (adequate broadband speeds and provider availability) people were happy enough paying 40c a minute to call from Sydney to Melbourne.

– Before ADSL2+ became commonplace, most people were perfectly happy to traipse down to the video store to rent a video and pay the associated late fees.

– Before the iPad came out, there was negligible demand for tablet competing. (See how spectacularly unsuccessful all Windows tablets had been, for example.)

– Before the iPhone came out, the vast majority of people loved their Nokias and couldn’t imagine anything better.

– Back when I started at APC in 2003, there was a prevailing view that PC CPU’s were ‘fast enough’ — you could run Microsoft Office at a good clip on them, and if you had a decent graphics card you could run the latest games.

– Before HSPA+ Telstra Next G, people had no idea you could really work effectively from a wireless connection at speeds close to home broadband. (Yes I realise the irony of that example, in the context… but no wireless network is a competitor for the rock-solid reliability of a modern wired network.)

My point is… when it comes to technology, the general public, outside of the tiny technology enthusiast field, do not cry out for new enabling technology. But they sure do appreciate it when it arrives, and when it is done right.

It’s the “done right” part that I think is the key thing about the NBN. It’s what the iPad is to Windows tablets.

I don’t pretend to be able to predict the future of technology (and I do think many of the examples given in the NBN promotional video are a bit absurd), but my personal hopes for the impact of the NBN are:

– That given it is a government project, there will be an impetus for the government to make all government services available online, including face-to-face consultations with government workers.

– That population stress will be eased on major cities because it will be easy to telework from any remote location using a reliable, non-fluctuating connection. (Wireless _does_ fluctuate, and ADSL speeds are a crapshoot on a premise-by-premise basis.)

– That more two-way internet applications will become available, taking advantage of consistently low-latency, high upstream speeds. (I am personally disappointed that the basic NBN connection is limited to 1Mbit/s upstream.) Currently, the internet is by necessity architected around one-way download applications due to the highly asymmetrical nature of connections to end users.

I also don’t agree that any current broadband technologies are capable of providing adequate performance when it comes to upstream speed. Optus’ 100Mbit/s cable, for example, can only provide 2Mbit/s upstream to each user.

My biggest hope, really, is that the NBN will provide consistent broadband speeds right across Australia. Without that, it’s prohibitive for “IP workers” to move to country areas where their broadband options will be limited and variable. As a result, we’re all forced to live in city areas and pay ridiculous house prices, or live in dowdy regional areas like Geelong or Bendigo where decent ADSL2+ is likely to be available, but you’re living in a ‘mini-CBD’ anyway.

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