In this election, think more broad(band)ly

Fibre AustraliaOf all the major policies being debated in Australia’s 2010 election, it should be of no surprise that my interest lies mainly with the building of a National Broadband Network (NBN). In a nutshell, last year the Labor government kicked off a large-scale infrastructure project to build a nationwide network of fibre-optic cables capable of carrying telecommunications traffic at much higher speeds than the existing copper-based network that our phones and internet run on. If Liberal wins, they have pledged to stop work on it immediately, and instead adopt a vastly inferior approach.

Before your eyes glaze completely over, let me quickly say that even though the other issues might be more important to you in regards to how you vote, give me this opportunity to explain why you should give at least a passing thought to the NBN.

Who cares about the Internet?
By virtue of the fact that you’re reading this blog, I’m probably preaching to the converted. However I’m sure that you can think of family, friends and colleagues who think that going online is all about porn, spam, and time wasting. Online services (not simply the Web) are helping to transform society for the better. Have they tried submitting their tax return via e-tax and getting their refund promptly within 14 days? Do they know that they can talk to family and friends around the globe for free using Skype? Missed a show on TV and used a site like ABC iView to catch it there instead? The Internet isn’t about just the Web any more, and resist it all you like, but it’s quickly becoming an integral part of our lives.

Do we need more speed?
All of those things are available today, so what’s the NBN going to deliver that we can’t already get? In today’s terms, nothing. The issue is not, and should not be about speed. It’s about how efficiently we can move data around in a society and economy increasingly dependant on information. Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google loves to rattle off the statistic that every 2 days, we are creating as much information as all of humankind has ever generated from between the dawn of time up until 2003.

It’s not even relevant what the information is: news, entertainment, business, and even non-human readable information such as farm-to-fork tracking of food, the future holds a tsunami of data that needs the capacity to carry it. A helpful but imperfect analogy would be traffic congestion. As our population grows and more and more cars appear, our limited road infrastructure would need to be upgraded by building more and bigger roads. Unfortunately there’s a physical limitation – there just isn’t any space. But because fibre doesn’t take any more room than copper wire, it’s as if you could turn a 2-lane street into a 16-lane freeway without it taking up any extra space.

Can’t it wait until later?
We need to consider that the infrastructure being built is not for today, or even the near future – the NBN won’t even be completed until the next decade. Our current copper network has served us well since the first trunk linking Sydney and Melbourne was laid back in 1907, with the remainder of the country wired up at significant expense to the Commonwealth of Australia by the Postmaster General, through ’til 1935.

The PMG position is a Federal Ministerial post, overseeing the Postmaster-General’s Department that was in charge of all domestic telephone, telegraph and postal services. With 16,000 staff, it accounted for 90% of the new federal bureaucracy. That figure went up to over 120,000 staff (around 50% of the federal bureaucracy) by the late sixties. (Source)

Pause to think about that for a moment. The building of the original telecommunications network accounted for between 50 – 90% of what we would today call “the government” of its time. But I digress.

Building the NBN is still predominantly physical work and will take a long time time to wire up the whole country, so whether we start now, next year, or next decade, the longer we put this project off, the further into the future it will be before we can start reaping the benefits of the NBN.

What about the cost?
The other massive stumbling block for opponents of NBN is the cost. There are so many misconceptions about it that I don’t have any hope of addressing them all here without burying you in gory technical details, but two huge points are:

  • The $43 billion figure constantly being thrown around is not one big huge lump-sum of taxpayers’ money, payable to NBN Co. up front. It is spread out over 8 years, and consists of a combination of taxpayer dollars (around $26-30bn roughly) and the sale of government bonds to private investors.
  • $43bn represents 3.85% of Australia’s annual gross domestic product, which averaged over 8 years is half-a-percent per year. We’re investing 0.5% of our country’s economic wealth into building the digital backbone of the future.

Still think it’s expensive? There’s more, but I don’t want to bore you with details on why the Coalition’s scare campaign is severely misguided. For that, I will simply point you in the direction of one Mr Ross Gittins.

The money could be better used elsewhere
A person could say this about any policy that one disagrees with. Faster rail links between cities? Don’t travel. More hospital beds? Fit as a fiddle. Paid parental leave? Already had five, can I give one back? It’s the moral high ground, and since no individual is going to agree with the way in which every single dollar is spent in this country – the arts, community building, welfare, etc. – it’s plain douche-baggery to object on the grounds that the funds should be spent on something else.

The government can’t be trusted to deliver on time, on budget
True. You got me there. But let me leave you with this quote, from Ian Verrender in the Sydney Morning Hearld:

[Tony Abbott] may not consider the potential long-term economic benefits to the nation. But his single-minded devotion to the enormous costs involved in the project at least has one major benefit. It will focus the minds of those whose task it is to roll out the network to make sure it is achieved with utmost efficiency.