What’s wrong with wireless?

An angry-looking wireless router made out of felt materialYou may remember me writing about the National Broadband Network just prior to last year’s Federal Election, where I laid down a few thoughts on why I believe it is such an important piece of infrastructure for Australia. Sadly, support for the concept of a (mostly) homogeneous, nation-wide fibre-optic network has gained little traction since then, because of a concerted media campaign against it led by the Liberal mouthpiece The Australian. Its unrelenting stream of angry rhetoric has given the Coalition and Luddites a number of specious arguments to use against then NBN, particularly the one where wireless is supposedly a better alternative than rolling out optical fibre.

As a tech-savvy person, I find it very difficult to understand why we’re even having this debate. After all, there are certain ineffable truths on our side – as the famous geeky quote goes: “ye cannae change tha’ laws o’ physics!” – and yet every day we endure tirade after hateful tirade about why the project is oh-so-wrong.

To that end, I found a post by user jwbam on the Whirlpool forums very insightful. He writes:

The benefits and limitations of modern networking technologies are not intuitively obvious. What technically-informed people know about telecommunications infrastructure is the result of over a century of research by countless scientists and engineers funded by governments, military and corporations. The limitations of wireless may seem simple and obvious to you and I, but the average person in the street:

  • doesn’t know or care what radio spectrum is, nor that it is a limited resource;
  • thinks that because wireless has no wires, it must be cheaper and better;
  • considers wired and wireless technologies to be equal in all respects;
  • sees wireless gadgets in the shops that feature faster-than-NBN speeds, and doesn’t realise the difference between local area networks (LAN) and the internet (wide-area networks, or WAN);
  • sees a wireless modem that just works, all by itself, without any thought for the infrastructure that enables it – towers, spectrum and backhaul;
  • believes that their wireless link has a global range.

But most importantly, they don’t know how much there is that they don’t know, so they make no effort to learn how it all works and what the limitations are.

(Used with permission; edited for length and clarity)

He goes on to explain that because consumer networking technology has become simple, cheap and user-friendly, people expect that the same qualities must apply to large-scale networking infrastructure. So when they hear about the cost and complexity of the NBN fibre rollout, it suddenly seems expensive, exorbitant and excessive, and they position themselves to oppose it as yet another inefficient and ineffectual government program.

I’m not suggesting that everybody should have a working knowledge of the technology in order to refute the claims; it’s that politicians and journalists (who should know better) are presenting scathing arguments riddled with these ridiculous factual errors, and people – oblivious to the truth – get taken in by it. Normally we’d laugh derisively at the hacks who presume to tell experts how a thing could be better, but are we now faced with a group whose hatred of Labor is so complete that they’ll accept lies as credible? Incredible.