There are a few vital facts missing from the debate over the two broadband policies. In fact, there is some misinformation and scare-mongering going on. Shocking, I know. And it’s only too easy to be persuaded by these inaccuracies and hyperbole when few voters understand the technicalities of the two broadband infrastructure proposals. So let me clear up some mysteries for you and Mr. Abbott (who, we discovered from his 7.30 Report interview with Kerry O’Brien, is “no Bill Gates.”)
First of all, Tony Abbott questioned on the ABC1 Insiders program why Australians should have to pay more than other countries per household for an NBN:
BARRIE CASSIDY: But if we are one of the wealthiest countries in the world why can’t we have the best?
TONY ABBOTT: Well if you look at other countries which have got good broadband systems like Korea for instance, like Singapore for instance, they’ve spent nothing like $5,000 per household to create a government run monopoly which inevitably given the history of this Government is much more likely to be a white elephant than a screaming success.
Well, not to worry Mr Abbott. I can explain why Korea and Singapore have not had to spend $5,000 per household on their broadband network… because Australia’s has the sixth biggest area mass (7,741,220 sq km) in the world. South Korea has the 108th biggest area mass (99,720 sq km) and Singapore has 192nd biggest area mass (697 sq. km) – smaller than Hong Kong, and comparatively the same differences exist in land mass. Not to mention that South Korea has a larger population than Australia, 48,636,068 people to 21,515,754 people. So, if you have to lay cable to each household/dwelling in Australia, a lot more cable is required to connect everyone to the broadband network (reminder: we are the only country which is also a Continent in itself).
Mr Abbott is also concerned about putting money into just one technology, fibre optic cable:
TONY ABBOTT: Of course I do Barrie. Of course I appreciate the importance of these things. But let’s not assume that we should put all our eggs in the high fibre basket either.
and on the 7.30 Report he said,
TONY ABBOTT: Well, as I said, I think we can do something that will be good for a lot less price. Our system will give Australians national broadband, but it won’t be nationalised broadband and it won’t depend on just one fibre technology.
So, why should we put all of our eggs in the fibre basket? Because the signals that shoot down fibre cable travel at the speed of light. Last time I checked, you can’t get any faster than that. This is cutting-edge, top of the range broadband technology and the fibre cable itself can’t actually be improved upon in terms of speed, it is only the fibre optic (data) receivers that receive the signals from the cable that can be upgraded in the future. Thus, investing in fibre technology is a long-term, value-for-money solution.
But Mr Abbott asks, what about wireless?
TONY ABBOTT: …I mean all of the people who are making daily use of telecommunications services, increasingly they’re using wireless technology.
All those people who are sending messages from their iPhones and BlackBerries, all those people sitting in airport lounges using their computers, I mean they do not rely on fixed line services.
So why should the Government be so obsessive about fixed line services?
Well, that is also easily explained. Those who use wireless internet on their laptop computers (at home or in a public place like an airport or a café) nearly always rely on a fixed line service (a modem or a router) in the immediate vicinity to interact with, which then sends a signal (through the air or down a cable) to a local exchange point which then continues the signal on to its destination (local, Australia, international) which is usually a server or an end user. If a person is using wireless through their USB modem or their mobile phone, although the initial signal travels through the air to a tower, it is still reliant upon cable technology under the ground to send the data information to its destination and then back to the user. So basically, a strong cable network makes wireless much faster and that is how it will be a reliable technology for the future. And it is important to note that fibre optic cable (which transmits flashes of light) is faster than copper (which transmits electrical pulses) as there is lower signal degredation over long distances.
Later in his interview with Barrie Cassidy, Abbott professed his hope for wireless to greatly improve:
TONY ABBOTT: Well look there are a lot of claims around. I mean there are a lot of people claiming that wireless technology is going to give us very high speeds in the not too distant future.
Once again, wireless will never be the primary technology to deliver broadband because the more users at any one time, the slower the electromagnetic waves are sent and received. Shadow Communications Minister Tony Smith, basically affirmed this point in his vague and non-specific reply to Tony Jones on Lateline, 18th August, 2010:
TONY JONES: OK, well that covers your answer to the spectrum thing. Let me ask you this though: isn’t it true that the more people using wireless technology that use it, the slower the speeds. Isn’t that a simple mathematical equation?
TONY SMITH: Well, wireless is contended, but the speeds and the technology is getting better all the time, and we are not only promising wireless, Tony.
The potential problem with the Coalition’s broadband policy is that it relies heavily on private sector investment in fixed wireless broadband and a fibre optic broadband “backbone.” To lay any cable, fibre usually being the most expensive per metre, is a substantial investment risk, with a likelihood of it being unable to deliver fast enough returns. Will the private sector be enticed by this reality? It is a very expensive exercise which makes one think that perhaps it is better for the Federal Government to provide a strong and unified investment in quality infrastructure which will deliver significant outcomes for levels of productivity and quality of living in the future.
Don’t get me wrong, there are uncertainties with Labor’s National Broadband Network (NBN), such as the lack of a cost-benefit analysis of the NBN, a large expected cost of $43 billion, the potential for cost blow-outs and a characteristic inability of the government to spruik and sell the real, more vital and appealing benefits of the NBN. Instead we are being fed the e-health line (online medical consultations via video, subsidised by Medicare), an important outcome but not the central benefit of the NBN.
Ultimately there is a very simple decision to be made when comparing the two policies:
Do you believe that the government should primarily fund vital infrastructure like the NBN (with the risk of slow returns), which looks beyond our current needs and attempts to keep us in line with the rest of the world on broadband?
– Communications Minister Stephen Conroy: It’s not an argument about can we afford to build the National Broadband Network…; it’s whether or not we can afford not to build it. Our competitors are building fibre networks; we are falling further and further behind.
Or do you believe that the private sector (with incentives from the government) should (and will) build broadband infrastructure which will be more varied in its use of technologies, but will not provide a unified network/plan?
– Abbott: I would rather rely on a comparative market than depend upon a monopolistic government to provide us with decent services here.
…what we need is something which is affordable and deliverable and I think that’s what the Coalition is offering.
NBN Co Ltd Home Page – NOTE: further information on the NBN can be found on the Publications page of this site
Liberal Party website ‘The Coalition’s plan for real action on Broadband and Telecommunications’ – NOTE: this link will open a PDF document detailing the Coalition’s policy
Labor Blog – ‘Help Spread the Facts – National Broadband Network’, 14/8/2010
‘Abbott quizzed on broadband and economy’, The 7.30 Report, 10/8/2010
‘Conroy, Smith debate NBN’, Lateline, 18/8/2010
‘Abbott defends Coalition’s broadband plan’, Insiders, 15/8/2010
‘Gillard promises video doctors with NBN’, IT News, Liz Tay, 17/8/2010
Statistics from The CIA World Factbook