Counterpoint: It's OK To Mourn The NBN

After the election last weekend, Luke wrote a short piece suggesting that with the change in government, we shouldn’t mourn the NBN. I think we should.

The change in government over the weekend didn’t happen over a single issue, but a range of them, but for the purposes of discussion, I’m going to stick to that single issue, namely the NBN. Lest I be (once more) accused of being a communist, I’m also going to point out that one of the good things about living where we do is that people get a free vote; Australia has voted for the Coalition, and so they will assume government. I could bore you with my own pet theories about why words like “mandate” shouldn’t be thrown around too heavily — but I won’t.

Instead, what I’d like to mourn is the key thing that’s always interested me with the NBN, and that’s the technology. Luke’s piece talks about the cost, but to me the thing to mourn isn’t the cost per se, and not because of the way that the FTTP NBN (and the coalition FTTN/FTTP hybrid NBN) was to be costed. It’s the difference that will be lost switching from a mostly-fibre to a mostly-copper NBN entails.

A hybrid system is one that has an inequality built in, and it is one that has effects on what you can do with the network. The Coalition government plan does call for fibre in business parks, but not residential areas, and I think that’s a missed opportunity to change the way we both live and work.

Yes, there are occupations that can’t be virtualised (yet), but at the same time, the positive effects of, for example, even shaving five per cent of the workforce away from an always commuting lifestyle are significant. That’s tens of thousands — maybe hundreds — of cars not on the roads, making transport more efficient for those still travelling. That’s bringing all sorts of businesses into reality for those workers, from home delivery — again assisted by smoother transport links — through to provision of business services, both those that can be done now, and those that could be developed.

There’s opportunity for new businesses to set up wherever they might want to be, rather than in the more expensive capital cities, and that too is an opportunity that a FTTN network won’t offer, thanks to the lower upload speed potential. Both parties jumped last week on a report that talked about a proposed $3800 in savings per household due to net efficiencies, but even if you do debate the actual figures, the less you can do with a network, the less those savings are likely to be. But I’m veering once again into costs issues, which I don’t entirely want to do.

There’s been a tendency in the NBN debate to declare that an individual is “alright” because their net connection meets their needs, but I do think that’s petty, self centred thinking.

I could easily go down that route myself — maybe. Where I live is on the FTTP three year plan, and Malcolm Turnbull has said that he’ll honour signed contracts. I don’t know whether or not the contract for my area is signed or not — and I’m also in an HFC area, just to confuse things — but the real strength of the network is in the sum of the whole, not the individual parts.

One of those numbers hovers directly over my house, but that’s not nation building thinking.

FTTN can do many things, and for many it will be an upgrade in real speed terms from the ADSL (and in some cases dialup) that they’ve had to endure to date. But from a technology standpoint, it’s not the same network, and cannot be. Given the stated policy of the Coalition to perform reviews on the existing NBN rollout, it’s always slightly feasible that they’ll adopt an FTTP model anyway — Simon Hackett’s simplified Fibre On a Copper Budget is usually the cited way around the costs issues — but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Meanwhile, real world bandwidth uses and needs continue to escalate at a very rapid rate; 25Mbps is fine for what we’re doing now (at least in download terms), but by 2016 (and I do think that’s being optimistic, but then big projects, government or private, have a tendency to run late; that’s certainly true of NBN Co right now) it’ll start to be slow.

By 2019, it won’t be enough for truly competitive business approaches. That’s being lost across the wider Australia, even if business parks and the like get fibre, because all that’ll do is create islands of fibre. Existing towns that have FTTP — like Armidale — get an advantage there, but Federal Government policy shouldn’t be about islands, unless it’s the entire Island nation of Australia.

That’s an opportunity that’s missed, and I think that’s something that’s worthy of mourning.

Mourning shouldn’t last forever; it’s appropriate to move on after a time of reflection, and as I noted above, government policy is predicated on what the people vote for at an election — at least in theory. Australia voted for the Coalition, and FTTN is part of its policy, so that’s what we’ll have to look forward to in the future. Right now, I reckon it’s fine to mourn, at least a bit.