I’m seriously conflicted by the debate over Labor’s National Broadband Network.
On one hand, the future of CDU’s online Bachelor of Laws programs, whose creation and development I oversee, is heavily dependent on the availability of almost universal truly fast broadband within the next few years. The policy that the federal Coalition took to the last election just doesn’t cut the mustard and would if implemented effectively stymie our plans and possibly the long-term viability of the law school itself.
Indeed it would imperil federal government plans to expand the scope of higher education to cover double the number of Australians presently studying by 2020. That can only be achieved if people can study effectively using powerful flexible learning technologies which allow them to study from home or the workplace rather than needing to traipse to a university campus after work.
On the other hand, I think Labor’s current NBN policy is seriously wasteful and dangerously extravagant. An adequate fast broadband policy could certainly be fashioned which would cost much less than Labor’s plan but deliver reliable fast broadband to a much greater proportion of Australia’s population than the Coalition’s badly flawed ideas. Let me explain.
CDU’s B Laws program relies heavily on voice and video-enabled virtual classrooms for live or “synchronous” teaching of students throughout Australia and overseas. We’re currently the first university anywhere in the world to be teaching legal professional skills (like advocacy, client interviewing and negotiation and mediation skills) in an online environment. That requires simultaneous multi-screen Internet video-conferencing capability for all participants, desirably in full screen and high definition and with minimal lag times. We’re using the Adobe Connect Pro system (in conjunction with the NT Department of Education) and it’s great, but we’re hampered by inadequate Internet speeds. Something like 70-80% of human communication is non-verbal, and to teach and learn “conversational” professional skills students need to be able to observe and react to those non-verbal cues. We have found that students with fast (by present standards) ADSL2+ fixed line connections offering average speeds around 8-10mbps sometimes get almost (but not quite) satisfactory video resolution and lag times.
Students with wireless broadband connections get hopeless performance, with speeds typically fluctuating wildly between around 10mbps and slower than dial-up speed. I’m told that this results from the inherent nature of wireless broadband, a shared connection to a local tower where the speeds a user experiences depend on how many others are acessing the Internet via that tower at any given time, and what they’re doing from moment to moment. I experienced it myself when relying on a wireless connection from Albury NSW last week. It was school holidays, so the speeds were slower than dialup (and utterly unuseable) all day while the kiddies were playing online, but quite fast late at night. That is simply hopeless for any serious use (e.g. online higher education) and yet it is the solution Tony Abbott’s Coalition were touting for all of regional and outer suburban Australia. It is utterly stupid and unworkable.
As I observed above, even ADSL fixed line Internet as currently deployed is not quite adequate for serious virtual classroom teaching. The same would no doubt be true for analogous uses like medical conferences and business video conferences (imagine the savings if most of Australia’s 2 million businesses could conduct most meetings with interstate and overseas colleagues from their desktops rather than needing to fly to face-to-face meetings). I’m told that consistent speeds of better than 20mbps are necessary to sustain multi-window full-screen high definition video conferencing with minimal lag times. These speeds are not consistently achievable even with the fastest of currently deployed fixed broadband reliant on the existing copper network.
However, faster speeds than this (up to the 100mbps speeds claimed until recently by the NBN) are achievable (or soon will be) through a combination of fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) (as opposed to Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) on which Labor’s NBN is based) and emerging technology which will allow 100mbps speeds using upgraded existing copper connections for the last kilometre.
I have no idea exactly what the savings would be from relying on FTTN with central nodes approximately 1 kilometre apart in all suburban areas and regional towns for universal very fast broadband (100mbps), as opposed to the NBN’s universal FTTP solution. However it is bound to be a mere fraction of the $43 billion estimated price tag for the NBN.
If almost universal speeds of 100mbps can be achieved with FTTN, as seems to be the case, the only remaining justification for the NBN’s FTTP strategy is to wrest control of the existing copper network from Telstra and effectively break its wholesale monopoly which it continues to use to extort high access prices from competing ISPs, thereby stifling genuine Internet competition and inflicting on Australian consumers prices for Internet access that are almost certainly much higher than they should be. However there is no reason why the federal government could not negotiate a buyback (or sale to the NBN company) of Telstra’s existing copper network in the context of a FTTN strategy, under threat of compulsory acquisition if it failed to deal in good faith.
Coalition mouthpieces like Malcolm Turnbull and Paul Fletcher (former director of corporate and regulatory affairs at Optus) make some powerful points about the likelihood of the NBN company making a reasonable profit under currently proposed arrangements. Estimates of a 6-7% rate of return, relied on by Minister Conroy and based on an ‘Implementation Study’ by government engaged consultants McKinsey and KPMG, seem highly optimistic at best. On the other hand, Labor now seems to be planning effectively to force consumers to sign up to the NBN through a mix of carrots and sticks: adopting an “opt-out” model for connection, offering free connections to early adopters, and making it clear that the legacy copper network will eventually be decommissioned so that everyone will ultimately have no choice but to use the NBN for both voice/telephony and data. That may well allow NBN over time to achieve its required 60-70% of households signing up, but it still doesn’t justify paying much more than necessary to achieve almost universal 100mbps speeds.
The Coalition is over-egging the pudding with its demands for cost-benefit studies and strident remarks about opportunity costs, but with qualifications it has a point which Labor conspicuously does not (and probably cannot) answer. Many of the likely returns from a universal very fast broadband network are impossible to calculate in any reliable sense, and are in any event “externalities” which won’t be captured by the NBN company itself (e.g. what proportion of business meetings will be conducted via online HD video conferences in preference to flying to interstate meetings? Any estimate in a cost-benefit analysis would be no more than a wild guess). But those difficulties cannot justify spending $43 billion, more than half it and possibly much more being taxpayers’ money, when we could achieve an entirely satisfactory and almost universal very fast broadband service for a fraction of that price (though no doubt significantly more than the $8 billion Tony Abbott was asserting as the cost of his party’s hare-brained scheme during the election campaign).
The Coalition would be much more convincing in its Internet rhetoric if it explicitly dumped its stupid pre-election broadband policy and adopted one based on a combination of FTTN and upgraded copper for the last kilometre. I am available for a lucrative consultancy at very reasonable rates (comparatively speaking).
PS In case of readers who can’t work out the blindingly obvious, the opinions expressed here are purely my own and do not necessarily in any sense reflect those of my employer.