It was Nick Minchin who said that his broadband was fast enough for him. He could not see why the country should embark on an expensive very fast fibre-to-the-home/business/institution National Broadband Network. So if today’s broadband is good enough for Nick, what on earth are the NBN advocates carrying on about?
As has been the case with other worthy initiatives it has introduced, the Government has not clearly explained to the people just what an NBN would do for this country. This piece is an attempt to fill that gap.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics
, in December 2007 there were 7.1 million Internet subscribers: 964, 000 business and government subscribers and 6.14 million household subscribers. An ABS
survey found that in 2006–07, 64 per cent of Australian households had home Internet access and 73 per cent had access to a home computer. Children aged five to 14 are major users of computers and the Internet. Of the 2.7 million children in this age group, 65 per cent use the Internet and 92 per cent use a computer. That was three years ago. I heard just this week that 80% of Australians now use the Internet. It can scarcely go much higher unless we give iPads
to babies and the very elderly.
To start from the very ordinary, let’s look at simple tasks such as up and downloading files to and from the Internet.
This week, while loading LYN’S DAILY LINKS for July on my remote server, because it was a very large file after the month’s links were aggregated, it took over half an hour, during which I could not use the Internet at all. I’m using Next G Wireless Broadband, which even in rural areas is a lot faster than the old dial-up connection I used previously. How many would now be content with that? As each improvement comes along, it is avidly taken up. When Labor came to power in 2007, our speeds were 35 times slower than the fastest nation. To stay in the race, we needed to improve our performance. No one wants to go back to the old days, or even stay where we are, except perhaps Nick Minchin, who like Tony Abbott spends too much time looking in the rear-view mirror. What will the NBN do that current broadband won’t?
Well, it will connect 93 percent of all Australian homes, schools and workplaces with broadband services with speeds up to 100 megabits per second – a 100 times faster than those currently used by many households and businesses, and connect all other premises with next generation wireless (4%) and satellite technologies (3%) that will deliver broadband speeds of 12 megabits per second with average data rates more than 20 times higher than most users of these technologies experience today.
For more details of the NBN, click here
. To see the map of where the NBN and the other technologies will be connected, click here
. What will the NBN do for us?
For those who download music and video, films and the like, download times will be vastly decreased, minutes instead of hours. Now if that was all the NBN achieved, it could be argued that the value of spending $43 billion on it would be questionable. But, good though these faster speeds are for music lovers and film buffs, it is all the other things that will be achieved that make the expense not just worthwhile, but essential.
The most significant hindrance to the NBN is the paucity of imagination of those who offer an opinion. There are applications of this super-fast technology that have not even been thought of. Time and again inventions have been discounted by the unimaginative, such as the US army general who, early last century, said he couldn’t see a place for the new-fangled airplane in warfare. While watching the first episode of Return to Cranford
on ABC TV
, it was fascinating to see the resistance of the folk in that small village to the advent of the steam train and a rail line coming to their village. They were not only fearful about its effect, but skeptical about its value too. It reminded me of the comments of Nick Minchin and Tony Abbott, who says he will offer a ‘no frills’ version of broadband, not this flash expensive thing called an NBN.
So let’s leave the unimaginative to their narrow thinking and expand our minds to imagine what the NBN can do, might do.Health care
First let’s contemplate its application in healthcare, in which everyone has an interest. It is now considered equitable to offer the best of specialized services to even the most remotely placed, but as everyone knows it is not possible to staff every small town with the specialized amenities that exist in the heart of big cities. Indeed even outer suburban and regional centres do not have all the sophisticated diagnostic and therapeutic services that those in city centres do. With the NBN this deficiency can be at least partly ameliorated. Let me give some examples.
Imaging is now central to diagnosis and therapy. With 100 Mbps speeds there would be none of the buffering we now experience – images would be transmitted with such speed and resolution from a remote location that it would seem as if one was in the same room as the radiologist looking at his own computerized images, and able to talk with him by VoIP.
Imagine how consultations could be carried out between a patient in a doctor’s consulting room in a remote area and a city-based specialist. By video link a virtual consultation could be carried out by the specialist with both the patient and the doctor, the physical findings provided by the remote doctor, and lab tests, cardiographs and imaging available instantly. In dermatological conditions the remote dermatologist could even see the rash or lesion in high resolution, which with the history is usually all that is needed for diagnosis. Think of the time saved in travel by patients and doctors. This is already beginning to happen. The NBN could revolutionize health care in remote, rural, regional and even suburban areas, largely removing the burden of remoteness and long travel, of which country people are only too aware.
Many doctors and patients now communicate remotely by email. Imagine how much a video link could add to that form of communication. In situations where physical contact is unnecessary, think how well a consultation could be effected via video – it would save the patient travel and waiting time and the doctor too would save time.
e-health is another recent initiative, vital to proper maintenance of patient health records and universally available to any authorized healthcare professional at any time in any place. While able to be implemented without the NBN, it would work so much better with it. It is estimated to make a major improvement in the use of medications by avoiding duplication, mistakes and incompatibilities, and will significantly reduce medical errors and patient morbidity and deaths. Ten percent of patient admissions are related to medication problems. Imagine the cost saving if that number could be reduced through electronic records.
There are now systems which enable monitoring of vital signs such as blood pressure and heart and lung function remotely in nursing homes or patients’ homes, thereby saving on nursing visits; imagine how much better this would be with fast broadband – visual images of the patient could easily be added.
But it gets even better. Nowadays much surgery is done laparoscopically. Kevin Rudd had his gallbladder removed in this way. So-called robot prostate surgery is commonplace. All that is required is that the laparoscope and accompanying instruments be placed in situ
by the surgeon, who then operates by manipulating remote ‘play station’ controls while looking at a TV monitor. As the surgeon no longer needs to have his hands on or in the patient, he can operate ‘remotely’. Usually he will be in the operating theatre, but could be next door, or with the NBN in another building, or in another city. So long as the remote doctor is trained to insert the laparoscope and the instruments, which would come within the scope of rural practitioners, the specialist surgeon could be anywhere with 100 Mbps broadband. Think of the saving in time and travel, and the inconvenience avoided. If it sounds too high-flying, wait and see.What about education?
With NBN speeds teachers need not be where the students are. Although personal contact between students and their teachers is an essential part of the educational process, it is where high tech teaching from specialized teachers is not available that video links from such teachers to any number of classrooms would be possible with the NBN. These highly talented teachers could be spread so much more widely than at present. The NBN could provide virtual excursions for students to hard-to-access locations, and while actual visits are valuable, how many more visits could be made through the virtual world?
The rapid speeds of the NBN and the larger bandwidth would allow much faster access to Internet sites for more students simultaneously – the whole world of information and experience via the Internet would unfold magically in a way we never could have foreseen even a few years ago.Would it help business?
We live in a globalized world in which already hundreds of thousands of transactions are carried out across the world every day. The NBN will bring even more rapid speeds to transactions, quicker access to databases, and the capacity for virtual communication across the globe. Already VoIP is providing this but is limited by data transmission speeds. With the NBN it will be possible to speak with someone on the other side of the world as if they were sitting across the desk, and share with them files, spreadsheets and databases even better than if they were looking over one’s shoulder. Files would be shunted around the world in an instant.
The need for international travel for meetings and conferences would be diminished, as teleconferencing would provide virtual meeting and conference capabilities. Think of the saving in time and travel, and with it the diminution of carbon emissions occasioned by air travel. What about local business?
Here the NBN may be even more valuable. Leaving aside the advantages of 100 Mbps speeds mentioned above that apply to local as well as international business, think of what it could do for workplace management. Without minimizing the value of personal contact with workmates, there are situations where such contact may not be necessary every day. Take an office environment where most employees are sitting at their computers working on files or through the Internet. They may see each other at the water cooler or at lunch, but otherwise they sit alone gazing at computer screens. If they need to talk to a colleague they walk to his or her workstation. But even that perambulation is no longer necessary; they send each other emails or Twitters, or phone, and some now use VoIP. They use cloud computing to share and update files that live somewhere in the ether, each update automatically updating all versions of the file on multiple computers. Why could they not do that from home? Why could not employees be rostered to spend one day a week working from home, then two, then maybe three? Some human interaction would be desirable, but it does not need to be every day; after all we still take off weekends, just to get away from it all. With the super fast NBN, rather than walking down the corridor to a colleague, they would communicate by VoIP and if more than one person is involved, by teleconferencing. This would be convenient, instantaneous, and highly effective. The non-verbal signals colleagues might exhibit would be obvious on high definition video.
The need for interstate and overseas travel would diminish, as high-resolution instantaneous teleconferencing would create a virtual conference environment where everyone could see and talk with anyone, where audio or visual presentations could be heard and seen clearly on large high-definition monitors, and where decisions could be taken as efficiently as in an actual meeting. Think of the time saved for example in making a trip for a meeting in another capital city: the time saved in travel to the airport and waiting for embarkation, the hour or two of air travel, the taxi travel at the destination, and all that over again on the way home. An hour-long meeting might take a whole day.
Obviously not all businesses could work in this way. Retail outlets would need staff on location, as would construction projects, but if half the office workforce was enabled to work from home half the time, just imagine how this would contribute to lessening the time spent in travel to and from work, and in easing the road congestion that we hear on the radio every morning and evening, or suffer in our motorcars. Think about how it would take pressure off public transport systems. The burden and expense of building more roads and rail services to overcome our infrastructure deficiencies would be lessened. The NBN might turn out to be one of the most effective means of reducing traffic congestion and lessening travel time.
Now not everyone is suitable for working alone from home, but many already do and many more might be interested and willing, especially as the hours taken for travel mount. Who would not want to avoid being stuck in traffic for a couple of hours a day? Many might be willing to give some of the time saved back to the employer. A plan to enable work-from-home could be introduced slowly, home offices established by the employer, and any expenses incurred would be tax-deductable or reimbursed by the employer.
The reduction in carbon pollution would become increasingly significant as the number taking up this option rose. Firms would need less office space and would pay less rent. The NBN could revolutionize many businesses and work patterns, save money, improve productivity, increase profits and enhance participation and worker satisfaction. The potential economic benefits are enormous.The personal benefits
Many extended families live in widely separated places that make personal contact expensive and time consuming. Think of the benefits of having regular powwows with siblings, grown children and their families living remotely, with friends, with elderly relatives in nursing homes. Think of the joy of conversing in real time via brilliant images that bring family and friends into the living room in vivid colour.
The social benefits of the NBN have scarcely been considered. They could be very substantial.The unknown benefits
The benefits mentioned above are just some. The ability to enjoy a vast array of virtual online entertainment opens up countless opportunities for those so inclined.
But benefits will emerge that we have not yet imagined. Some of you may have ideas already.Where is the NBN at?
According to the Government website
, under Stage 1 of the priority rollout in Tasmania, the first services have been switched on in the communities of Midway Point, Smithton and Scottsdale. Stage 2 of the rollout will cover the communities of Sorell, Deloraine, George Town, St Helens, Triabunna, Kingston Beach, and South Hobart. Stage 3 will cover another 90, 000 premises: 40, 000 in Hobart, 30, 000 in Launceston and 10, 000 in each of Devonport and Burnie. The first building blocks of the NBN on the mainland are also underway. Under the NBN Regional Backbone Blackspots Program around 6,000 km of new, competitive fibre optic backbone links are being rolled out in regional Australia. Already, over 1,200 kilometres of fibre has been laid. These backbone links will benefit approximately 400,000 people in over 100 regional locations. This part of the rollout will also create around 1000 full time jobs.So would Tony Abbott be stupid enough to trash the NBN? Could he?
I believe the answer to the first question is ‘yes’. He is obsessed with his ‘debt and deficit’ mantra, despite Glenn Stevens saying quite recently that: “There is virtually no net public debt in the country at all in contrast to much of the developed world. The most recent figures out of Canberra was a peak of five or six per cent of GDP. So far from that being the highest in history, it is closer to the lowest"
. The graph on Grog’s Gamut
shows this in a startling way.
Because he is using ‘debt and deficit’ to support his ‘repay the debt’ slogan, and because a large chunk of his ‘savings’ supposedly comes from abandoning the NBN, he has locked himself into this course of action if he becomes PM. So he may well halt the NBN rollout. To my mind this would be the most backward move, the move most limiting to health, education, business and social progress that he could make.
Could he? Writing in iTWire
in Could Tony Abbott unscramble the NBN egg?
James Riley says: “…could Tony Abbott realistically pull apart a national fibre roll-out that has a considerable momentum of its own through the ambitious efforts of the NBN Company and its energetic NBN Co chief executive Mike Quigley.
“Well, yes he can.
“Tens of millions of dollars has been spent across Australia and across the economy – by small business, local councils, state governments, educations institutions, utility companies and multinational giants alike – to prepare for opportunities that would derive from high speed fibre. Huge additional sums have been spent by the communications sector, both potential suppliers to the project in preparing to tender, and by those service providers who will use the network. Construction companies have been tooling up and spooling up for the biggest (geographically and monetarily) job many some will ever see. And, of course, there is the NBN Company itself, well advanced after just one year, both in building the commercial infrastructure of a large, complex business operation and in building the network itself. From the state of the art network-operating centre in Melbourne to the early roll out in Tasmania to the fibre in the ground around Australia, the project has moved quickly.
“But the NBN policy is by no means embedded. The egg is not yet scrambled, the roll-out can be halted with relative ease, the ubiquitous fibre policy dismantled.”
Later Riley says: “This is a genuine problem that has everyone in the telco sector – perhaps excluding Telstra – terrified. It would be just plain bad news. For consumers, for businesses, for the economy.”
He concludes: “It is galling that the Coalition would put itself before the Australian people seeking government without even paying lip service to [an NBN]. It is one thing to punch a hole in the NBN Company and sink it without a trace. But developing and explaining a credible alternative policy that doesn't also sink the chances of historic industry reform is quite another. Not even addressing the issue three weeks out from a federal election is unbelievable.”
Stephen Conroy warned an Australian Information Industry Association luncheon last week that given the threat to halt the NBN, a change of government could ‘wreak havoc’ on the biggest micro-economic reform of the past decade. "If we win this one, the NBN will be unstoppable. It is almost unstoppable now, but if we lose the election Tony Abbott could wreak havoc,"
Conroy said. "In three more years time, as we have pulled the copper out of homes to connect to fibre, there would be no turning back."
So there you have it, Tony Abbott could ‘wreak havoc’ if he wins and probably will. This would not only be stupid but reckless and destructive of our health and education systems, and our economy, just to save a few dollars, just to save the best and largest investment in infrastructure this country has ever had. That is what you will get if he becomes PM.
But have you read any in-depth appraisal of the NBN in the MSM, any critique of its worth or the consequences of halting it? I haven’t; if you have, please post the link. The preference of most of the media for the trivial, the scandalous and the drama of the campaign has resulted is a paucity of sound analysis of policies and plans. There are many things Abbott is threatening to stop if he gets into power, but of all of these threats, in my view the gravest and most dangerous and destructive one is his threat to trash the NBN.
What do you think?