The Sheep Is Dead – Long Live the Sheep

It is a common expression in this country that the foundation of our economy “rides on the back of the sheep”, referring to our long and proud agricultural history, with the “sheep’s back” statement particularly related to our wool industry.

The National Broadband Network (NBN) has undoubtedly become one of the hottest politicial stories of 2010 and 2011, with opponents passionately opposing the cost to build the network, and supporters vehemently debating the technical and economic benefits of its existence. Regular readers of this site will be in no doubt that I am firmly in the supporters camp.

Opponents of the massive Fibre-to-the-Home (FttH) network variously want a completely unworkable wireless solution, or a combination of the failed OPEL Networks plan and a Fibre-to-the-Node (FttN) network to meet the desired outcomes more cost effectively.

The idea that a FttN solution will be “cheaper” and a “better solution” to the planned FttH solution is a fallacy. Anyone who thinks that the original FttN plan – (a mathematical model developed by a team of bean-counters at Telstra) – will compete with a FttH plan over the medium to long term doesn’t understand how similar a FttN and FttH solution would be in terms of how much work would need to be done.

In the short term – (the very short term) – a FttN network will be cheaper, but in fact you actually lock Australia into an expensive upgrade cycle, and it will never deliver a consistency of service, and a uniformity of service user to user – a key aim of the NBN. Speeds will still vary depending on how far you are from the node – just as distance from the exchange creates massive variances in speed right now.

Moving completely away from our aging copper network has many technical and cost advantages.

The Coalition wanted to spend $6b to get everyone up to the mysterious 12Mbps speed target, which is in fact slower than some people get right now.

Great. Fantastic. You can do that – but what happens a few years down the track when everyone needs 50Mbps?

You have to spend more money again to acheive that target, and then a few years later, you need to throw even more money at it again to get even faster as people’s need for speed rises.

The NBN is measured as a 30 year project – how many upgrade cycles would a FttN network, designed initially for just 12Mbps, lock us into for the next 30 years?

It will be no cheaper – in fact it will be more expensive, it will not provide service equality, and leaves Telstra in charge to continue raping and pillaging the wholesale market, just as they have done for years.

Average broadband speed in Australia is currently about 2.5Mbps (ABS figures), so the planned base NBN speeds – (ironically, of 12Mbps) – will improve average user access at least by a factor of nearly five.

The MINIMUM speed is lifted to 12Mbps, and therefore the average speed end user speed will be well beyond that with the higher available speeds. The FttN proposal only lifts people to a MAXIMUM guaranteed 12Mbps – certainly, some will get more, but that’s more of a side effect than it is an actual target of the plan.

The FttH version of the NBN also gives higher reliability, lower latency, and almost limitless expansion possibilities for the future. For example, the current state of the art for GPON technology – (exactly what is being built) – allows for 40Gbps with current proven fibre signalling technology.

There are already laboratory tests giving 400Gbps in a GPON-style network installation, using the exact same fibre that will already be in the ground, simply through improved signalling technologies.

The NBN will cost a lot of money, but the reason for the “big spend” is that deploying this kind of infrastructure will eliminate much future spending on expensive and repetitive upgrades down the track.

By building the NBN as proposed, we eliminate the network as a limiting factor – (like it is now) – and allow the market to spend time, money and effort developing applications on top of the network for the good of everyone.

At the moment, all the investment is wasted patching up a rotting, failing, undermaintained, 60-year-old copper network that is bursting at the seams, and artificially controlled by Telstra, driven by its legal responsibility to deliver the best possible outcomes for its shareholders – which is incompatible with consumer outcomes.

I can imagine a similar argument 60 years ago about not needing to spend taxpayer money building the copper network because we had the postal service and telegraph. In actual fact, the copper network cost more per head of population all those years ago, than the NBN is planned to cost per head now.

Might I add that the project is also ahead of schedule, and under budget.

Many think it’s a colossal waste – and they are entitled to that opinion. However, in my opinion – (and this is shared by many) – actually NOT doing could cost Australia a whole lot more.

Consider, by the year 2020 the ABS predicts that Australia will suffer from $20b in lost GDP simply through traffic congestion. People sitting in cars not being productive. Goods sitting on trucks not moving to where they are needed for other people to be productive.

In the simplest terms, if the NBN encourages even 10% of the commuting population off the road to become remote knowledge workers – (and no, we cannot do that effectively and efficiently now with a maximum of 2Mbps of upload available to most people in Australia) – you can see a potential increase of $2b a year in GDP, straight away by doing nothing else except making this infrastructure available.

If we see 10% less traffic on the roads, it also means the 90% that is still on the road have 10% less traffic to deal with, so they gain an increase in productivity by not actually doing anything differently than they are now.

Having 10% less traffic on the road means less wear and tear on the roads, saving on expensive road funding. It should also mean 10% less road accidents, lowering the pressure on ambulance, hospital, and rehabilitation services – delivering consequent cost savings – and increases in efficiency in those sectors. Hospital waiting lists should be able to be reduced because less people will be taking up hospital beds after road accidents.

Having 10% less road accidents means less pressure on your insurance premiums, and the lowering of the need to build new roads and freeways.

Even more simply, 10% less vehicles on the road reduces carbon emissions from motor vehicles by 10%. How much would it cost to fund environmental programs to do that by themselves? This would be a free hit, for crying out load!

In Melbourne, a project costing over $1b to add an extra lane to the city’s most significant freeway system – the Monash/Westgate corridor – is about to be completed. Great – we’re encouraging more cars onto the road, and more people off environmentally friendly public transport options. This is a complete waste. We will be feeding even more cars in a shorter amount of time into the same amount of space in the CBD.

There are now more cars crossing the combined capacity of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Harbour Tunnel, than were crossing just the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1992 when the tunnel first opened.

So now, even more cars are being fed into the same place – (the Sydney CBD) – than there was originally, and this was supposed to REDUCE congestion. Another half-a-billion dollars “well” spent.

Can you imagine the difference if people started being able to work from home, or in activity centres in the suburbs? We wouldn’t need to be spending all these wasted billions of dollars on road infrastructure for a start.

All this if the NBN makes it viable for businesses to send just 10% of people to work from home – (and thereby requiring to rent 10% less office space) – instead of in the office.

Imagine if it hit 20%? Or 30%? Add the numbers up and see how quickly the above macro-improvements to the economy “pay” for the price tag of the NBN. This is before the NBN makes a single cent itself.

Yes, the NBN is a lot of money.

But there is a difference between spending money and making an INVESTMENT in the future of our nation. The governments of this country – (and indeed the whole world) – spend money for stupid projects that create bigger and more expensive problems that have to be fixed later.

I’d much prefer Australia to lead the world than do what it always does – and that’s to stick it’s head in the sand and say “it’s too hard”, “it’s too expensive”.

How about for once we say to the rest of the world “too bad – we’re doing this, and we’re gonna win”?

Even Google themselves recognise that the policy for the construction of the NBN is a world leading position. How could we in our right minds ever choose to ignore this opportunity?

People just need some foresight for the future. Politically speaking, I’m quite a right leaning, traditionally Liberal voting person – but quite frankly, the “carefully carefully, quietly quietly” rhetoric of the current conservative politicians in this country makes me sick. It is almost like they want Australia to be followers, rather than leaders.

With risk comes great reward. There is risk in building the NBN, but equally there is risk in not building the NBN. If we build it, we MIGHT have nothing to show for it – but if we don’t build it we will DEFINITELY have nothing to show for it.

It is time for Australia to show some guts. Getting in and having a red-hot go is what made Australia great in the first place, but we slid off the sheep’s back a long time ago. We can’t rely on resources and agriculture to carry us along forever.

It is time for Australia to ride again – and to show and lead the world. We need to let go of the teddy bear, and start being a grown up nation.

The sheep is dead – long live the sheep!

BACKGROUND: This post was developed from a conversational thread over at Delimiter, which in turn was a repost of my recent post in regards to poor NBN information presented by the Coalition in federal parliament.