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Sunday, 12 February 2017 09:05

Australia's NBN has become a national shame Featured

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When will Australia's chances of getting a decent broadband — as opposed to fraudband — network improve? When the government's neoliberal thinking that every public project must yield a profit from day one is set aside.

Last week, we were given a classic example of what happens when one expects every public utility to make money from day one. (And it is day one for the NBN; the damn thing is not even completed).

A statement attributed to NBN Co chairman Bill Morrow, that Australians would not use super-fast broadband connections even if these were offered gratis, says it all.

Morrow made the comment shortly after announcing the company's half-year results which showed the loss on the rollout had blown out to $1.83 billion.

The fact is, the prices for the connectivity virtual circuit, which provides a consumer bandwidth from the point of interconnect and is priced depending on usage of data, are too high. But do you think Morrow will offer the average punter that perspective? No, he would be out of a job on the morrow if he did. And when you are pocketing $3.3 million an annum, you don't want that happening, do you?

Why is it that no ISP offering NBN connections has plans that will give anything more than 100/40Mbps? Because, even at these pitiable speeds — and when one is thinking of fibre the word pitiable is apt — the cost is far too high.

To many people, the sight of a 25Mbps plan is enough; they have been struggling with connections that provide single-digit bandwidth and anything better is welcomed. Then, once they are connected, they find out the truth: in many cases their old connections were faster.

The fine print on any ISP's plans page tells the story. Here is a typical statement, this being from iiNet: "These speeds are maximum connection speeds as provided by NBN Co. Actual throughput speeds may be slower and could vary due to many factors including type/source of content being downloaded, hardware and software configuration, the number of users simultaneously using the network and performance of interconnecting infrastructure not operated by iiNet. Devices connected by Wi-Fi may experience slower speeds than those connected by Ethernet cable. The Basic speed option has a maximum upload line speed of up to 1Mbps. The Boost speed option has a maximum upload line speed of up to 5Mbps. The Max speed option has a maximum upload line speed of up to 40Mbps."

So what happened to the great plan hatched by Malcolm Turnbull and the NBN Co to make Australia agile and innovative? Seems to have fallen off somewhere in the great Australian desert and disappeared under a pile of dust.

In no other country has this kind of unseemly mess been created over something that could only take the nation in one direction: forward. Australia is unique in this respect, but it is nothing to be proud about.

If the government of the day had sought to make a profit off the electricity network when it was being rolled out, we would be still using kerosene lamps. If the people in power had wanted returns from day one for providing gas to premises for heating and cooking, we would still be using firewood.

And if the bottomline had taken precedence when providing piped water to the home, then we would all be still making trips to the community well, buckets in hand.

The whole point of the NBN is that it opens up the chance of doing business in a remote location without actually having to be up there. The dullards in Canberra fail to recognise this, never mind their avowed devotion to business. They can understand the concept of handing over cash via tax cuts to their mates in business; they cannot, even if they tried, comprehend the benefits that a reliable broadband network, which allows the transfer of bits and bytes quickly, can bring.

When their own interests are threatened, pollies can be eloquent. Senator Ian Macdonald was at his voluble best last week when he argued for retention of the travel gold pass, the one that gives retired pollies the chance to gallivant around and bill it to you and me. But when it comes to the NBN, what's in it for Macdonald? You can't use it for free trips.

On Wednesday, I had a call from a friend who was trying to transfer some audio files from his laptop at home to a server at a place he works; the files are small but given recent rains, data transfer speeds have slowed to an absolute crawl in the area he lives. This is just the small picture of how people are inconvenienced when a network cannot provide speedy data transfers.

Finally, he gave up, put the files on a flash drive and drove to his workplace.

The original concept for the NBN had its flaws. One could argue that it was not properly planned. But the technology was the right one. It pains me to have to repeat all the arguments put forward since then. You, gentle reader, have probably heard them a dozen times or more.

We are stuck in a morass at the moment, where political parties feel they have to prevail, else they will lose face. The populace be damned.

In 2025, it is quite likely that there will be election promises to rebuild the NBN. That's the direction things are taking. From being something to be proud about, the NBN has now become a national shame.

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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