Friday, 07 May 2010 10:55

NBN: Not in my lifetime


COMMENT One of the amazing things about the national broadband network announcement made by the Australian federal government yesterday is that it has attracted little questioning and little negative comment.

Apart, of course, from the federal Opposition - but then it would be out of character for Tony Abbott to do otherwise but be a naysayer where the government is concerned..

I'm not a political reporter or a technical genius but there are some things about the announcement that do strike me as funny. And not funny as in ha-ha; funny as in dubious, strange, illogical.

First, a great deal of the infrastructure which is planned to be built for this network already exists. And what is more, the existing infrastructure was also paid for by the Australian public.

Hence, the government is blithely planning to spend billions on duplicating things in a country which is as isolated as ours. Why do we need to do that?

Isn't Telstra, the company that owns all the infrastructure that has already been paid for by the masses, still partly owned by the government? Is there no way to avoid the wastage of public money?

Or is there some kind of garage sale planned by the government to get rid of the duplicates? We are not talking small change here, either; we are talking billions, with a big B.

Pardon me for being somewhat sceptical but when studies are done by management consultants, it is logical to conclude that when the entity commissioning the study is willing to fork out sums in the region of $25 million, there is always the likelihood that those conducting the study will not want to bite the hand that's doing the feeding.

Far from it; there is always the likelihood of more studies being commissioned if the first is music to the government's ears. And from what little I've seen of it, it sounds like a top-notch Mozart symphony to Labor ears.

The figures being flung around are mind-boggling - the first one, plucked from out of thin air, was $43 billion (either $40 or $45 and one would have suspected that it came out of thin air; say $43 and people begin to think that an odd number like that would have to be based on some calculations) and now it is down to about $38 billion. Remember, that's $38,000,000,000.

That is a massive amount, even over seven or eight or ten or 15 years. The government says its maximum commitment would be $26 billion or two-thirds of the amount. And it appears to be quite sure that someone's uncle will happen along to put in the rest. Or maybe it's someone's grand-aunt.

But which individual, group of individuals, company or group of companies, would put money into a telecommunications venture which is going to return six or seven percent? How come nobody has cracked up laughing when these figures were mentioned?

You can get that kind of return (if you are interested, when the amount you have to invest is in the billions) from an Australian bank, the safest investment on the planet. Why would you invest such huge sums in a  project like the NBN and be content with six or seven percent? Or do we have some philanthropists waiting in the wings, people whose existence everyone is unaware of?


And, remember, the government's estimate is that it will take eight years to complete this duplication of work. Let's be generous and say 12 years - though I am inclined to the view that it will be nothing short of 15 years before the work is done. Which is why I figure it's unlikely to happen in my lifetime, my three-score and ten.

But even after 12 years - and that means 2022 - what kind of take-up will the NBN see? Is one to imagine that better-managed companies - remember, this is a government company - will not put their best foot forward to compete?

One needs to bear in mind that a number of ISPs haven't done all that bad a job in providing somewhat decent internet services over the 13 years I've been in Australia, even with Telstra providing as many hurdles as possible to keep Australian in the digital dark ages. Are all these companies going to stand around while their customers migrate to the NBN?

Telstra tested out a service in metropolitan Melbourne that offered speeds close to that which the government is touting as what the NBN will provide. But it had very poor take-up. Where is the guarantee that the NBN will be able to get the customers it needs to even balance the books?

Labor made the provision of a broadband network one of its campaign promises in 2007. In three years, we have seen nothing but talk. Nobody expected the network to be ready by now but we at least expected the contracts to be sewn up, the legislation passed, and the work to have been at least a year in progress.

Instead we have a study that been released about three or four months out from the next election. Nice.


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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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