The not-for-profit peak body representing Internet users was among some expert groups and individuals that gave evidence at the inquiry held in Canberra. In his opening remarks IA’s CEO, Laurie Patton, summed up his organisation’s attitude by proposing that we follow the Nike principle – Just do it!
“If the Internet is to reach its potential for good it is essential that we make it available to everyone. In the 21st Century to be without access to the Internet is like not having other basic services like water and electricity. The ability to participate in our digitally enabled future is a basic right of all Australians. Gaining employment and engaging in a wide range of community activities will increasingly require digital skills. We need to build our economic and social future around a connected world where everyone has access to the Internet and knows how to use it”, Patton said.
In the past Internet Australia has argued the need for fast, ubiquitous broadband without publicly favouring a technological solution. However, on the basis of information now available – including evidence from New Zealand on reduced fibre network construction costs and news of NBN’s ‘low-cost’ fibre option – it has now called on the government to reassess urgently its commitment to the Multi-Technology-Mix (MTM) model.
IA’s stance was that the it was short-sighted to look at NBN funding over the four-year budget cycle. “This is our biggest infrastructure project since the Snowy Mountains scheme, and that was seen as a long-term asset build, which is what broadband is all about. It makes no sense focusing on the NBN cost as a lump sum, especially as no-one can agree on it anyway and it changes from year to year as technology and other factors reduce the construction costs. Even if copper is a little cheaper in the short term, it will add significant costs to the total long-term spend when we have to rebuild large sections of the network, replacing copper with fibre. Better to build what we’ll soon enough need right from the start,” Patton said.
One of the most significant revelations at Friday’s Senate inquiry came from a representative of Chorus NZ, the country’s principal broadband provider. Under questioning from former Communications Minister, Senator Stephen Conroy, Chorus revealed that it has managed to reduce the installation costs for its fibre network by 29 percent.
This information came only a day after a ‘leak’ revealed that NBN has itself been quietly trialling a new low-cost fibre system that uses thinner fibre optic cables combined with more flexible joints and other improvements.
“Fibre-to-the-node was supposed to deliver broadband sooner and at a lower cost. We always knew that technology and improved implementation processes would gradually bring down the cost of fibre. It now looks like it might be coming very close to the same price as copper – especially if you take a long-term view on the investment,” Patton said.
In addition to highlighting the need for fast broadband based on a fibre network, Internet Australia’s vice-chair, Dr Paul Brooks, told Senators that, "Increasingly, people are looking for upload speed, not download speed”, especially if they relied on the Internet for their business operations.”
Dr Brooks also explained that new technology using ‘wave division multiplexing’ will allow for extraordinary increases in Internet delivery speeds using existing fibre, that simply cannot be matched by services based on copper wire. He pointed to places like Singapore and Hong Kong that are already delivering 10 gigabits per second to households.
This was backed up by comments earlier in the day from an academics group that pointed to the fact that fibre networks will continue to be upgradable long past the point where copper-based services will need to be replaced.
IA’s chair George Fong, who is based in regional Victoria where he owns and runs an ISP, was ideally placed to explain the issues that confront customers when broadband becomes available in their area. NBN is due to arrive at his house ten days from now. However, Mr Fong has been fielding inquiries from confused consumers for many months now.
Expressing the concerns of many of his customers, Mr Fong said, “People keep talking about cost. From a regional point of view, we’re not looking at that, we’re looking at the investment and the amortisation of that investment over 20, 30, 40, 50 years … It’s a real problem when we see (such positive) changes on the ground as a result of this technology being rolled out”.
Preparing for its appearance at the Senate inquiry, IA carried out a survey of its members last weekend.
“There were only about 50 respondents, so we do not claim it to be scientifically rigorous but the results certainly match the anecdotal evidence that we regularly receive from our members,” Patton said.
Asked about the current government’s MTM model, which heavily relies on the Telstra copper telephone network, only four percent said they were satisfied, 16 percent were neutral, 47 percent dissatisfied, and 33 percent extremely dissatisfied – an 80 percent rejection of the MTM.
On whether NBN speeds would be sufficient for them and their customers' needs over next five to ten years, six percent answered yes, 78 percent said no, while 16 percent said, “don't know”.
The one-day inquiry was billed as an opportunity for the committee to secure technical advice from parties not previously consulted. It began with a roundtable where technology academics provided their opinions on the best approach for Australia to pursue. It was clear that the majority viewpoint from this group was that fibre was the only option that guaranteed the ability to keep up with international developments.
This view was vigorously supported by Senator Conroy, who participated by telephone from Melbourne. One of the participant’s contributions was momentarily interrupted when the Senator’s voice unexpectedly boomed from loudspeakers in the hearing room with the words: “You do it once, you do it right, you do it with fibre”.
Shortly after Friday’s session, Senator Scott Ludlam posted on his Facebook page: "Internet Australia are the peak body representing users of the Internet. They're the people we should most be listening to about the NBN".