With an election one week away in Australia, the incumbent Labor Party’s latest piece of propaganda is a spoof of the opposition’s proposed broadband infrastructure policy — one that replaces the well-underway gigabit National Broadband Network with a plan to ensure speeds of 25 megabits per second around the country.
Abbott’s Internet shows faux salesmen pitching the proposed plan by the current conservative opposition, lead by Tony Abbott, to deliver these speeds by 2019 in random street encounters in various countries. The reaction is generally one of laughter or shock — that the speeds are so low compared with what is currently available throughout the world, that the plan to deliver those speeds is going to take until the end of the decade, or that the proposed costs to consumers are ludicrous.
Residents of Bucharest and New York alike mocked the pitch.
Tested on social media among Asian and US markets, the response was by and large some sort of variation on the question: is this a joke?
Even within Australia, 25Mbps isn’t a big deal. I’ve enjoyed 115 Mbps in the past. Moving into a large apartment building knocked my standard speed down to a paltry 30 Mbps — a line speed still faster than the 25 Mbps guarantee. Realistically, access to Telstra’s “Ultimate” cable product — the one that increases cable speeds from a 30 Mbps standard to 100 Mbps+ — is available only in certain metropolitan areas. Outside of rural Australia, most of us have access to ADSL2+ speeds, though there are suburbs around that don’t have access to anything faster than 8 Mbps ADSL1 speeds.
According to a Akamai’s quarterly state of the Internet report earlier this year, the average peak connection speed in Australia is already over 25 Mbps, though the average connection speed is still 4.5 Mbps. Meanwhile in Hong Kong, the peak connection speed is over 60 Mbps.
Forget wired, though. My phone doesn’t have to contend with the pressures of a home Internet service: streaming TV shows and movies on the Apple TV; uploading large files, whether that’s putting a video on Facebook or uploading gigabytes to work servers; sustaining a good connection for each member of a multi-resident household, each of whom might have a laptop, a tablet, a smartphone; and use of the communal Xbox or other home entertainment devices.
A quick speed test — from Surfers Paradise, a metropolitan area albeit in one of Australia’s smaller cities — on my iPhone 5 running on Telstra’s LTE network gives me speeds of 39 Mbps. That’s more than what I get on any given day through my $90 per month cable service. It’s a hell of a lot more than what the Coalition presents as a plan for the future. 25 Mbps is already in the past — it’s not even maintaining the status quo, let alone preparing for the next 100 years, which is roughly the current age of Australia’s copper network.
A solution is definitely required, but simply making the average peak connection speed more widely available isn’t a particularly inspired idea, nor one that sets Australia up to viably play in the same pond as other countries. There’s a huge difference between promising to bring less populous areas of Australia up to the metropolitan standard and providing gigabit bandwidth to the majority of Australian households and businesses.
Fiber to the premises is future-proofing. The assertion that 25 Mbps is a good enough baseline for Australians is ludicrous. One argument is that it won’t be enough in 2019, but I believe we’re already long past that point. An infrastructure that matches and competes with other Western nations is essential to keep Australia competitive as non-localized knowledge jobs become increasingly prevalent.
Remote employment is more common. More and more people are using the field-leveling attributes of the Internet to employ themselves as free agents and some have predicted that with time this, and not traditional employment, will be the standard way of operating.
Anyone who has worked in online news, where the cycle of competition is measured in minutes, knows that uploading a video package or even a bunch of images while trying to beat others to a story can be a real wildcard. Similar situations can be pointed out in many web-enabled industries. Even when time isn’t of the essence in a competitive sense, infrastructure can be a bottleneck as time that could be spent completing a project and moving on to the next task is spent waiting.
The National Broadband Network’s history has, of course, been fraught with mismanagement. Australia was well-positioned to leapfrog ahead of other major nations with the NBN, which was first made a central part of Labor’s election campaign policies in 2007 and delays and problems have plagued the project since. Still, by December 2011, 18,200 Australian premises were passed by real, in-the-ground fiber; the most well-known fiber-to-the-home project in the US, Google Fiber, announced pricing for their first rollout cities in July 2012.
While Australia got the jump on the concept of making fiber widely available to consumers, the offerings available now only reinforce just how far behind the country’s mentality is. If you sign up through Telstra, for $100 you can get 500GB of data per month… at the whopping speed of 12 Mbps — half that of a good ADSL2+ connection. You have to pay another $20 to bump it up to 100 Mbps. By contrast, Google Fiber will take $70 per month from you for Internet that not only doesn’t artificially cap speeds (up to one full gigabit of upload and download speed is available), it doesn’t put a cap on data usage, either.
That’s enough to blow Australian expectations away, of course. But perhaps more interesting, and in keeping with the 2012 United Nations motion that deemed Internet access to be a human right, Google Fiber offers free Internet. There’s a $300 installation fee, and after that the user pays nothing — the 5 Mbps download speed limit isn’t huge, but we’re talking about Internet access that is available to anyone in virtually any economic situation wherever there is fiber in the ground.
And then there’s the question of other infrastructures that are becoming obsolete. The Internet has radically transformed almost every industry on earth in a span of time that is mindboggling when you look at the rate of change in the pre-connected era. IPTV is kind-of-sort-of a thing in Australia; Google’s Gigabit + TV plans are clear evidence that the Internet is the inevitable replacement for many other means of information transfer.
Hell, I haven’t watched TV that wasn’t sourced digitally since 2007. Many people have completely replaced traditional SMS with iMessage, Facebook Chat and other Internet-based alternatives. Calls, to a lesser extent, follow the adoption pattern, with services such as FaceTime that run over data and audio-only FaceTime calls coming with iOS 7.
It would be ideal if capitalist competition drove ever-improving infrastructure and ever-increasing speeds, but between the problems of an entrenched monopoly and a low population density discouraging the few big players from reaching beyond their comfort zone, treating Internet connectivity as public infrastructure is the only way to ensure Australia isn’t left behind, tattered in the dirt, as other nations dominate one of the most important growing markets in the world.
This election, Australians are more dissatisfied than ever with the major party candidates they have the option of electing and for good reason. The fact remains that overlooking the importance of a world-class Internet infrastructure is a major mistake. The mining boom — not unaffected by technology and presumably in need of good broadband infrastructure — is over, Tony, and we can’t be rednecks forever.
Note: I don’t have a political allegiance, nor do I believe there’s enough of an ideological difference between the two major parties to be considered a legitimate choice. This is a criticism of a policy, not a piece for or against either the current government or opposition.