Waiting for the NBN

22 Aug 2016

It’s easy to be cynical about Australia’s National Broadband Network, and I have to admit that yes I have been an unbeliever.

Here I am, in an inner city suburb of the biggest city in the nation, existing on frustrating internet speeds delivered by tweaked 20th century copper wire while somewhere, out there, an army of workers funded with A$20 billion ($15.2 billion) of my fund and those of my fellow taxpayers is building a Fiber to the Node (FTTN) network I am unlikely to ever be able to use.

Unless I sell my house and relocate that is.

As the latest report card from the NBN Co has shown, A$13.7 billion has been spent so far to connect 1.1 million people. All of this since the project began, amid great fanfare, in 2009.

Now we learn that another A$7 billion has been tipped into the project, with another A$9 billion yet to come. Apparently that won’t be enough to finish the job, and the NBN – a publicly owned organization – is going to have to go out there and do some deals with the private sector to get it all completed.

What a far cry this is from 2009, when we were promised a state of the art network which would connect 90% of Australian homes.

Politics intervened, as did budgetary constraints, and in 2013 the whole strategy was changed in favor of a new plan. This was the so-called multi-technology mix approach which combined FTTN, hybrid fire coaxial (HFC) cable, a second satellite and the original FTTP.

This was supposed to make things simpler and easier to achieve, but instead it blew the budget out by another A$12 billion, with significant new IT costs incurred from managing the different technologies.

Against this backdrop of frustrating, and to a chanting chorus of “white elephant,” the NBN has now proudly announced that in the last twelve months the number of homes and premises linked up to the NBN has doubled to 2.9 million.

I was railing against what seemed appalling underachievement when I got a call from an old friend, who had left the city a couple of years ago and relocated to a small regional city.

His business was based on remote contact with clients, contacts and customers all around the world.

His idea was to sell his small apartment in the city, buy a much bigger house in the regions and pocket the change while building up his business. Living the dream.

For him, high speed internet is a crucial part of his business plan and for the last five years or more we had both been in agreement in our – negative – views on the NBN.

This time, however, he was transformed. The NBN had come to his regional town and he had been connected and he said it was a revelation and everything he had hoped for.

Business was smoother and easy to go, his product was improving and he suspected his cost of doing business was coming down. He was, he said, now an unashamed convert.

I grumbled my congratulations and got off the phone as quickly as I could, realized that I was never likely to experience a similar joy.

Inner city areas like mine seem to be the last priority for the NBN rollout, concerned as it is with people in regional areas considered to be “disenfranchised” in relation to infrastructure.

The fact that we have a Coalition Government in which the regionally based National Party has a strong voice shouldn’t have an influence on the NBN rollout, even though I suspect it does.

So here I still sit, in what is considered a leading global city, laboring away with an internet speed of 24Mbps, while my friend in the regions is now enjoying 100Mbps.

I’d love to be a convert like my friend, but unless I join him in regional New South Wales I suspect I’ve got years of cynicism ahead of me.

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