Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Why Malcolm Turnbull is wrong about the need for the National Broadband Network (NBN)

Nbnco logoShadow Communications Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has been tasked by leader Tony Abbott to "demolish" the government's National Broadband Network. On ABC 24's "The Drum" on Monday he accused futurist Mark Pesce of drinking "the cool-aid" on the NBN, presumably a reference to Apple fans who line up to buy the next product without question because it's sure to be cool.

Malcolm argues that there aren't applications for this broadband in the average Australian home. Further, ABC 4Corners on Monday night found it hard to find households which had even bothered to take up a free offer to be connected to the NBN in a trial area.

But they're wrong, it's a "chicken and egg" problem. Businesses that could build their products on top of a high speed network will not invest and may not even imagine new products if the network isn't there.

We laughed when computers started including "postage stamp" sized video in their "multi-media" applications. Now we expect full High Definition playback on a tablet with 10 hour battery life. (That didn't take long).

Our media consumption devices; be they phones, tablets, networked televisions or even desktop computers; are already constrained by internet speed. This bottleneck is only going to get more constrained in the future.

Music has made the transition to digital in just seven years. The Apple iTunes store launched in 2003 and is the number one music vendor in the US. Last year the 10 billionth song was downloaded.

Books are well on the way to transitioning with the worlds biggest book seller, Amazon, selling more electronic than physical books by June 2010. Electronic books sales are set to "hockey stick" up due to the availability and popularity of tablet readers such as the Kindle and iPad.

Movies should now be being consumed "on demand" but a combination of poor title availability, high bandwidth cost, and again low broadband speeds are holding it back.

Physical music, video and book shops are starting to disappear, and this trend will continue.

So, even today, Australia's sub-standard broadband is holding back the average media consumers access to media, although they may not realise it. It's like when you first listen to a really great HiFi system, consumers don't appreciate what they're missing out on until they try it.

3D video potentially demands double the required download speed, and that's just the start.

Avatar director, James Cameron, is already looking beyond 3D and has been experimenting with frame rates much higher than the 24 frames per second that we view now to 48, 60 or even higher rates. These high rates produce an "enhanced sense of detail" and lead to a more immersive, realistic experience.

Even though the eye and brain paper over the missing frames so that we don't perceive flicker, this all falls apart if the subject motion is fast or the camera pans even moderately. Peter Jackson is currently filming The Hobbit at 48 fps.

Along with the doubling of data for 3D, doubling it again for high frame rate, there is another technology, waiting in the wings, that can easily require three times throughput on top.

Googles speedI can imagine a quadrupling of bandwidth to provide High Dynamic Range (HDR) imagery as well.

One of the example applications of a true broadband network is the ability to have a remote medical video conference. A two, or more, way high definition video conference in 3D at a frame rate of 48 or more frames per second again multiplies the broadband requirements. Doctors need to see the wound, observe the operation, sense the mental illness in full fidelity.

Malcolm Turnbull's argument that there aren't the applications for extra bandwidth shows a at least a lack of imagination, but I suspect it's really mis-direction.

Commercial carriers had a go at a broadband roll-out in the 1990s. Both Telstra and Optus rapidly strung out duplicate cables hanging below power lines in a few of the most densely populated areas and then just as suddenly stopped. In many streets those cables are starting to visibly fall apart.

The rest of the population is at the mercy of ADSL connections which, while amazing in the bandwidth they can push over copper wire, suffer a similar problem to Malcolm's other panacea - wireless, in that they share bandwidth amongst neighbours. ADSL works well if you only a few kilometres from the exchange, with few others using it, but it degrades quickly further out and if the neighbours really get into it.

An optical fibre network that reaches into homes is a key piece of infrastructure for the nation. Malcolm Turnbull knows, better than most, that as we head in to a world affected by climate change resulting from humans polluting the atmosphere with carbon, our broadband network will be as important as rail, roads, and hydro.

As the price of oil rises, from factors including: unrest in the middle east, peak oil, and the tax on carbon pollution, the ability for Australians to work and do business remotely may be an important factor in maintaining our competitiveness as a nation.

Update Thanks for all the comments and to the ABC Technology site which has picked up this comment and published it here.


Tony Stevenson said...

Your last point is the most compelling to me. Being free to 'be there' without depleting fossil fuels and polluting the atmosphere demands lots of bandwidth.

Our current levels of physical mobility aren't sustainable. Look at successful online mini-multi-nationals like 37signals.com - they're showing how empowering 'being digital' is to enabling people to work where they like, when they like.

As for me I can't even get ADSL2 and I'm only 35Km from the centre of Australia's largest city. Bring on the NBN and make it snappy - please.

John Hancock said...

Once again you have cut to the issue succinctly and accurately. Of course we do nort "need" a fibre network, any more than we needed the video cassette, yjr DVD, the Blu Ray, the personal computer or any other piece of ground breaking technology.

If we are to retain our place as one ofd the most prospereous nations then the NBN is mandatroy. It is quite clear that wireless is limited in speed and capacity, the copper network is well past its used by date and this investment that the government is making is an investment in the next 30 - 50 years.