With the possible exception of Malcolm Turnbull, commentators were so quick to point out that Telstra's big 4G announcement — a grandiose hail-Mary pass that the company hopes will reverse its flagging fortunes and bad shareholder news — will not affect the NBN in any way. How naive they are.
You could have written the script yourself beforehand: the various parties to the debate — emboldened by the Caliburn report that like every recent report offers both good and bad news for the NBN, depending on which page you read — reacted just as you would expect. The Australian called it a "wireless challenge" to the NBN; Malcolm Turnbull, who on Monday had issued a release saying next-generation wireless would undermine the NBN, pointed to Telstra's announcement as a case-in-point; and pro-NBN advocates sighed again before taking to the message boards. Stephen Conroy dismissed the threat and is being dragged through the usual radio shows to defend the NBN and slam the reinvigorated opposition as "ideological dogma". It can't be long before Tony Abbott fronts the media muttering something about white elephants.
In fact, the response was so predictable that many commentators not only fell in along the usual ideological lines, but were just as quick to point out that the usual commentators had fallen in along the ideological lines. Richard Chirgwin, a local telco analyst and scribe, summed it up best, suggesting the debate "beats Groundhog Day hands down" for "predictable, spiritless repetition". "Today, Telstra made a network announcement," he wrote, "the government released a document, the Opposition made a statement attacking the National Broadband Network (NBN), and Australia's political and technical journalists wrote it up in line with whatever slant they've already adopted."
If this sounds like pretty much every day since the 2007 election, it's probably better to click here and enjoy a bit of mental static. But if you'd like to know why we really should scrap the NBN and wholeheartedly embrace Telstra's 4G services, well, I've collapsed the argument into just a few salient bullet points for easy consumption.
- Australians are eager technology adopters: what country best to replace plans to roll out time-tested, reliable fibre-optic cabling with a new wireless standard that's only been tested in a few small Scandinavian markets, at much lower scale than that which is planned here? Heck, selling Swedish ingenuity to the world has worked a treat for Stieg Larsson — apart from that whole being-dead thing, of course. We'll do it better, though; I know this mainly because independent telecoms equipment vendors say so. And if that's not a guarantee on which to hang the future of your country's telecommunications infrastructure, well, I don't know what is.
- Wireless will kill piracy and encourage frugality: monthly bandwidth quotas for wireless services have grown dramatically in recent years. Why, it's now possible to get as much as 12 GIGABYTES of data per month from Telstra for just $69.95. With that kind of value, why in the world would we need those ridiculous 1 terabyte plans the fixed ISPs are offering? It's gluttony, I tell you. And since Telstra will rightfully charge an even bigger premium for its Long Term Evolution (LTE) services, we'll all have to learn to economise, and to appreciate the value of a megabyte again — just like in the good old days of v.32.
- Bush hangers-on will get with the program: yes, we know the air is cleaner, the trees greener, the water clearer and the lifestyle more relaxed. But once our friends and neighbours in rural and regional Australia realise there's no hope of getting better communications services — Telstra is currently in a financial mess, after all, and must focus 4G investments on capital cities before bringing it to the likes of Port Campbell or Stanthorpe — they'll all rush to the nearest city to follow the jobs their local businesses will take out of the regions. As an added bonus, this will increase pressure on properties even more, driving a new real estate boom and boosting rental returns as demand for homes with actual working telecommunications services grows.
- Competition is overrated, anyway: some people out there have been making the silly argument that the NBN isn't only about better speed, but is about fixing an untenable market position where competition proceeds only at the whim of Telstra — which has all the best toys and would rather break them than share with others. The NBN was going to deliver an equal-access network that would improve services equally and spur all sorts of new competition, but when it comes down to it, who really needs that stuff? Scrapping an independent government project and handing our telecommunications future to a private company is, of course, far better policy than delivering real competitive outcomes.
- It will keep us outdoors: it's no secret that Australians need more exercise, and committing to a totally wireless future is a great way to make that happen. After all, nearly 20 years of mobile telephony have shown us time and time again that wireless reception inside buildings tends to attenuate dramatically depending on where you are, the position of your left pinky, the contents of your wallet and the colour of the clothing you're wearing at the time. We all learned long ago that you have to be outside to get the best signal — unless you're deep in the CBD, in which case you should find a nearby park so the buildings don't interfere. Ditching a fixed-line future will cure us of the ridiculous habit of trying to communicate while inside — battling Vitamin D deficiency and creating whole new markets for Aerogard and sunscreen makers as we shape our daily lives around finding the best wireless reception. Those who are medically required to stay inside can buy their own femtocells to boost reception, of course — although we're still figuring out what they will plug into.
- It will encourage community spirit: the TV industry's move to IPTV long ago has proceeded with amazing rapidity, but delivering it via the NBN would have fostered social isolation since people would have ended up ensconced in their lounge rooms, watching interactive streaming videos of all sorts by themselves. Since wireless bandwidth is a shared resource, however, there won't be enough to bring high-quality video to everybody at once; as a solution, families will need to get to know their neighbours so they can get together and watch shows together, thereby reducing contention for bandwidth. Just imagine: each house in the street can work out a roster where they tune into one specific channel, and all the neighbours that want to watch that show will drop in — preferably with a dinner dish or dessert in hand. We'll call the idea "potluck TV"; just don't bring me anything with anchovies in it, please. I'm really not big on anchovies.
- Wireless is environmentally friendly: forget having Bobcats dig those unsightly trenches through the front garden; widespread use of wireless will bring all the wonders of the internets into our homes without a single cable in sight. Even better, the base stations installed at every suburban street-corner can be disguised as trees, adding to the area's visual amenity (dibs on a nice Japanese maple model!). Since they work by magic, they can automatically connect themselves back to Telstra's network through thin air or by altering the space-time continuum — albeit in a green-friendly way. They draw adequate operating power from the admiring glances of passers-by, and they don't even need to be watered.
If I may quote John "Hannibal" Smith: I love it when a plan comes together. I think we should all give Telstra a big round of applause for bringing this technology to market and saving us from making a big, expensive mistake by rolling out scalable, competitive fibre all over the place. Silly geese. Wireless most definitely is the future, and I'm glad Telstra has shown us the errors of our ways before we made a big, expensive mistake. The sooner Telstra can bring us to its 4G wonderland, the better.
Do you think the promise of 4G compromises the NBN's justification? And will LTE be the basis for Telstra's new local loop?