I have seen the NBN, and it looks a lot like Christina Aguilera. Or, at least, it looked like her when I dropped into Ericsson's Melbourne headquarters recently to see a live demo of their NBN solutions.
There, the video for her song "Candyman" that was on endless loop on the flat-screen TV Ericsson had set up, along with equipment including a conventional telephone and several notebooks and routers, to showcase how the NBN would work.
You would never have known that the HD video streaming onto the screen was, in fact, being routed not only via the swag of Ericsson fibre-optic gear assembled in the room, but over Ericsson's global network to a dedicated multimedia switch — which happens to be set up in Sweden. At least that's what they said, and I have no reason to doubt it.
There were also live phone calls, including a call to Washington DC's weather line to prove the call wasn't prerecorded. Of course, voice consumes so little of the bandwidth coursing through Ericsson's six-figure-pricetag fibre switch that the demo, to be honest, came off as ridiculously over-engineered. My hosts were, to put it simply, struggling to find applications to use up the amount of bandwidth their fibre-optic PON(passive optical network) service was providing.
If you're not up to speed with the lingo, PON is the NBN's version of the copper loop. Basically a fibre splitter that splits a raw fibre-optic cable input amongst dozens or hundreds of premises at ridiculous speeds, PON customer premises equipment (CPE) will soon be making its appearance at every NBN-connected household. Tasmania will be first, thanks to its established role as NBN hothouse, but pretty soon the rollout will lurch and heave its way to a TV near you.
(Credit: Ericsson Australia)
Ericsson's SE400 multi-service edge router — or its equivalent from whichever vendor wins the NBN contract — will live in your neighbourhood, splitting up a fibre-optic trunk feed supplied by the larger BLM 1500(the equivalent of a copper-line exchange; envision dozens of these covering each capital city). Other equipment makers, of course, have similar products, and they will eventually all be pitted against each other in a big RFT free-for-all.
Whoever supplies the gear, the end result will be a network providing, among other things, the ability to access scads of high-definition video content — including Ms Aguilera and plenty of others. There will also be a crystal-clear VoIP telephony service. And, well, other things.
Really, there are many, many other uses for the NBN. Just don't ask Stephen Conroy or his department what they might be; they're making this stuff up as they go, too.
Really, there are many, many other uses for the NBN. Just don't ask Stephen Conroy or his department what they might be; they're making this stuff up as they go, too. DBCDE acting first assistant secretary Richard Windeyer admitted as much this week in conceding that even the department didn't have all the answers.
Eyeing the PON demo, the biggest question I had was not "how will this work?" — the technology behind the NBN is already well-established — but "isn't this overkill?"
Of course it is. The NBN will give us enough network headroom to last decades. Ericsson's technical specialists were talking about the ability for service providers to fence off 20Mbps or larger chunks of a household's incoming pipe as a dedicated service delivery pipe; you could have several of these running simultaneously and still have enough spare bandwidth to watch all of Christina Aguilera's videos in YouTube high-def simultaneously.
But is this — streaming Christina Aguilera and live phone calls to get overseas weather forecasts — the pinnacle of fibre-optic communications as we know it? Are we going to get the NBN in our homes only to find out that it's simply more of the same, from the same people?
(Credit: Ericsson Australia)
Politicians, industry types, and scientific types used to generating terabytes of information per day already seem convinced they can think of things to do with all that bandwidth. But the use case seems to decline quickly after that: so far, the best applications the industry can come up with include smart metering and this vague concept that doctors will somehow be able to treat patients better when those patients have blazing-fast Internet services.
Some might argue that patients would be better served with hospitals that actually have enough doctors to manage them, but far be it from me to cast aspersions on the disgraceful state of healthcare. Or perhaps I just did.
At any rate, these sorts of applications are largely document-based and don't require the kind of bandwidth I saw buzzing around Ericsson Central. Not even the CDM-Net application, a government-backed healthcare initiative to improve management of chronic disease that was announced in 2007 and finally went live this week, requires the kind of bandwidth the NBN will deliver. Neither will the $4m remote diagnosis program to improve collaboration amongst southern NSW hospitals.
The government seems to believe that simply stamping 'NBN' on projects like this will lend weight to the so-far nebulous business case surrounding the network project.
Still, the government seems to believe that simply stamping "NBN" on projects like this will lend weight to the so-far nebulous business case surrounding the network project — the thinness of which was recently slammed in an independent analyst report. The thing is, none of these applications actually require that much bandwidth; even putting a high-definition telepresence system in every lounge room (perhaps a companion stimulus initiative to be announced during Rudd's re-election campaign next year?) wouldn't need this. If Labor really wants to increase utilisation of the NBN, it will legalise movie swapping and add BitTorrent techniques to the primary school curriculum; at least the ISP charges will start to justify the NBN's cost.
No, the most important thing about the NBN is not how much bandwidth it delivers, but the equality of access it delivers. It's nothing but a new baseline communications infrastructure for a country where the status quo is dangerously inadequate. And its value will underscore utility, e-health, and other initiatives made possible not by pushing multimedia at record speeds, but by the simple fact of having nearly every household enjoying a reliable data connection at last.
The "Candyman" demo showed that the NBN can give us in Melbourne equal access to streaming videos from Swedish media servers, but the NBN's ultimate value is something that Conroy — or recently hired commercial strategist Tim Smeallie — can't quite put their fingers on. Nor should they try; who could have envisioned the delivery of ISDN or ADSL way back when the copper loop was being architected half a century ago? Now as then, one thing holds true: If they build it, the rest will come.