Will Turnbull put his money where his 3G is?

Summary:If Malcolm Turnbull takes out that bloody iPad one more time during an NBN interview, I'm going to break something.

If Malcolm Turnbull takes out that bloody iPad one more time during an NBN interview, I'm going to break something.

Over the long weekend, I finally found enough contiguous time to watch the entire 45 minutes of the ABC's commendable Four Corners report on the NBN (transcript here). And what I saw was pretty simple: lots of people supporting the case for the NBN; consensus that current services are woeful; and the argument that rural and regional Australians deserve the same-quality broadband as those who live in the city.

There were, of course, dissenters: Robert Kenny, for example, a UK telecoms analyst with Communications Chambers. Kenny raised eyebrows around the world in November after co-authoring a thought piece that was less than positive about the idea of FttP in general — yet, while he was happy to rehash his arguments for Four Corners, he had no suggestion on how to resolve Australia's disastrous Telstra privatisation.


"How many bloody Gs are there?" Ozzy isn't the only one having trouble with wireless.
(Screenshot by David Braue/ZDNet Australia)

There was also a video chat with ex-Telstra loudmouth Phil Burgess, who said largely the same things he said while working for Telstra, arguing that the company was a hard-done-by corporate citizen just trying to do the right thing by its customers, er, shareholders.

And, laughably, there was Paul Broad, head of AAPT — which sold its consumer ISP business to iiNet last September for $60 million because it can't make a profit delivering consumer internet — complaining that the NBN's anti-cherry-picking laws would prevent him from giving customers "significantly lower" prices than available on the NBN. Except, you know, to consumers or anybody else that AAPT can't service profitably.

Given that AAPT doesn't serve the consumer market anymore, Broad's comments mix his company's wholesale customer base with the broad customer base to be reached by the NBN — an egregious error of omission that taints his entire anti-NBN argument. Broad is not so much against the NBN as in favour of cherry-picking, but there doesn't appear to be a way to have the first of these without controlling the second.

Sure, Turnbull loves his iPad ...But his regular iPad-wielding appearances, intended to offer a counterpoint to the NBN and his belief that underemployed and largely untested future 4G LTE services are the way of the future do nothing but support the cause of the NBN's proponents.

Then there was Turnbull, whose unending campaign of FUD and, shall we say, flexible economics is matched only by his unfailing belief in the power of wireless. Sure, Turnbull loves his iPad, and that's great. But his regular iPad-wielding appearances, intended to offer a counterpoint to the NBN and his belief that underemployed and largely untested future 4G LTE services are the way of the future do nothing but support the cause of the NBN's proponents.

I and many other commentators have opined at length about the wireless fallacy, but recent events in the wireless market say far more about the reasons wireless is, as the more level-headed proponents argue, a complement to the NBN rather than an argument against it.

Just ask the thousands of soon-to-be-ex-Vodafone customers who were unable to text Easter greetings to loved ones, or even call them, after the latest in a series of disastrous cock-ups by our third-largest telco. Vodafone's comedy of errors, repeated mea culpas and apologies and its seeming inability to deliver anything resembling a reliable 3G service have brought the word "Vodafail" into common usage, and spawned a musical parody that's worth viewing even if you hate Lady Gaga.

Yes, these disasters have put into stark contrast the inherent weaknesses in wireless communications models, and painted an uncertain future for a major telecoms operator whose network has reached saturation and could very well have no customers left to use what the company has promised us will be a thoroughly modern network built from the ground up.

Given these very real, very ongoing, very problematic issues with Vodafone's wireless network, it's laughable for Turnbull to now sit in front of a camera and argue that "as people get faster speeds with fourth generation wireless, LTE wireless, where you can get on a device like this 100Mbps over 4G, I think a lot of people will say this is the essential device and I won't spend so much on the fixed-line alternative."

Back in the real world, mobile customers are struggling to make phone calls from many of the places where they spend their days (and it's not just Vodafone to blame here: for the record, I'm getting a bit tired of missing phone calls and radio interviews because Optus' network refuses to let me make or receive phone calls even from five-bar coverage areas). They've got a 50/50 chance of actually being able to do the thing they need to do using 3G wireless, and they're so fed up with it that even long-time believers in telecoms competition are swallowing their pride and going back to Telstra.

Back in the real world, local councils are scraping dollars together to fill in coverage blackspots. Our mobile networks are so patchy that carriers are now selling us femtocells that will actually let us use our mobiles within a certain radius around our homes (and, ironically, require a good broadband connection to function). That's all well and good, but you can't use anybody else's femtocell — so how are the devices going to help anybody that actually likes to use their mobile when they are, oh, I don't know, mobile?

The answer is clear: they're not. If ever there was proof that the private sector will never deliver the kind of wireless broadband coverage that Australia needs, femtocells are it. And as wireless usage increases and spectrum constraints remain, it will become clearer and clearer that consumers hoping to live an all-wireless future will be waiting a very, very long time. As was said in the Four Corners report — and in so many other places — wireless is no replacement for the NBN. As I demonstrated last year, Telstra's copper network is no replacement for the NBN, even if it's patched up as per the Coalition's telecoms policy.

I challenge him to spend the month of May using his 3G-attached iPad and notebook for all of his regular working tasks — his speech writing, researching, web browsing, streaming of online video, videoconferencing and so on — and document his experiences, honestly and accurately on his blog... he must live off wireless broadband (and not Wi-Fi) everywhere he goes — at home, at the office, at the airport, on the train, during top-secret Coalition factional strategy meetings; wherever.

So where does this leave us? Seeing a report like the one on Four Corners, it's hard to reach any other conclusion than that the only way forward — that doesn't involve treading water for years to come, I mean — is the model the government is currently trying to build. Biased, partisan arguments do nothing to advance the cause of our country's overall broadband infrastructure; find me an NBN-hater without their own agenda, and I'll find you an iPad-user who can get decent 3G speeds back of Bourke (or, even, Redfern).

Which brings me to the crux of this column. Turnbull and his iPad have become such a common fixture that I'd like to see him put his proverbial money where his mouth is. I challenge him to spend the month of May using his 3G-attached iPad and notebook for all of his regular working tasks — his speech writing, researching, web browsing, streaming of online video, videoconferencing and so on — and document his experiences, honestly and accurately on his blog. This means he must live off wireless broadband (and not Wi-Fi) everywhere he goes — at home, at the office, at the airport, on the train, during top-secret Coalition factional strategy meetings; wherever.

I'd offer to do the same but, like you, I have work that actually needs to get done. But if Turnbull honestly believes the future of broadband is wireless — as he so confidently stated on Four Corners — he should have no hesitation in taking up this challenge. And if things turn out for him as I suspect they will — and he's honest enough to admit it which I'd like to believe he will be — perhaps we can finally dispense with this politicised debate and let NBN Co get the traction its detractors refuse to allow.

What do you think? Will Turnbull accept the challenge? Or does he need to? And if you're one of the many having 3G problems, what are you doing about them? How does this all affect your thoughts on the NBN?

Topics: NBN, Broadband, Mobility, Networking, Telcos

About

As large as the US mainland but with a smaller population than Texas, Australia relies on ICT innovation to maintain its position as a first-world democracy and a role model for the developing Asia-Pacific region. Award-winning journalist David Braue has covered Australia’s IT and telecoms sectors since 1995 – and he’s as quick to draw le... Full Bio

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