If there ever were concrete evidence that Labor is blowing smoke up the proverbials of the Australian population, it came earlier this month as Senator Stephen Conroy, the man charged with promoting Labor's fibre-everywhere policy while simultaneously taking potshots at his counterpart Senator Helen Coonan, put his foot squarely in his mouth.
His love of the oh so witty "fraud-band" tag notwithstanding, Conroy revealed the lack of technical knowledge that he -- and, presumably, his speech writers -- will bring to the position of Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts if Labor wins the election later this year.
"I am a fan of Wi-Fi networks," he reportedly told the audience at the Australian Telecommunications Summit while slamming the government's plan to use WiMAX wireless connections to bring broadband to the bush, "but they are complementary to FttN [Fibre to the Node] networks, they are not a substitute."
Dear Senator Conroy: I would be very interested to know who did your research. Had you even bothered to read the Wikipedia article on WiMAX, as any third-grader would have known to do, you would have learned that WiMAX and Wi-Fi are not actually the same thing. They are, in fact, very different technologies with different design parameters, different operational characteristics, and very different uses. Treating them like they're the same is about as useful as, well, treating Labor and the Liberals like they're the same.
Wi-Fi is a low-powered, common access technology in which devices connected to the network must continually fight for a fixed number of network access slots. It offers a range of a few hundred metres, tops, in ideal conditions. It is used by laptops, PDAs and other devices and was designed to facilitate easy, promiscuous connections, which is why it has become the standard for casual Internet access. It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a replacement for fibre -- unless you're referring to the fibrous strands of a cord connecting two ends of a tin-can phone.
WiMAX is a higher powered alternative based on reserved access slots, which means it's much easier for remote devices to get a fast connection and stay that way. WiMAX offers quality of service features -- meaning it can set aside a certain amount of bandwidth to guarantee the quality of phone calls or data connections. WiMAX, or at least the kind we are talking about in the OPEL proposal, is a point-to-point technology that involves installing a fixed antenna on the roof of the house in question.
And while Telstra's anti-WiMAX executives will sow doubt by pointing out the lack of WiMAX mobile phones -- this is a point Phil Burgess made when I recently saw him speak -- it is not a mobile phone network (although it could theoretically become one if WiMAX Mobile is widely adopted).
Wi-Fi is a favourite of coffee shop owners, who have found it's a great way to keep sophisticated-looking people in their seats longer, and in schools, which have found it's a great way to keep troubled miscreants in their seats longer. WiMAX has been tested in over 50 countries, is moving towards rollouts in several dozen, and is the mechanism by which US telecoms giant Sprint will spend US$5 billion to roll out fast broadband to more than 100 million potential customers by the end of next year.
WiMAX provided reliable telecommunications infrastructure after Aceh, Indonesia and New Orleans, USA were devastated by natural disasters. Germany, which isn't known for investing in shonky technological solutions, will see its first commercial rollout early in 2008. WiMAX has been available to more than five million Canadians and Colombians since 2006, and has been tested or committed to in Vietnam (with a commercial trial announced in June), Russia, Mauritius, Algeria, and South Africa, to name a few. Chile is rolling out WiMAX to cover 98 percent of its population, Bulgaria will soon have a nationwide WiMAX network, and before year's end Bahrain will have WiMAX servicing 100 percent of its population.
Of course, Bahrain is tiny so 100 percent doesn't mean much. My point, however, is this: these countries, many of which don't have the luxury of a decent fixed phone network, have tested WiMAX and found it is perfectly suited for meeting their needs. This technology is a breath of fresh air for the developing world, and is an absolute gale for rural Australians who -- given that a huge proportion of metropolitan Australian residents can't even get decent broadband within city limits -- will see a significant benefit from WiMAX.
But Senator Conroy, who speaks with authority but clearly didn't have the time to Google WiMAX or read the Wikipedia entry before attacking the government, would like us to believe that he knows better. (if you're pressed for time, Senator, you can skip right to the part with the bullet points contrasting Wi-Fi and WiMAX).
When he mentions Wi-Fi and WiMAX in the same breath, he reveals just how prejudiced his own view has become, based on the flaky performance of a technology (Wi-Fi) that shares almost nothing in common with WiMAX except the first two letters of its name. In fact, Labor's criticism is starting to sound a lot like Telstra's -- but the difference is that Labor is supposed to be doing the best for the Australian people.
Wireless technologies have been moving data for years, reliably, between university campuses at hundreds of megabits per second. They carry many gigabits per second of digital television transmission to many parts of Australia. They are even, right now, providing communications lifelines for tens of thousands of Australian homes, all around the country. Customers using these services know how reliable their wireless is, and I reckon residents of under-serviced areas will welcome WiMAX with open arms.
Nobody expects Labor to agree with the government on anything, but by making such poorly informed statements to support a poorly informed cause, Senator Conroy is doing himself a serious disservice. I understand that many -- what do the politicians call them, "ordinary Australians" -- may be confused over the difference between two wireless technologies. But when a person who is stumping to lead Australia's communications policy can't even tell them apart, just how seriously can we take anything he says?