Labor: Clueless on wireless?

Labor: Clueless on wireless?

Summary: 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.


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?

Topics: Broadband, Government, Government AU, Networking, NBN, IT Employment, Wi-Fi


Australia’s first-world economy relies on first-rate IT and telecommunications innovation. David Braue, an award-winning IT journalist and former Macworld editor, covers its challenges, successes and lessons learned as it uses ICT to assert its leadership in the developing Asia-Pacific region – and strengthen its reputation on the world stage.

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  • Haven't read it but...

    I'm generally a Liberal voter, and I haven't fully read the article, but I just wanted to say this:
    Neither Helen Coonan nor Stephen Conroy know their technological elbow from their backside. I don't know what the problem is, but neither of them (or anyone in their staff) seem to know a darn thing about the internet, other than it's an election issue.
  • Frequency - Public Spectrum

    I was watching Ms Coonan defend the original announcement during question time, which was being broadcast by the ABC, and I can say that she has no idea either.

    More worrying than that I saw a short grab of a gentleman explaining the proposed WiMAX system to the Prime Minister. He said that it will operate on a frequency of 2.4GHz, to which Mr Howard said "Oh, that's good!" Which is really bad on two counts, firstly that the Prime Minister doesn't understand the state of the EM Spectrum in Australia, and secondly that the government isn't going to spend any money on a distinct frequency. The government is going to dump this project in the public spectrum - right where our current shortrange WiFi networks sit. The governement should not be allowed to break, or change, the law that restricts the range of transmissions within this part of the spectrum, in order to save money.
  • Wi-Fi is WiMax, sort of.

    Labor Voter.

    Ok there is a different brokerage class,
    Ok each connection gets a different access slot.

    - Look like its going to be on 2.4Ghz (bad)

    - Slots still limited (and connections not guaranteed, that's what a brokerage agent means) Ever tried to call someone on a mobile New Years Eve? Same problem.

    - Slots given out and reviewed later. Get up at 5 am, keep link active and have good access all day. Come in at 19:00 and have crud access.

    - Only really useful in low demand, large distance applications. Doesn't help with bad copper infrastructure in high population areas. Not a nation wide solution.

    - Still a wireless transmission over a wireless network. The original claim that WIFi and WiMAX are not the same (or similar) is false.

    - And it looks like they will roll out access points and then sit back and watch the free for all.

  • And Spectrum?

    Sorry, posting again. Labor voter remember, please add salt.

    Anyone wonder why the original spec is for 10- 66Ghz? And the later spec includes 2-10Ghz?

    The original spec is load tolerant, but you can't licence the spectrum easily, the later is spectrum useable but will perform badly under load.

    Compare 802.11a with 14 non-0verlapping channels (in 5 GHz) and 802.11b-g in 2.4GHz with 14 channels but only 3 distinct bands (thus 3 useable channels). Look how they are going to handle slots and just laugh.
    The disadvantages are an interesting read.

    Assuming they will broadcast large how many people will be living in their 100km radius?

    3.14*100^2 = 31400 sqkm.
    @1 person / km
    31400 people.
    assume 4 people per household, 1 in 10 households connecting.
    that is still ~775 connections.
    100 Mb/s connection / 775 = 128Kb/s connections. If they can connect and get a slot.

    BTW, if we are putting in infrastructure, is IP6 built in? (and yes I know that confuses the layers)

    Michael BE CompE (UCanb 2005)
  • oh the irony

    You accuse others of not being 'learned' in the field, then you cite Wikipedia as your one reliable form of reference?

    I laughed so hard I spat coffee out my nose.

    You missed the point by a kilometre or two as well. The basic assertion made by labor is that wireless is not as good a delivery medium as cable. This is undeniably true, moreso in the case of the implementation the current government has approved for rollout. Perhaps yo should read some actual technical documentation on the topic and get back to us?
  • I hope the coffee didn't stain anything

    The point about Wikipedia is that even a cursory search for facts, by someone who didn't know anywhere else to look, would have turned up a relatively clear explanation about why WiFi and WiMAX are not the same thing. Someone in Conroy's position should be better educated about a topic like this because silly mistakes like that cheapen his whole platform.

    Of course wireless is not as good a delivery medium as cable. However, wireless shouldn't be dismissed out of hand either, just because WiFi isn't good enough to replace the local loop. That would be like saying you won't vote for Labor because you don't like Pauline Hanson -- both are politicians but they are very very different. It is, simply, difficult to accept Labor's credibility in this debate when they start spewing misinformed rhetoric that sounds like it came straight off the Telstra PR machine.
  • IPv6

    Has been built in to IOS, JunOS etc for years.
    The problem has always been getting reliable native IPv6 transit, which will really be up to Optus and it's IX peers in PAIX, LAIX etc.
    It looks like you got some good use from your Wireless Networking tutorial questions ;)
  • wi max wi fi and others

    the fact remains even remote users like me whom live on the fringes of adsl can not get it.Yet all this wifi or whatever is costly to the user.hence in my opinion a landline based optic fibre is the way to go and more so when in my state wa it is in situ at most exchanges anyway.All I require is my 2pair gains boosted or updated and I would be happy as a pig in shit with just 512 or higher and wait for optic connection.It seems to me pollies are inundated with sat style connections which in realaity do not work and are hopelessly expensive.One only has to look at Telsras 250 bucks for a modem plus 60 bucks a mth for a mere 1g download how pathetic.I can not see wi max being any different.
  • Clueless on Wireless

    David the concept of either side of politics knowing anything about technology and wireless in particular would rate with the best of oxymorons!
    I spent/wasted 2 hours trying to get the message through to Minister Coonan via her advisers prior to the decision to donate close to $1B to OPEL.
    Conroy is no worse than Coonan when she said that you will be able to take your laptop out to the shed and surf the net with this new network.
    Given that politicians are politicians journalists should check their facts before they blindly quote references.
    The OPEL WiMAX is based on the 806.16d standard or fixed service. This is not the system employed in Canada as quoted. They use a pre standard portable version.
    OPEL propose to use unlicenced 5.8 spectrum which means that they will not be able to use high power and will therefore be subject to the same spectrum requirements as WiFi.
    The majority of wireless broadband deployed in regional areas uses proprietary WiFi and gets up to 15Kms range. However the major impediment to successful deployment has been vegetation or terrain. OPEL will face the same impediments and will NOT achieve their stated coverage using the limited number of base stations proposed to cover 99% of Australia. Consider the coverage and problems with Telstra's NextG network which has a lot more base stations and operates on a much lower frequency which is better suited to penetrating vegetation.
    The issue of G9 needing access to Telstra's copper for their FTTN network could be overcome by using this fantastic WiMAX network proposed for the bush. It has not even been considered for their metro network because they know as well as I do that it will not deliver a reliable service at the speeds claimed. Strangely once this technology leaves the city limits it immediately morphs into a super hero network.
    The bush has been on hold since March 13th this year and will now have to wait until June 2009 for this new network before someone will realise it is yet another political stuff up.
    How about a story exposing the ineptitude of politicians, their advisors and the bureaucrats.
  • well put

    Terry... I would like to congratulate you on your comments. The single greatest issue has been the complete secrecy with the entire project. Many highly informed people have raised concerns with the technical aspects of the venture without any answers.

    As the solution is partially funded by the taxpayers is there any real reason why we have been blocked from accessing the information?
  • Wait! There is more.

    Firstly let me declare I am not a Telstra supporter and I have previously advised Optus at the highest levels.

    The grant for BCIF was supposed to be for a limited number of projects (between 5 and 6) and funded out of up to $600M. It was to be for the supply of broadband to under serviced premises. Infrastructure for areas currently able to receive broadband were classified as commercial and would not qualify for this wholesale only grant.

    No one was advised of the outcome of their applications or asked for additional information despite widespread rumours in the press of the Optus favoritism prior to the OPEL announcement. No one other than OPEL was advised of the additional $358M.

    The ABG fund for those not covered by OPEL was supposed to be a perpetual fund guaranteeing broadband for all Australians. It now appears that it will last for 12 months and be replaced by something else to be determined by yet another committee with little experience.

    The question not answered about who gets the service from OPEL is "will people currently serviced by broadband be given access to their network on the same terms as the under serviced customers?" I suspect the answer is yes given that there is great play on the fact that more exchanges will be enabled for ADSL2 at taxpayer expense. By definition these exchanges already have ADSL so why should only OPEL be subsidised for their DSLAMS.

    All areas covered by Broadband Connect previous subsidies are now deemed commercial and no subsidies will be available. I bet OPEL will be able to supply these areas with taxpayer funded infrastructure.

    Effectively OPEL has been given a monopoly on subsidised broadband. It has been dressed up as a wholesale service but as they can generate profit from the wholesale product to subsidse their retail offering there won't be many wholesale customers.

    The reason there is no real information is that it doesn't exist. The Optus CEO was interviewed on ABC TV after winning the grant and said they have yet to design or plan the network. Here is a $2B rollout without knowing how it will be delivered or who will supply the equipment.

    Coverage maps were drawn by using a theoretical location and then a 50Km circle drawn from this point. Miraculously it goes through mountains. DCITA state that these maps are not to be used for any purpose but they use them to determine where subsidies are paid and the allocation of $958M of taxpayers money!

    I repeat the last sentence of my first post.

    How about a story exposing the ineptitude of politicians, their advisors and the bureaucrats.
  • Simple mistake...

    You seem to be contending that Conroy's slip-up is proof that he doesn't know there are differences between the 802.11x networks he accesses at home or the airport, and WiMAX. I think this is stretching. In my opinion, it's more likely that he was under the mistaken impression that Wi-Fi was a general term for networks based on wireless transmission, when in fact it refers to only a group of these technologies. It's more an issue of ignorance of correct terminology than ignorance of technology if you ask me. He might very well know many specifics of WiMAX such as maximum range and operating frequency, who knows? I guess you're the type of guy that when someone says that "Linux is a version of Unix", you immediately spring to your feet and present a 3-hour lecture on the many ways in which this statement is incorrect ;)