The NBN is here: it's being used in Tasmania, it's about to be rolled out on the mainland, and it will — unless Tony Abbott is elected — be coming to your home or business within the next few years. Yet as far along as we are into the NBN, it's still amazing to me that I can sit at a table with a group of intelligent and experienced IT experts and have more than one voice dredging up the same tired arguments against the NBN: it's only for downloading movies, it's too expensive, it's too ill-considered, it's just a big expensive gift to Telstra.
These myopic, knee-jerk reactions are no better than Stephen Conroy's habit of branding anybody who opposes Labor's internet filter as advocates of child pornography. Just as there are perfectly valid arguments against the filter that have nothing to do with pornography, there are perfectly valid arguments for the NBN that have nothing to do with movie downloads. Ignoring them does a disservice to everything that the NBN promises, and will deliver — which is nothing less than a generational leap forward for every business in Australia.
Online economies will bring businesses into blue-sky territory, but they need the NBN to eliminate communications tyrannies of distance once and for all.
(Credit: David Braue/ZDNet Australia)
Even if you don't own a business, you probably work for one. And that's why it's important that every voter understand that the NBN wasn't designed just for everyday Australians' internet usage. Sure, it will become your home's primary communications lifeline to the world, but that's just fleas on an elephant compared with its total use. Unfortunately, consumer uses for the NBN are also the thing that gets the most attention, because the discussion has been directed by politicians trying to make the network relevant to the voters whose support they depend upon.
For whatever reason, those politicians have struggled to step back from the consumer discussion enough to clearly articulate why it's important that every one of Australia's millions of businesses — from mom-and-pop shops to the rarefied end of the ASX — have access to fast, reliable broadband. And this isn't just so their bored employees can download movies when things are slow: today's world of electronic payments, paperless shipping, on-site Wi-Fi, and so on all but demands that every business have reliable broadband.
Even if you don't own a business, you probably work for one... Unfortunately, consumer uses for the NBN are also the thing that gets the most attention, because the discussion has been directed by politicians trying to make the network relevant to the voters whose support they depend upon.
The biggest companies can shell out for expensive fibre-optic services available in specific parts of our largest cities: Telstra, for example, just announced it will install extensive fibre throughout South Brisbane in a move that will slightly expand the footprint of business-ready fibre services.
Millions of small and medium businesses (SMBs), however, can't afford the complexity or expense of such solutions. This has left them relying on whatever service they could get through conventional means — typically, whatever ADSL2+ is available in their region (remember that Telstra and Optus focused on households for their hybrid-fibre coaxial (HFC) network roll-outs, not business areas, so any cabled-up small businesses are more by accident than design).
With an absolute maximum of around 20Mbps download and a paltry 1Mbps upload, it's a big stretch to call ADSL2+ business-ready. The limited upload speed is of particular concern: while it's easy for businesses to set up 1Gbps networks inside their four walls, they've constantly had to compensate for slow wide-area network (WAN) connections. In the past, this meant figuring out how to link branch offices over ISDN or Frame Relay services running as slowly as 64Kbps; the answer, often, was to back up a branch-office server to tape, then physically courier the tape to a capital-city office for archiving.
If you think that's inefficient, today's systems aren't much better: 1Mbps uploads, like those provided by ADSL2+, are still just 0.1 per cent of the likely speed of a company's internal network; rarely-used synchronous flavours of DSL are no better, working only at 1, 2 or 4Mbps. And, unlike in a download-heavy home situation, upload speed is essential for businesses to seamlessly network their offices without suffering from WAN bottlenecks. In practice, linking branch offices using ADSL2+ is like racing your Ferrari down the freeway most of the way to work, then getting out and carrying it on your head as you pick your way through city gridlock.
Unlike in a download-heavy home situation, upload speed is essential for businesses to seamlessly network their offices without suffering from WAN bottlenecks. In practice, linking branch offices using ADSL2+ is like racing your Ferrari down the freeway most of the way to work, then getting out and carrying it on your head as you pick your way through city gridlock.
The most important thing about the NBN isn't its speed — even though its fibre-optic services will easily provide 1Gbps or eventually 10Gbps connections for those who need them. No, the value of the NBN is that it will raise the lowest common denominator and allow every business in the country to link with every other branch office, business partner or telecommuting employee at the same speed as they would use over their internal network. When even your remotest offices have 1Gbps access to the rest of the company, your data can live in Sydney and be backed up there, and remain instantly accessible by your remote staff as if they were sitting in the same office.
As a WAN, in other words, the NBN will resolve decades of compromise to enable businesses to implement the applications they want, where they want them, as their growth and strategy demands. Consider something like cloud computing, which is offering businesses significant promise as a way of providing access to high-end applications without spending millions on infrastructure.
Cloud computing is quickly becoming the way businesses will compute, but Australian businesses will miss out on its possibilities if they can't get reliable WAN links that are fast enough to let them participate in the cloud. The other bottleneck for cloud computing is Australia's international fibre links, but investments such as the $447 million recent Pacnet-Pacific Fibre undersea cable will go a long way towards improving that part of the equation.
Business needs better broadband and most businesses are already painfully aware of this fact. That's why the Australian Information Industry Association and industry bodies of all stripes have come out wholly on the side of the NBN, noting that it's critical for industry and business development and calling for a bipartisan approach to the network.
I shouldn't have to write this column, but the persistence of uninformed comments makes it necessary. The only people I really hear arguing against the NBN any more are those who dismiss it offhand as too expensive or useless for anything outside their own narrow home use; but they are out there, and they do vote. And if they vote for Tony Abbott and his minions, they will be voting against nothing less than the future of Australian business.
Perhaps the biggest irony of all this is that Tony Abbott's abstruse resistance to progress, in the form of his blind determination to axe the NBN, will hold back business development in a time when we really can't afford it. For a party that's supposed to be all about private-sector promotion, light-touch and hands-off policies, Abbott's Liberals seem happy to tie one hand behind the backs of Australian businesses by taking from them one of the primary things they need to succeed.
What anybody weighing in on this debate needs to understand is, firstly, that the private sector will never deliver the kind of NBN that Australia really needs; and, secondly, that the real benefits the NBN will provide lie not in its speed, but in its ubiquity. Raising the bar for all Australian business communications, regardless of source or destination, business or home use, will pay off in ways we cannot even imagine.