NBN wireless nets NIMBY-pamby opposition

Inevitable protests against NBN Co wireless towers remind us why the Coalition's wireless-NBN alternative would never have worked. But with 2500 towers planned and opposition already mounting, could obstacles placed by NIMBY protesters make NBN Co's delivery timelines slip dramatically?
Written by David Braue, Contributor

When The Wild One's Marlon Brando was famously asked what he was rebelling against, he asked, simply, "Whaddya got?" These days, proponents of the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) movement — whose adherents argue that the dangerous equipment, hazardous substances and morally questionable practices associated with modern life are fine so long as other people have to deal with them — have added the NBN to their list of things to rebel against.


If an NBN tower can be too close for comfort way out here, what are city dwellers to think? (Screenshot by David Braue/ZDNet Australia)

They've certainly had no shortage of things to complain about over the years. Toxic sludge, radioactive waste, and even old tyres have encouraged placard-waving protesters worried about the Western world's habit of delivering modern services such as electricity and petrochemical manufacturing, then trying to figure out what to do with their by-products.

Now, the NBN's wireless component is starting to attract the same kind of ire that drew protesters to US Superfund sites, which attracted the wrath of hundreds to the Jabiluka uranium mine, spurred complaints about the Muckaty nuclear waste dump, seen protesters chaining themselves to trees in Melbourne's Albert Park, and generally accompanied the empowerment of the anti-capitalist left over the past few decades.

Just weeks after NBN subcontractors started lodging council applications for the construction of 40-metre-high mobile towers to support the NBN's wireless components, we're already seeing resistance from individuals and will probably see grassroots groups campaigning to block the applications at every opportunity. Aided by potential legislation such as the Greens-sponsored Telecommunications Amendment (Mobile Phone Towers) 2011 Bill, opponents of the mobile towers could push delivery of the NBN's wireless mobile component well beyond its current planned 2015 deadline.

Expect many councils to capitulate as they bow to the pressures put on them by vocal minorities in the regions — and, in turn, expect many battles to be taken to peak bodies such as the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT). Such bodies generally have the final say in planning matters — however, appealing to them to override local planning decisions is both expensive and time-consuming. Just imagine the hit to NBN Co's business — and timelines — if the Coalition were to organise grassroots opposition to the network's 2500 planned towers, deferring the wireless NBN indefinitely.

I'm not sure, however, that it would dare: the Coalition was, if you recall, originally espousing an NBN alternative that relied heavily on fixed-wireless deployments. Malcolm Turnbull has taken no public pleasure from the latest furore over tower sitings, probably because even the fiercest NBN opponent must concede that a nationwide communications infrastructure relying heavily on wireless would run into the same kinds of problems — but an order of magnitude more frequently given the larger population of complainants and the larger number of towers required.

Just imagine the hit to NBN Co's business — and timelines — if the Coalition were to organise grassroots opposition to the network's 2500 planned towers, deferring the wireless NBN indefinitely.

This whole affair is just an interesting artefact of that curious Western mentality: we expect first-world services, even in rural areas, but are not willing to tolerate the infrastructure, by-products or logistical niceties necessary to make them happen. We want five-bar coverage and high-speed wireless internet wherever we need it, as long as it comes from towers that are at a safe distance from our backyards — or, in the case of the Smeaton, Victoria family now pressing its case against the towers, not even in our neighbours' backyards.

Rural residents have been crying out for better communications for years and now that they're being delivered, the NIMBY army could become the proverbial spanner in the works with a few tribunal applications. That battle would likely drag on for years, not only depriving residents of the better communications for which they've been crying out for years, but turning the project into an even bigger headache for all concerned.

Fast-forward five years and there will be many in these same areas crying out for the inequity of services they suffer.

The thing is: you simply cannot have your cake and eat it too. Metropolitan areas have seen their own share of protests over mobile towers, but the fact is that they're a necessary evil for the delivery of the kinds of communications services we now take for granted. City landscapes are littered with base stations of all stripes, and urban residents live their daily lives bathed in the radio-frequency glow of competing wireless networks delivering all kinds of frequencies from towers just dozens or hundreds of metres away.

Compare this with exceedingly rural areas like Smeaton, where it was proposed to install an NBN tower at a site half a kilometre out of town. Have a look: there's barely a structure to be seen. This place is hardly teeming with people.

I hate to spoil the party, but if these services are to be delivered — well, they have to be delivered from somewhere. Towers have to be in someone's backyard: preferably, yards with ready access to power, fibre backhaul and physical right of way so service technicians can get to the sites when they need to. Knee-jerk opposition to new facilities simply isn't going to deliver the outcomes that I'd say most people agree must be delivered. If they're NIMBY, then in whose?

Knee-jerk opposition to new facilities simply isn't going to deliver the outcomes that I'd say most people agree must be delivered.

Of course, resistance to mobile towers is hardly a new thing: the past decade has been dotted with protests over mobile-tower sitings, such as Optus' problems siting a proposed tower near Grafton Aerodrome. Indeed, people-power protests against the simultaneous and silly Telstra and Optus hybrid-fibre coaxial roll-out helped halt the networks far short of their potential.

In the same vein, battles over these NBN towers will be numerous and no doubt bitter. Neighbours will argue, councillors will hold heads in hands. I'm not sure whether any protesters will handcuff themselves to NBN Co facilities, but it's still early in the game and you just never know.

Does this sort of opposition rule out wireless NBN components altogether? Not necessarily: just as there will be many who hate the thought of mobile towers anywhere near their houses, there will inevitably be those who judge the perceived risk of base stations in their backyards and decide it's acceptable. But it will be a very real test of how much the inevitable opposition can shape the NBN's direction and how much this affects the footprint of the eventual deployment.

What do you think? Are opponents overstating the risks from mobile towers? Should NBN Co change its wireless plans to stay even further from populated areas? Or do rural Australians just need to learn to live with wireless towers like city dwellers did long ago?

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