Sprint's WiMAX roll-out in Baltimore will prove the Australian government's decision to worm its way out of the Opel WiMAX contract was a short-sighted, and ultimately damaging, political stunt that has benefited nobody.
The US city of Baltimore,
Maryland, population just under 1 million, may be best known to
most Australians as the setting for last year's hit movie
Americans also know it for its 107-year-old Baltimore Orioles
baseball team, its delicious Chesapeake Bay crabs, its world-class
Johns Hopkins Hospital, and its homicide rate six times
higher than that of New York City.
This month, however, Baltimore will become known for two more
things: first, it is the first place in the US where Sprint's new
Xohm service — the name for its WiMAX wireless data service — has
become officially available across the city. Second, it is the city
that will prove that the Australian government's decision to worm
its way out of the Opel WiMAX contract was a short-sighted, and
ultimately damaging, political stunt that has benefited nobody.
It is now a bit over a year since the Optus-Elders partnership
was given the green light by the previous government, and about six
months since new minister
Stephen Conroy decided that no progress was desirable to
progress on the Coalition's terms.
Ask the residents of even moderately sized non-capital cities
how their internet services are going, and you're likely to hear
some grumbling. After all, Conroy has set his sights on frying
bigger fish — building a nationwide next-generation infrastructure
that will stand as a monument to Labor's nation-building prowess.
Well, that was the theory, at least.
As we near the end of 2008 — the time when Conroy originally
promised we would start seeing the first fibre-optic cable laid in
the ground — and the NBN tender continues its rocky crawl forward,
it's hard not to think about what might have been.
Heck, you don't even have to think about it: Baltimore — a
onetime steel town and shipbuilding centre that would not be
inaccurate to describe as America's version of Newcastle — is now
leading the US in what will soon become one of the world's largest
By Conroy's logic, Opel was the fruit of a poisoned tree that
the Coalition planted, so Labor was setting up the guillotine from
the moment it took office. Since Big Kev would rather spend that $1
billion funding his year-long world tour, Conroy would have had
Buckley's of convincing him to up the government's commitment to
broadband from $4.7b to $5.7b for two separate projects.
Heck, the way the economy's going I'm surprised Labor haven't
pulled the NBN bid yet and diverted the money to get an early start
on their 2010 re-election campaign.
At any rate, things in broadband are much the same as they were
a year ago. Except that Telstra finally decided it should actually
use its ADSL2+ equipment. And that Optus can't seem to keep its 3G
network working for more than 10 minutes at a stretch.
Both of these facts are strong arguments for widespread
availability of an alternative infrastructure, and I don't think
I'm being partisan here when I say that it's bloody obvious that
wireless suits rural areas to a T when it comes to landline
replacements (of course, broadband over power lines worked well in
rural areas too, but that potential game-changer
got axed right quick too).
Instead, however, we have a government that bought Telstra's
argument that WiMAX was A Terrible Thing — not the least because it
completes with Telstra's perfectly good (I write this with a
straight face) Next G network — which, by the way, will be pushed
to 42Mbps some time real soon, ya'll hear?
Let me for a moment
avoid getting stuck into that deceptive Marketing Department
figure, and simply touch on what the fair people of Baltimore can
now get. After buying a US$80 WiMAX modem, customers of the Xohm Home bundle will pay just US$35 per
month (US$25 per month for the first 6 months) or US$50 per month
for a combo plan that attaches a mobile data card to the service as
well. As with most American broadband services, there do not appear
to be download limits.
"Yes," you say, "but I bet it's not very fast." I'll let
that: "We define High Performance level as average 2 to 4 Mbps
download speed and 0.5 to 1.5 Mbps upload speed. Broadband access
speed claims are based on our network speed tests. Many factors can
affect performance. Actual performance and coverage may vary and is
The Australian government's decision to worm its way out of the Opel WiMAX contract was a short-sighted, and ultimately damaging, political stunt that has benefited nobody.
Actually, this probably is a good time to get stuck into the
42Mbps figure. Telstra has a habit of overstating its capabilities
and overestimating on its costs — just consider how many times it
has revised its estimated NBN cost upwards, at a rate roughly
paralleling Zimbabwe's inflation.
I'm thinking that someone in
government heard Telstra promising 42Mbps and thought "stuff that,
why should we spend a billion to deliver something one-tenth that
speed when we can just axe Opel and use the dosh to keep Kev in
Now, anybody who actually uses wireless data services — 3G,
EDGE, GPRS, or even the many spotty WiMAX services currently
dotting our country — knows that stated speeds are optimistic at
best and grossly optimistic at worst and that, true to the laws of
physics, performance starts to decline as soon as you climb down
from the top of the antenna.
But the issue here isn't really one of performance — it's an
issue of accessibility. And, outside of metropolitan areas, this is
where Australia's broadband really falls down; Telstra may really
be doing its best to make Next G a landline replacement, but —
promises aside — it is still a pale second to a dedicated,
data-only wireless broadband delivered by WiMAX or similar
Love it or hate it, the sense Opel was giving was that their
planned network would have delivered good-speed broadband to
millions of people who are suffering along with dial-up speeds and
using phone lines that will never, ever deliver better performance
because of the way they were configured all those years ago. For
them, nothing has changed since last year.
I acknowledge that Opel is gone forever — although I do expect
Optus/SingTel have a battalion of lawyers ready to sue the bejeezus
out of the government for the Opel cancellation once the NBN bid is
But as the people of Baltimore — and, soon, Chicago (a city with
more people than Sydney and Melbourne combined) and Washington,
D.C. (also larger than Sydney) — go live with WiMAX, perhaps those
who bagged the technology a year ago, sight unseen, will have to
concede that maybe, just maybe, the axing of Opel meant that
Australia missed out on something big.