US shows what OPEL could have been

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.
Written by David Braue, Contributor

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 Hairspray.

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.


Baltimore Inner Harbor
(Credit: Jacqueline Munoz, Royalty Free)

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 WiMAX deployments.

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 Sprint cover 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 not guaranteed."

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 First Class?"

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 technology.

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 decided.

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.

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