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Is NBN really needed in Australia?

Does Australia need a national broadband network or was it merely an election strategy sketched out by political strategists? Roundtable panelists review country's infrastructure.
Written by Munir Kotadia, Contributor on

Was Australia's national broadband network (NBN) an election strategy quickly sketched out on the back of an envelope by political strategists with no real intent on building the thing, or is it a well-conceived idea that could become a vital part of Australia's telecommunications infrastructure?

During then ZDNet IT Priorities Roundtable discussion in Melbourne, which took place soon after the Australian general election was called, panelists expressed some very diverse views.

David Braue, a regular columnist on ZDNet Australia, was clearly in favor of the NBN. "Personally I think the NBN is a big step forward, it is the kind of thing that we need. The PSTN [public switched telephone network] is falling down around our ears; it's not a question of, 'is the NBN necessarily the best way', although I think it is a good way, it is also an issue of what other choice do we have?" said Braue.

On the other side of the table, Kevin McIsaac, an analyst at IBRS, told panelists that he believed the people who came up with the idea for the NBN did not think they would actually have to build it.

"It really occurs to me like it was a pre-election stunt to come up with an idea. Something that was probably tossed around by a bunch of guys...who never really thought they would have to implement it," said McIsaac.

He also argued that the not-insignificant amount of money that has so far been spent by the government on NBN studies and consultants could instead have been used to provide the Australian public with better broadband services in the short term.

"We spent a lot of money having consultants and various folks coming in and talk about the NBN," McIsaac explained. "I honestly think if you took all that money and gave it to a good service provider, for example, Internode, iiNet or TPG, and asked them to roll out ADSL2 to every exchange in Sydney or Melbourne or Brisbane or Tasmania, we probably could have covered two-third of Australia with a high-speed 10Mbps ADSL network by the time we have finished these massive studies."

One thing all panel members agreed on was that Australia's infrastructure is in a very poor state.

Peter Nunn, managing director of software company InfoTeq called the cost of [Internet] traffic in Australia "absurd".

Willem Triegaardt, of Silcar, said a network upgrade would enable smaller firms to take advantage of mobile working and cloud services.

"I work from home and have a 1.5Mbps connection... I don't even have ADSL2 where I live--in a neighborhood that is four years old," said Triegaardt.

He believes companies based in the United States have a massive advantage over Australian organizations because they are able to rely on their connections. He said a reasonably priced and reliable, fast connection would "change the way the company works".

"I was doing some work with a software company in the U.S. called Synaptic and they had an organization of 800 to 1,000 people and everyone works from home--they did not have an office. We can't do that in Australia," he added.

There has been a lot of argument about the huge cost involved with building the NBN, but Braue is convinced the end result will be worth it.

"Obviously there are issues about costing, people get a bit emotional when they hear big numbers thrown around but we pay a lot of money for other things which have much less benefit.

"[The NBN] is not a megabit network, it could be a gigabit network, it could be 10 gigs, it just depends on the technology," said Braue. "What is important is not the speed, it is that you have connectivity, and the same level of connectivity over the whole country. When you have an NBN in place, communications become inherently reliable whereas what we have is inherently unreliable and unpredictable."

IBRS's McIsaac said Telstra was to blame for the lack of fast, reliable connectivity in Australia.

"You know what? ADSL2+, today we don't need much more than that. I think the issue is not that we need a 'National Broadband Network', we just need Telstra to get off its arse and put ADSL2+ at a reasonable price in every exchange," he added.

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