Tuesday, April 9, 2013

CAAANBRA: Fraudband

  While I’ve been beavering away at work this morning, my twitter feed has feasted on the latest thing: the announcement by Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull of the Coalition's broadband policy.  
The policy, released under the new Liberal slogan of Hope Reward Opportunity, is now a reality. Already the wags are using the new slogan more creatively than the Liberals envisaged:

Hope…the damned thing works
Reward…our mates at Foxtel

Opportunity…to look like we care

  Two topics are up for discussion: Firstly, the actual NBN as proposed by the Liberals today. Tech-heads from work, along with most of Twitter, have assured me the Liberal proposal is the equivalent of answering a request for an iPhone 6 by providing a 1988 Motorola Brick – and expecting to be thanked for it. It will utilise some of our existing copper network, which Telstra has been phasing out since the early 1990s because of its age and limited capacity to carry large volumes of data at speed. In fact, Telstra has described the lifespan of the copper network as "five to midnight". 

Kevin Rudd tweeted that it was last century’s technology. Some of it is older than that, dating back to original copper cables which were laid from 1880.

Assuming that the copper cables can cope with the volume of data and deliver the speeds required, the next hurdle is “FTTN” – Fibre to the Node. In laymanspeak, fibre will be used to transmit major distances, ending at a node, where the data is transferred to copper cabling (or wireless) to reach the homes or premises that feed from the node. In populated areas, there’ll be nodes every few hundred metres.

Copper: pretty & antiquated
The Liberal plan supports the patchwork approach, where various suppliers provide bits and pieces – they call this ‘competitive’. The benefit is that they use whatever is already there, regardless of whether its fit for purpose. (It also ensures that Foxtel is protected, but we'll get to that later.) What happens when something goes wrong? Who is responsible? Technical support will be a nightmare for consumers.

When I read the Executive Summary for the policy, it struck me that the biggest consideration in the Coalition plan is not functionality, reliability, or longevity. It’s cost. There're little thought about the future, just a drive to convince us that in this case, cheaper is better.

At $29.5 billion dollars, it’s about $29.5 billion dollars overpriced if it doesn’t work, if it proves to be inadequate, if the copper cables fail, or if it’s obsolete. Technically, all of these options are more likely under the Coalition plan.

And then, Independent Queensland MP Rob Mitchell tweeted at about 1pm that the Liberal NBN page had failed. In fairness, that had nothing to do with broadband and everything to do with the public perception of the Liberal’s ability to understand and manage technology.

Twitter was brutal. Here are a few tweets from the #fraudband hashtag:

@conceravota Lucky Liberals were not in power when government put in pipe; we’d have ended up w/ a tap & dunny at end of every street. #fraudband
@Picketer Please hang up the phone. Turnbull wants to use the interwebs. #NBN #fraudband

@byTonyWilson It must be a turkey. The nerds haven’t been this angry since Star Wars was recut. #fraudband #NBN

@peterjhinton Stop acting like #fraudband is a turning point! The people who will hand #2031election to #abbott think a torrent is heavy rain. #auspol

@geeksrulz LNP FRAUDBAND CAR CRASH. Turnbull has no estimate on how long copper will last. Thorough planning. #NBN #Auspol

  The other issue was the announcement itself. It was a big deal, and now, competing with the death of Baronness Thatcher for column inches. Many of the policy details were known or at least suspected before the press conference. Rumours were circulating that not all media was invited to today’s launch. Freedom of speech is a different issue altogether, but is worth considering in light of three areas of context:

This is the Liberal’s first major policy announcement in this election cycle

Tony Abbott has been avoiding the tough interviews

Malcolm Turnbull has a background in telecommunications
Firstly, the announcement was made in front of a banner with the word Foxtel emblazoned on it. That was a poor choice by the Liberals communications team, as Rupert Murdoch, who owns a slab of Foxtel, stands to benefit from the Liberal proposal, and lose from the current NBN. It looks dodgy.

Secondly, Tony Abbott was there. Well, of course the Leader of the Opposition would be there when the first of his party’s policies is launched…except that last time he was anywhere near a Liberal policy on the broadband, he displayed an embarrassing lack of understanding of the basics and a condescending attitude to those who use technology. Remember this clanger:
"For me, broadband basically is about being able to send an email, receive an email," he said. For his daughters "it's about downloading movies, songs, all that kind of thing".

At that time, one of my key responsibilities was to work with rural and remote customers who were trying to use our transactional website, but in many cases, just didn’t have an internet connection to support it. A couple were still on dial-up. Those customers weren’t trying to download the latest Harry Potter movie or Sex and the City 2. They were trying to do business in the bush. That comment helped to ensure that when the situation arose, Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor supported the ALP, because the ALP was committed to delivering fast broadband to the bush.

Incidentally, Mr Abbott should be careful of raising the issue of price rises. His policy document claims that the ALP NBN was originally costed at $44.1 billion, but has almost doubled to $94 billion. Almost doubled, eh? In 2010, Mr Abbott priced the Coalition NBN substitute at around $6 billion. The plan unveiled today is estimated at $29.5 billion – almost 5 times as much as the 2010 estimate. Yes Mr Abbott, costs and priorities change over time.

So what’s the outcome?  It’s a cost/benefit judgment. It seems to come down to personal ethos: a bigger spend for a more robust, durable system, or a cheaper alternative for a cheaper result.

I want the one that works, and will keep working into the future. The rest of it, we manage.

Trending Hashtag: Fraudband. © @KRuddMP   Update: 4 hours later, and #fraudband is still a very active hashtag. There are very few tweets in favour of the Liberal plan - but not everyone tweets. Those who have little contact with computers will probably prefer the cheaper option, so be cautious about taking the twitter preference as a sign.

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