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Cooking at a friend's party one night, 1990s
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Opinions of late

By Dan Byrnes

This long article written 3-10 October 2010 (which is about 16 pages printed out) is also available online at: http://www.pgts.com.au/ at Gerry Patterson's PGTS Journal.

It was originally written for this PGTS technical journal and is lodged here just as fill, which is how and why you will find the graphics on this page have no relation whatsoever to the text. But read on anyway and enjoy the sense of humour - Ed

Australia's national broadband network debate - anything here been only half-baked?

(Part One of two parts)

Hello out there in Australia's cyberspace? Do you read me? Copy this.

Are you too suffering grave piffle-fatigue from the remarks of politicians in Australia since we last punished them with a hung parliament they can't cope with? Only a few weeks ago now. My own case of piffle-fatigue is getting quite burdensome. I'm mad as hell and I'm not gonna take it, them, or the cliches, anymore!

As US satirist Stephen Colbert would say, “Now Nation, listen up!”

Your present scribe feels moved firstly to declare his biases. He is from Tamworth and now lives in Armidale. He is pro-Tony Windsor, Australian Federal MP for New England. The voters of Tamworth and Armidale vote in Tony Windsor, or not, as they feel. Tony Windsor is The Man!

Windsor is an independent MP of impressive gravitas about appropriate parliamentary activity. Would to God that Mad Monk Tony Abbott, allegedly the leader of the Australian Liberal Party, had such good gravitas, common sense, penetrating words and an ability to call a spade a spade.

Your present scribe is secondly, seriously outraged at the determination that most of Australia's politicians have, to continue to talk piffle and thus weaken their grip on the Australian future. Whether we hold them in contempt for doing so, or not.

Your present scribe is thirdly for the idea that Australia should have a national broadband network, on a why-not basis. It'd be interesting technical infrastructure for us all to explore and enjoy, ok.

Let's be clear here. Cyberspace is an environment all its own and interesting in its own right. Cyberspace is quite new to humanity, it's novel in human history, and it's fascinating as all get out because it is so informative, entertaining and educational. Anyone who wants to deprive you of the best of it -- including international e-commerce opportunities -- is an ignorant idiot, a churl, a Luddite, or just plain needs to get out more and to get a life.

The NBN's risk of becoming a deceased parrot

Point One about the NBN. It's been mis-named. It's a misnomer. It could become a deceased parrot.

The misnomer is already part of the sad history of Australian mismanagement of Australian infrastructure. It's not a “broadband” network. It's a fibre optic cable (FOC) network that would deliver Internet-based and data-based (digitised) goods and services far more optimally than anything you've ever experienced if you don't already have a FOC-type connection.

Telsta, (or Telecom, or once, Australia Post and before that, Postmaster-General's Dept or PMG) ... having been split and sold off by a thoughtless Australian government, hasn't yet had the brains to add FOC slowly or quicky to its existing, century-old copperwire network, which it inherited from my grandfather and yours. We currently "do broadband” with an overworked copperwire connection, wireless, or with those of us who are lucky, FOC, depending on where we live. So getting “broadband” is a lucky-dip of citizen or computer-user location and differing plans available from various ISPs. Where “real broadband” is, and just what it is, are very hard to ascertain.

We can perhaps blame Rudd for this failed sales pitch, this misnaming of the service being talked about. This failed selling pitch, this misnaming, is a cause of great misunderstanding.

Context-wise, nationally, Australia already has a set of ports that could have better infrastructure, including railway junctures. A national telephone and telecommunications network, however mismanaged by Telstra since it was split up and sold-off. Various sets of highways and railways however mismanaged or badly maintained. Various rivers which are badly mismanaged, just look at the Murray River today, as the greenies say.

Idiotically, three different states used three different rail guages when building our railways. We still all suffer the economic fallout from these nineteenth century mis-decisions.

We have a system of state governments currently with their copy books blotted by the awesomely-shaming shenanigans of the NSW State Government. So why can't we continue to be traditional and have a national broadband network, however well or badly managed? Let's move forward, then, as Julia Gillard used to recommend before she was told that “moving forward” was a seriously banal slogan (which it sure was in her hands).

Your present scribe is already infamous since in 2004 he lodged an article on the Net, still there, to the effect that in Australia (Oz), where people are known to be outrageously enthusiastic as early adopters of new technology, so, so what? What if, when the IT Revolution set in, Oz folks bought all the new IT gadgets, including computers hookable to the Internet, but missed the point. The point being, actual communication between human beings. Why would Australians miss such a basic point about international cyberspace? Because of The Great Australian Cultural Cringe, is why. Which is a form of national inferiority complex.

Your present scribe feels that this cultural cringing problem is somehow at the heart of the current debate about a National Broadband Network. The world out there is to be afraid of, very afraid, be careful how you talk to it if you even dare to, and talk to it little as possible.

In a pig's eye!!!!!!

Somehow, it must be from his unconscious mind, his political id, Tony Abbot has picked up on this and decided that nationally, broadband is not an option, as it would nullify The Cringe, which seems to be his view of our natural Australian inheritance. Strange logic in modern days. His view sure isn't that of your present scribe!

Your present scribe thinks we also need to inspect the cultural value of large-size data downloads (a lot of information), which culturally, Australians simply haven't been used to dealing with outside universities. Any kind of data, for medical or any kind of research work, hobby work, music, video/film material, medical diagnostics. The value of handling large data size tends to give Australians cultural indigestion, we are still getting used to new possibilities. It's the cultural multi-dimensionality of “data”, real and potential, that is one of the more subtle issues the broadband critics just can't seem to get their head around ... All our copper-wire network can give us are mere hints of what real data multi-dimensionality might look and feel like. In this sense, nationally, we are all still babes in the woods, more so outside the major cities.

Point Two re NBN: the economists and the cost-benefit analysis

With it's usual propaganda-sheet gusto for the continued promotion of an Australian 1960s-style submissive and dependent interface with the rest of the world, The Australian had a front page headline, “web guru joins attack on NBN” (The Australian, 22 Sep 2010).

This alleged guru was Graeme Wood, founder of the highly successful online, international travel bookings agency, wotif.com, a $1.4 billion business by now, which is based in data-humming, downtown Brisbane. He's more a businessman than an IT guru, we have been told. Founder or no, Wood is lately just a wotif.com shareholder. He is quoted as saying the NBN risks being a “43 billion hi-tech babysitter”. He regrets that most of us would be just downloading entertainment data, games and movies and feels this can't justify a major public expenditure. Wood complains (and he's right about it) that the public debate hasn't yet been conducted. However, it seems that Wood has not lately been talking earnestly to medical associations, state teacher organisations, universities, people in remoter parts of Australia. Or web-literate people such as your present scribe who lives in a quiet country town that in modern IT terms is basically information-disadvantaged.

It appears, there's a lot of things that Wood doesn't get. He suggests (it being the case the digital industries in Australia are not actually in good shape) that government give incentives for Internet innovation (not a bad idea, though it could be rorted), along the lines of tax breaks that helped the film industry in the 1990s.

And really, helped the Australian film industry do what? If you want to know the history of the Australian film industry since 1945, just read anything written in the past decade on the topic by Phillip Adams!

We'd be best off in this scribe's opinion if we blamed (read, scapegoated) Rudd for lack of any useful NBN debate. Not that your present scribe thinks any debate is needed, much as we needed no debate about building railways, though we did need debate, not feasible to conduct at the time, apparently, about which rail guage to use.

It seems, The Australian refrained from asking questions of anyone except those in the corporate sector. No one in universities, medicine, astronomy, CSIRO, anyone important overseas who feels amused by dealing with Australia in any useful way. The same 22 September article quoted Forrest, founder of Fortescue Metals Group, lamenting that there's been no feasibility study done. Which introduces the issues of a cost-benefit analysis. Dick Smith has lamented lack of cost-benefit analysis. The same 22 September article quotes iiNet guru Michael Malone calling for more transparency on costs and benefits. Vocus Communications guru feels that providing an Australian FOC would be like giving everyone a Ferrari when they'd probably be content with a Commodore.

Your present scribe has just such a Commodore. It's located/registered in Armidale NSW and it's a 1-gigabyte per month capped broadband connection from an ISP in Perth costing $34.95 per month, fitted to an ordinary Telstra-connected fixed-line phone (costing about $30 per month for a given rental plan) that usually delivers about 26kbs, hooked to a telephone number I've had since about 1994. It's barely adequate, but I get by for present purposes. There's a lot of cars on the highway faster than my now-old Commodore.

In pre-broadband days, or dial-up days, I used to have a locally-owned ISP located in Armidale, that I could talk to personally, but they were bought-out by a group based in Adelaide and ultimately answering to parties in Malaysia. Between Armidale, Adelaide, Perth, my latest ISP adventures with a D-Link DSL-5047 ADSL router that my nerdy son helped me set up, Rudd, Telstra (avoid bigpond at all costs, I advise) Abbott, idiots who want to sell me a mobile phone I don't need, adventures with yet another ISP in Melbourne whom I talk to agreeably when he's not having lightning strikes, I dunno where I am – except in the electorate of New England, where I agree with Tony Windsor's views.

Sure, we need a CBA on the NBN. Like we need a hole in our techo head as big as the one Tony Abbot has. Remember the TV series, Yes Minister? Never have an inquiry if you don't know the answer beforehand.

Sure, let's have a CBA on broadband. A few extra facts would be useful. Let's also have a CBA on people deliberately and maliciously getting older. On young people wasting their time and their minds drinking to excess. On being at war. And on employing economists who can agree about little.

On cleaning up or not cleaning up the reliability of Adelaide's water supply. What about a CBA on the costs of politicians talking piffle? If this sort of indecision keeps up, we'd never have built a Sydney Opera House, or a Sydney Harbour Bridge. Or built our railways, badly as we handled the questions of rail gauges when we did it, because at the time, we had no proper sense of national unity, we were mere colonials.

Point No. 3 re NBN: Misuse so far of test locations

In fairness to all concerned, it seems that so far, customer demand for “NBN” or “broadband services” has been questionable. Not that we have evidence coming from many directions. The same Australian issue of 22 September notes that five ISPs operating in Tasmania, well-aware of NBN installations there, say that demand for FOC-based services has been “questionable”. There is no mention of the price asked for the services.

Otherwise, all your present scribe has heard from Tasmania about NBN enthusiasm, or lack of it, is that three or four blokes reported on TV have had it connected, and think it's a fantastic improvement. That's all I've ever heard about NBN doings in Tasmania before 22 September, when the Australian noted something about it from Telstra, which had just condescended to inspect “broadband” in Tasmania.

But well the Tassie blokes might be enthusiastic. I saw the same kind of improvement at University of New England in the later 1990s when it was FOCd across-campus. A university tutor friend, who managed a website at the time, had just had his room connected. He turned his computer on, and voila! Speed! Power! Urgency! Communication possibilities re-powered! It was quite dramatic compared to what he'd been used to in his faculty building.

The NBN would apparently give me up to one gigabyte per second of download. Really? With my existing broadband connection, in September 2010 it took me hours to download a new computer operating system of a little more than one gigabyte. (It was Ubuntu 10.04, if you must know.)

Maybe, while I was twiddling my thumbs waiting for the the download to finish, I should have rung Tony Obbott's office to discuss a few “tech head” issues. And to mention to Mr. Abbott that while he and a lot of others are wondering about download speeds and the worth of the NBN, no one seems to wonder if Australians have any big UPLOADS to execute. Nope, it seems, no one assumes that Australians are going to want to be doing big uploads of anything -- not data, not information, not knowledge, not wisdom.

And in Armidale the town, since the later 1990s? Zilch. Except, it was announced early 2010 or so that a special NBN trial would be made in West Armidale (Armidale First Release Site), which area is anyway out toward the university, which already has FOC. (Inquiries here can be made to freecall info line 1800 881 816 or e-mail to connectme@nbnco.com.au) Since this trial was started, NBN, which has no office one can call into in Armidale, has had at least two begging press releases in newspapers asking West Armidalians to sign up to for broadband, possibly for free unless the installation would be non-standard. Local newspapers have displayed photos of blokes in trenches installing nice blue cable. And so on. It seems the take-up rate is low.

Living in East Armidale, this is no good to me yet. It's October 2010 already and I've yet to hear of anyone, anyone at all in West Armidale, even a business, hooking to broadband and developing an opinion for or against. Armidale is not a techo-enthusiastic town unless it's deep in domestic privacies or in-house industrial normalcies, unadvertised. And it's fascinating to conjecture, that if-and-when parliament was hung, if Tony Windsor with his enthusiasm for the NBN, as he hasn't done (it should be stressed), might have said to the powers-that-be, why not now do the rest of Armidale, east, north and south? God forbid! FOC an entire town in the New England electorate? For the sake of an enlarged trial?

In my opinion, since I know both cities in the New England electorate, apart from the needs of University of New England, Tamworth would have been a far better place to trial the NBN. Tamworth has a bigger population, is pacier, is more economically motivated than Armidale in general, has a bigger hospital (and larger demand for general medical requirements), and as far as spin-offs go, has much more an impressive regional and industrial clout and reach across northern NSW than Armidale has had or ever will have.

Meaning, a NBN investment in broadband in Tamworth would have provided far more and better feedback than a trial in Armidale would. Maybe more mismanagement here, and some politics with it?

But let's look at FOC in general. Let's look at a crikey.com article on “understanding the NBN” of 24 September by Bernard Keane, crikey's best effort so far at trying to understand the issues and an effort that could have been better. Keane thinks the government (read Rudd et al) has done a poor sales job. (Correct.) He thinks that people generally don't actually “get” the NBN. (Correct.)The economists think it's a dud idea and/or needs a cost-benefit analysis, while telcos and IT people think the economists have no vision. (Fairly correct about the division of opinion.) There's a lot of inconsistency in all arguments advanced so far. (Correct). That no one has been asking about what it costs Telstra to maintain its copper wire network. (Correct). And Keane complains that almost no one is talking about Australians executing sizable uploads for any reason.

Two things Keane doesn't mention. That for a decade or more, Telstra on its own initiative hasn't been keen (or intelligent enough) to complement its copper wire network with FOC. That no one is mentioning the general, and nationwide, cultural benefits of better communication facilities. It doesn't matter if copper-wire is doing more than it was originally imagined it ever could. It's time for an update.

And as Alan Kohler observed in the ABC's online Drum column (27 September 2010), Telstra does know Internet-wise that content is the issue, while its fixed-line business shrinks alarmingly. Of course, different content means different – and maybe larger – data sizes. But it also seems so odd, so very strange, so very odd, that Sol Trujillo when he was in the Telstra saddle used to talk on TV in pontifical ways about “growing the business”. It never occurred to Sol, apparently, to grow the copper-wire network by way of some FOC add-ons.

So let's try some facts, or, apparent facts. We can open this up with a nice practical question regarding the trial NBN installation in West Armidale. If and when it's connected, what will it be connected to? That is, what will the bits of nice blue cable to talking to? The Armidale telephone exchange? The University of New England? It seems to me, living in East Armidale, no one knows or cares. (I'll get back to these questions in a follow-up post one day.)

Fact is, University of New England is probably already riddled with nice blue cable. So presumably is Armidale telephone exchange, which is close to the new Armidale police station, just down from the Armidale CBD. In West Armidale is located the medical sector, Armidale's hospital which has doctor's practices near it and several busy medical/pathology labs. Residential West Armidale is merely between the university and the hospital, so it looks as though the trial NBN area embraces the two already-most-wired establishments in this small city, apart from the exchange/police station location in the CBD. Whether the hospital and/or the university are wired to the exchange, I don't know for a fact. It's an obvious question to ask, which Armidale people are not asking. Because ... doh.

Let's see. Doctors in the New England electorate, or anywhere else. Since the later 1980s in Tamworth and Armidale as far as I know, ordinary doctors, general practitioners, have been able if they want to, to dial-up a giant medical diagnostics operation in California. Presumably by copper-wire, in those days. Presumably, if they now had FOC, they could send much larger data sizes to California for diagnosis? What would be the cost-benefit analysis on helping or saving lives here? (Tamworth has a regional base hospital of good reputation, UNE now has a developing medical faculty.)

Let's see. What if this were the case with most small cities in Australia, let alone the larger ones, that they all have a patchwork quilt of broadband already installed? That all that NBN Co – or anyone else -- has to do is go about joining up more FOC nodes, depending either on commercial demand or govermmental largesse, it hardly matters as a technical matter. Except perhaps as a question of scale and the speed and intensity of installations.

Depending on who so far manages those nodes? Telstra? Word is that Telstra is dying to offload its copper network to NBN Co. But this situation, its why and wherefore, seems to be under close media wraps. We hear nothing of the deep inner yearnings of Telstra, or the frustrations if any that the NBN Co. might have. Is this because most people just don't get the issues? Or is it because Australia's journalists can't ask questions?

We come now to the views of someone (requesting anonymity) in the New England electorate who knows enough about electronics, radio broadcasting, satellite FM transmission and reception, computing, and New England electorate politics, to be reliable. He makes the following points and asks the following questions.

  1. Are most journalists in Australia qualified to comment on any of these issues? Certainly not! Implying, they won't be asking useful questions of the telcos or the politicians.

  2. FOC is impervious to most water-based problems. It is not subject, as satellites delivering wireless broadband might be, to meteor showers. It is faster and carries much more data capacity than copper wire, because it uses light. With data transmission, faster is always better, by definition, due to the packet-system used for defining, sending and receiving digitised data.

  3. To date, telcos don't use satellites for large data transmissions, they use undersea FOC. Because they are aware of the issues.

  4. Wireless broadband can suffer shadows for reception due to topography, which doesn't apply to FOC.

  5. No one needs extra transmission towers (for wireless) littering the landscapes/cityscapes.

  6. Our Asian neighbours (competitors?) such as Singapore, are already heavily into data-handling. (South Korea is the most heavily-wired territory on earth) What about our regional competitive advantages?

And having worried about all this, your present scribe asks in final despair ... with all this not-getting it, or worrying about the cost, or political infighting ... Why on earth hasn't anyone yet suggested that our Federal government simply mounts a national lottery to help pay for a NBN? Or even an extra bit of FOC here and there? Something that simple?

(Ends Part One) Dan Byrnes, Armidale, 4 October, 2010.

The Australian National Broadband Network - anything been only half-baked here?

(Part Two)

By Dan Byrnes

Between the dream and the reality falls the shadow.”

- TS Eliot.

As we saw in Part One (above), Australia's proposed National Broadband Network has probably been only half-baked, and might cost as much as, gasp, only $43 billion.

Not to worry. Money is only money. Apparently, Australia has been grappling with spending only $36 billion on 12 submarines – if they were designed and built in Australia. This, following our recent disasters with noisy, “ailing”, Australian-built Collins-class submarines. If bought from a European supplier, suitable submarines might cost only $9 billion. (The Australian, 8 October, 2010, page 7.)

That's fine, a nice saving. But we can't buy a cheaper NBN from Europe! One wonders though, if Australia does manufacture – can it manufacture? – its own fibre-optic cable?

(Government may or may not issue Aussie Infrastructure Bonds to allow people to invest in the network. It would be interesting to know if individual investors respond. Overseas investors? Or what we call, institutional investors such as banks and financial funds, who could feel more comfortable about any plan to wait-out 15 years for a return on investment.)

Dismally, we find that if anyone really wanted to assess the debate about Australia's projected NBN, they'd be better off if they also understood how government finances wend their way through arcane accounting practices and economic and monetary theory, as well as arguments in parliament, as well as understand in detail how share prices and stock exchanges work. Behind that nice blue cable that the NBN proposes are several centuries of the modern history of (gulp!) western cultural and technical civilization. Ever since, say, Benjamin Franklin was fooling around with lightning and electricity.

And you thought the NBN was only about sending email or downloading music or YouTube clips? Silly you!

Is the NBN as someone has called it, “a black box”? And what might that mean?

It can get much worse from the idiots amongst us.

Did you know that if you type “google” into Google, you'll break the Internet?

And did you know that if you type “NBN” into the Australian future, you'll get a visit not from the Federal Police, but from The Great Australian Cultural Cringe? Aaargghh

(And if the reader guesses that the present scribe just happened to have a pile of old weekend-edition newspapers lying around, and slowly went through them for this illuminating run-down on a contentious roll-out of nice blue cable, that's exactly right! You got it, baby, hubba hubba!)

A fact or two.

A return from the NBN of about six-seven per cent by year 15 would be considered modest, saith a management consultancy named McKinsey by May 2010. (w/e Australian, 8-9 May 2010.) The said report cost $25 million. The findings of the said report are disputed by other analysts. It is unclear if about $26 billion of the necessary would come out of capital account instead of anything funded from a deficit. (Meaning, your present scribe asks, just what, financially?)

Meantime, the NBN – speed and capacity - would deliver us IT services worth about $130 per month at 2010 prices, with a 60gig download allowance monthly. (Andrew Colley, w/e Australian, 20-21 February, 2010.)

The IT scene generally remains technically volatile. Prices of computer components keep falling. There is no telling what the future holds for the IT scene, good, bad or indifferent. A good deal of any of it is relative in terms of the observer's position and equipment, whether anyone is selling any of it or just using it at home or in a business. Anyone making any kind of investment in IT matters knows this before they act. The Australian government ought to know this when considering the NBN. So it does no good for the scaremongers to angst about costs (which might go up or down), or risks (which will probably change complexion from year to year, things are so volatile).

Because it's true, none of us know what the future holds. We live by faith and hope.

Magic in IT matters, though, remains possible. As Arthur C. Clarke once said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

This is precisely the kind of magic that the NBN proposes. It's the kind of magic that can catch anyone out flat-footed, any day. Don't ever let any non-tech-head tell you otherwise.

A computer scientist, Alan Kay, once said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

That just might be American tech-bullshit, too. Whatever, don't ever let any non-tech-head in Australian politics tell you otherwise.

And, like volatile. It used to be thought that Australia's digital TV [spectrum] would be worth millions. Turns out, datacasting by this means has already lost its million-dollar niche. (Sydney Morning Herald [SMH], 8-9 May 2010.)

We guess, too, that any such digital-TV operators in Australia would have been gazumped, if not gobsmacked, by the revolution represented by 3D-movies, made known world-wide by the recent success of the movie, Avatar. Across all IT scenarios, new formats are always arising. Many but not all need to be carried by bigger-capacity data-handling systems.

By 2010, US publishers have felt moved to cut new deals with bookseller amazon.com, which shifts so many books online, publishers cannot sensibly fail to notice amazon.com. (How many useful small booksellers in how many cities around the world has amazon.com crippled so far?)

“A cold war between publishers and [literary] agents over the profits from e-books has erupted into open conflict that could reshape the book industry.” (Item, w/e Australian, 24-25 July, 2010.)

Today, O'Riley computer book publishers in California can any day email your present scribe to sell him e-books in at least four formats. Which format would sir prefer?

No one knows quite what the future might hold for anyone relying on digital technology. Government policy might change. So might technology and the IT industry. So might commercial projections change. So might computer-user preferences change. The question is, can and should we rely on government decision-making in the IT sector?

There comes a time when a government's gotta do what a government's gotta do!

We Australians are feeling a lot of ambivalence about the NBN. Mark Reid from Bulleen Victoria wrote to the w/e Australian, 6-7 February 2010, complaining that no one is talking real numbers about the costs of the NBN. He figures, it will cost about $1955 for every man, woman and child in Australia. There is no “assessment of investment, return, or prices, only vague platitudes about driving productivity, improving education and health service delivery and connecting our big cities and regional centres.” Reid feels that ICT opportunities are too risky and speculative for tax-payer-funded ministries, ICT matters are best left to private enterprises willing to take the risks. But then he admits we get a lot of poor service from our existing IT suppliers, and has to suggest, putting up with poor service is preferable to the NBN folly.

The Australian newspaper itself has been ambivalent all 2010. Some of its reportage has been valuable. But in August it got a case of collywobbles, reporting front-page that “NBN could cost households 'an extra $3000'” So saith the electrical industry to PM Gillard. Ms Gillard receiving this dire news had just had a fight on a radio frequency with Sydney shock jock Ray Hadley, who irascibly wanted to know from her just what it would cost him to NBN his own house – $2000 or $4000? But it seemed true that some homes or businesses might pay extra to be suitably wired, and that households would have to make decisions on which way to proceed into their technology-using future. (w/e Australian, 21-22 August, 2010)

Your present scribe can't make up his mind whether to face the devil or the deep blue sea, so he is abruptly going off alone into the desert from whence the prophets come. Australia needs the NBN!

Paul Kerin is appalled with Communication Minister Conroy's “contempt, arrogance and spin” as Conroy fielded TV-reporter questions on the NBN. With this interview, Conroy said the NBN won't cost $43 billion, only $27 billion (plus $16 billion borrowed). Conroy said, that sort of borrowing would only result a cost of in 13 cents per potential customer per day. (Which makes us remember that the ABC and its interesting radio and TV programming costs us only 8 cents per day. Do these sorts of figures make us fully realise that the submarines are going to cost us much less than 26-28 cents per day?) Kerin insists the real cost is $43 billion. (w/e Australian, 3-4 October 2010).

Kerin thinks that Access Economics' positive view about the NBN is not to be trusted since it is run by IBM, and IBM has a vested interest in the NBN. Conroy feels that the NBN will generate revenue such that interest on the debt incurred will be met, which would keep citizens happy. (But what about paying off the principal?) And in the light of his outraged objections to Conroy's “spin”, Kerin wants an independent cost-benefit analysis done. (w/e Australian, 3-4 October 2010.)

Well, a CBA. Let's have far more of them. More economic rationalism is exactly what we need. Why not a CBA on the cost of keeping zoos, because children don't actually need to visit zoos, they merely find it extremely interesting and entertaining. If people can read things on the Internet, let's have a CBA on a proposal to close down all the municipal libraries in Australia and sell the books to wholesale second-hand book dealers in Wales. Who needs libraries these days? They're distinctly old-fashioned by now, aren't they?

What about a CBA, if people can read things on the Internet, on closing down a few newspapers around the country? I'd like to see a CBA on the costs of politicians talking rubbish in parliament and avoiding answering relevant questions. And a CBA on the costs of running CBAs would be useful, too.

Costs? Conducting a CBA? Your present scribe doesn't feel the NBN will roon us all, whether or not it's true that the private debt of we Australians to overseas lenders is truly as horrifying as it is in recent years.

Part One of this article wondered if for comparative reasons, we shouldn't have a CBA on going to war? Try these percentages on, dear reader. In 1915, the Australian government issued its first-ever bond issue to raise debt to go to war. As a percentage of our GDP, our government debt was 50 per cent at the end of WWI. Government debt was 120 per cent of GDP at the end of WWII (not so many years before we embarked on the ambitions of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Scheme.). In 2009, our government debt was 16 per cent of GDP . (Jessica Irvine, economics writer, w/e SMH, 13-14 February 2010.)

But would you be willing to bet Australia's Future Fund on the NBN being a commercial success? I doubt it, and neither would I be willing. That would be asking far too much of our future retirees and their small fortunes. If we can't ask the Future Fund to help along the NBN, who can we ask?

The future. Doesn't looking into it give you angst? Every time I do it, I go plain weak at the knees. I try to give myself courage by saying yet again, “There really comes a time when a government's gotta do what a government's gotta do.”

Costs? “We'll all be rooned”, said Hanrahan. Despite the fact that Australia came through the 2008 GFC relatively unscathed, we're still short of folding stuff, apparently, and ambivalence continues to rule, Ok. The SMH tells us that if we enlarge our population to say 36 million, inside 40 years we're going to need more roads (173,000km), schools (3250), cinemas (1370), and so on. Price-Waterhouse-Coopers (PWC) tells us so. We'll need an extra $2.6 billion to add to the $6.5 billion we already pay annually for rail, roads, ports and community infrastructure. Where will the requisite moolah come from?

Here, PWC resorts to really old-technology Economics I to remind us that (in a post-GFC stringent climate for banks) if banks are able to lend, they'll be constrained to lend from money given them by savers, you and I. It appears that there's a direct correlation between savers, you and I, and what banks can loan to the nation. But contrary to that outlook, and for any variety of reasons, including taxes on savings, Australian banks import a good deal of funding.

Thankfully there are naysayers to this sort of Economics I caution, which banks hadn't been observing for years anyway, which was one of the reasons the 2008 GFC happened.

A spokesman for the [Australian] Industry Super Network thinks superannuation companies will invest in future infrastructure, ok. And an economist at JP Morgan thinks personal savings would make a very small scratch on the costs of infrastructure. So it's back to importing capital, which Australia has been doing enthusiastically since 1824, actually. While a Macquarie Bank economist wonders who should pay the cost of infrastructure growth, the present or the future generation? And the present scribe thinks, that the cost would be evened out by government across intervening generations. What could be fairer than that? (Items, SMH, 6-7 February 2010.)

Is the NBN a good commercial bet? The Australian put it succinctly one February weekend when it was noted that the Australian government, its NBN Co. and Telstra had been in talks about the NBN future, and whether NBN would buy or otherwise make use of Telstra assets. (Such as its fixed copper-wire network that is up to a century-old and has maintenance costs that Telstra will not reveal as far as you present scribe knows). Telstra has to justify any deal to its shareholders, NBN Co has to try to look decently commercial in its dealings and government has to justify a major investment for the future. “Otherwise, the estimated $43 billion cost would have to be added into the federal budget.”

While ... Telstra, whether it now has a dismally low share price or not by now, is said to regard a NBN as a “spectre” which will nevertheless mean huge changes for Telstra. (W/e Australian, 3-4 October 2010).)

A spectre? Oh, dear, I being afraid, being very very afraid … Telstra changing if not improving? What could be better than that! Cream in my coffee? Extra sugar in my toffee?

Here's the rub, apparently ... where confidence in the NBN project is fully-underwritten by government, first up, or not. Therefore, any cost-benefit analysis would need to take this into account, one way or the other, while the current commercial actors, Telstra and NBN Co., can't agree on a price for century-old copper wire due to billions being at stake. Assumptions of value can't be agreed on. Government has the dilemma of implying that the NBN is commercially viable, or not. The lower the Telstra share price falls, the worse it gets.

Any Australian who has shares in Telstra, and is a voter, is in a wonderful bind, about having faith, or not, in a new venture that makes an up-to a century-old copper wire network increasingly redundant. (Or, the left hand with its finger in the pie of the present knoweth not what the right hand doeth with the pie of the future.) The NBN project would be better off if Telstra actually co-operated and made its trenches and ducts and so on available, and helped shift customer bases churn around the country. God forbid that anyone might think that Telstra itself has become somewhat redundant. Meantime, will the NBN Co act only as a wholesaler, refraining from dealing in value-added services? (Jennifer Hewett, w/e Australian, 27-28 February, 2010.)

All we can say here is, anyone willing to debate the ins and outs of telecommunications wholesaling and retailing in Australia truly deserves to be an ISP! And to bear the costs of running a Help Desk. There's an awful lot of people out there who don't know that the plural of a computer mouse is mouses, not mice!

Q: Listen, mate, I really like your horse. What's he worth?

A: I bought him at an auction.

The NBN and eternal technical argument ... Is wireless technology inadequate for the best Internet usage, the bigger-capacity data transfers? Can the NBN actually be justified commercially? Should the nation invest in a quite-new type of fixed-line network largely devoted to Internet-type usage?

Your present scribe lives in a country town – Armidale – that is broadly speaking, IT-disadvantaged as to infrastructure. He lives only four blocks from the Telstra exchange beside a fixed-line phone hooked to a copper-wire network that's up to a century old. Years ago one midnight in pre-broadband times he noticed a peculiar phenomenon in cyberspace, for about half an hour. It was as though bandwidth was expanding and contracting, so that his speeds of accessing the Net kept changing. It was as though bandwidth wafted in the skies, as individual clouds might expand and contract in the sky on a still day. Next day he happened to mention this to a fellow who worked at a local ISP. The fellow had been on the Net at the exact same time, and noticed just the same thing.

That's right, dear reader. Bandwidth behaves. It has a kind of being. Bandwidth bloweth and listeth like the size of the clouds. In Armidale in days of dial-up only, it used to be noticeable that around 4pm, when teen lads were home from school, access to the Net became slower, because the lads were into their computers and maybe online games. I got so used to this, I used to avoid reasons to use the Net between 4-pm-6pm. But this peculiar midnight phenomenon was unexpected, and actually startling.

In short, bandwidth, which gives us our access to the Net, re speed and capacity, is a resource that so to speak expands and contracts. Sometimes, it's a limited resource. With a NBN, bandwidth would expand more and contract less. Where does bandwdith come from? Well, that's one of the really serious technical questions, and we're wimpishly going to avoid it here simply because we lack the backbone!

But those anti-NBNers, Liberal Party non-tech heads, Messrs Abbott and Turnbull, feel we can do without the NBN because bandwidth would be provided by the sorts of commercial providers we already have, including wireless-using providers. Your present scribe doubts that either know where bandwidth comes from or what it is, and how it behaves. Actually, Australia might be better off with a mix, a kind of national crazy quilt of the provision of bandwidth, with NBN-style broadband a major tributary of national bandwidth, not even the main river.

It's this crazy-quilt that the future-faithless non-tech-heads of the Liberal Party are relying on. Across Australia we already have a hybrid mix of copper wire network, fibre-coaxial cable installation, and wireless-satellite delivery of bandwidth. If we all wanted more of this, we can easily go out and buy it. But what we can't buy is a NBN, because only our government can afford it.


Part of the debate about the NBN is an assumption that has bedevilled the IT Revolution as a social phenomenon for years, since we first heard about the legend of the paperless office … an assumption that IT gadgets propose a replacement of older technology (and styles of human interaction we are used to in relation to them).

Hence, IT productions would replace books and newspapers. Which is rubbish. Hence, video conference would replace face-to-face meetings. IT does not in fact propose outright replacement of anything, it proposes complementarity. And a mix of technical styles for bandwidth provision might just suit Australian geographic conditions better. But these would be geographic and historical dictates and outcomes, not the result of a do-nothing, knee-jerk response from non-tech-heads in the Liberal/National parties.

So your present scribe floats to a conclusion about a mix since

[1] we already have a hybrid mix of technologies, and

[2] since he lives a four-hour drive from Coffs Harbour on the eastern coast, but gets his bandwidth from a provider in Perth on the west coast. So to get onto the Net he has to more or less move across the continent, and he doesn't fully understand it yet, either.)

To emphasise … IT products and gadgets are complementary and supplementary. They do not replace old technology outright, nor should they. This too is part of the NBN debate.

There's another unexplored assumption lurking here in Australia's days of so-called ongoing IT-Revolution. It's with the distinction between information providers and information consumers. As journalists can discover any working day, the world is divided into two kinds of information handler, consumer or producer. Consumers are the newspaper readers. The producers are the journalists, editors, printers, interviewees, writers of press releases, etc.

Sometimes, and especially in the media outlets themselves, individuals are ferocious consumers of information while they produce. The same can apply to IT workers. Yet in Australia we see the paradox of journalists (who use computers and often file stories into multi-media platforms) reporting on the NBN while seeming to assume that most Australians (as potential NBN-users) will be information consumers, not producers. This too is where The Great Australian Cultural Cringe is making fresh attacks on our collective communication confidence, much aided and abetted by Messrs Abbott and Turnbull.

It's not on!

The National Broadband Network:

For and Against

Photo by Dan Byrnes, Armidale autumn 2011
Armidale autumn 2011, on Barney Street
The Armidale autumn, 2011, was more splendid than any the author can remember in this autumn-proud town. This photograph was taken about eight days before good opportunities for seasonal photographs faded away into bare-trees winter.

Messrs Abbott and Turnbull of australianliberalparty.com.au are ludicrously agin it. Kerin is agin it without an CBA. A blow-in telco-tourist to Australia, Mexican telco billionaire Carlos Slim Helu, says the cost is NBN excessive.

Bah humbug here! Helu perhaps doesn't quite feel the facts, doesn't get it: that Mexico has a population of 111 million, more than five times that of Australia, and is much smaller than Australia with its vast distances. His view of normal costs might not be directly transferable to Australian conditions. Much as Japanese car-makers decades ago found that they had much to learn about car-making by test-driving their products in outback Australia! The same goes for telecommunications systems in a continent like Australia!

(A few other NBN sceptics are noted in Part One of this article. See above)

Intel's managing director in Australia, Philip Cronin, also with the Australian Information Industry Association, feels it's time to leave politics behind, time to start building the NBN, and to discuss the social benefits and what will actually happen on the network. Intel meantime has arrangements with government to brainstorm on finding ways for e-learning, e-health, e-government and energy conversation to be distributed in both metropolitan and regional areas. Interestingly, Intel in Australia has a social services division.

(Gee, don't you wish Telstra actually answered its own phone, had a social services division, and had less of so many different kinds of mobile phone to sell!?)

The first time I ever overheard anyone using a mobile phone, it was a lass about age 22 on a bus stop, telling her friend, “It's a very good movie.”

Second time, there was the bloke in the Mall late one afternoon, pacing angrily back and forth near the Armidale courthouse, abusing his ex-wife for all to listen to.

That's right, most people are not using mobile phones for earth-shatteringly important discussions. Just, stuff.

National Broadband Network:

The Social Benefits

Surprise, surprise! What if Australians bought all the new IT gadgets and missed the point about communication between people? Would this be, like, tragic?

We find that problems persist with the Rudd government's debacle in making small laptops (netbooks) available to school students, and its problems with rolling out the wireless technology needed to hook students to the Net. The netbooks incidentally are intended to have a working life of four years. Much as some years ago, university students were able to buy computers deliberately intended [for reasons of likely changes in technology/software in the timeframe] to have a working life for as long as it took them to get a degree, three-four years.

And Yes, Messrs Turnbull and Abbot, wireless also needs roll-out to get moving, sorry if that's tech-head stuff. Apparently, everywhere we look regarding using IT gadgetry, and as with life, it's just one damned thing after another, ain't it! (w/e Australian, 6-7 March 2010.)

Secrets, sub-texts and things politicians will never ever tell you

There are a good many sub-text debates living a secret life inside the Australian NBN debate, some of them cultural, social, even historical, not political, technical or commercial …

Quite obviously, any question of the Australian NBN would dive square into the space opened up by wonderment about whether we should as a nation invest in major, publicly-owned infrastructure or to leave it to private enterprise, or not. Today, these questions are often falsely-premised in terms of ideology, free enterprise versus socialism, mostly with free enterprise to be given free rein (certainly in the American or US view).

Today, the more real question is about efficient management of an operation, not its ownership. It might also be said that today, in the light of questions about whom could or should invest in large-scale projects meant for the public good, government is the investor of last resort. Today, it is a political question, and a management question, but not necessarily an ideological one, about whether to invoke a government investment, or not. Bi-partisan agreement on any such move would be optimal, but in Australia we can't manage this for any NBN.

Historically and as a question of government investment, the NBN debate reminds your present scribe of decisions Australians have made long ago about provision of railways (by government), the early spread of electrification (often by private enterprise), use of gas (for public lighting or heat power, often by private enterprise), roads and bridges (mostly by government, with the first workers being convicts). A Sydney Harbour Bridge (government). Touristy icon internationally, The Sydney Opera House (pretty much a work of architectural art, partly funded by lottery and supervised by government).


The Snowy Hydroelectric Scheme (government). And any variety of large dams in various states (government). Not to speak of government oversight of national park-type areas which might have fallen victim to either neglect, careless private development, or a bad mix of both.

In Australia, government has stepped in, or been asked to step in, where private investors might quail. There is nothing the least objectionable about this. Governments can impersonally wait out the effects of a slow or minimal return where private investors would be worried. Government can wait generations for the social benefit of an investment to pay off where private investors might worry.

A population able to move freely across long distances, using railways, is far better off. Assuming the use of railways and cars, a Sydney with a harbour bridge is better off, and its workforce is more mobile. And an Australia with a NBN will be far better off.

Calls for a cost-benefit analysis of the NBN take no care of social benefit concerns, optimism about cultural [multi-cultural?] development, nor cross-generational pick-up of the benefits. They are short-sighted, ignore the volatility of the technology. Ignore our inherited patterns of settlement in white Australia (which were uncommonly prodigal with space and we are now paying for it big-time in many ways). And are mere excuses for either party-political ideological pig-headedness, lack of political will, or embarrassment about not being the first to dream up a good idea for the national future.

Debate about how to actually best use the technology of the IT-Revolution?

Much of modern tech-social life – young people walking about or sitting in coffee shops, eateries, and at bus-stops, using mobile phones – are merely street-conspicuous and fashionable aspects of current tech situations. Your present scribe feels that for good or ill, modern IT has had and will have a divisive effect on society, dividing people into information-rich or poor, into computer-technology haves or have-nots. The NBN will only intensify this sort of dividedness. And it's a matter which will also come to the attention of Centrelink in a big way, if no one else in Australia. No politician has yet mentioned this scenario.

Web literacy

Another subtle debate here is about web literacy. Educated Luddites of the literary persuasion have long been lamenting the demise of letter-writing (snail-mail?), loss of the art of handwriting /calligraphy), that people read fewer books and watch more video than they should.

(Which is true of your present scribe, even while he is writing a book on certain topics in economic history, with the aid of two computers and the fruits of looking up a vast number of websites after 30 years of reading books on the said topics. There are ways in which books, especially history books, need updating, like big-time, my dear Literary Luddites, and folks on the net are doing this as we speak!)

Such Luddites tend to overlook the fact that the truly web-literate person is quite literate (in the old way), numerate too, and has an extra streak of savvy about new tech and how to assess the worth of digitally-delivered information.

The best of the NBN customers of the future will be far more web-literate than most people that you and I have met so far in our lives!

It's called, education. If teaching children to read, write and use numbers is culturally and educationally valuable in itself, the value of adding web literacy to whatever other abilities children might have is inestimable.

National Broadband Network

The various tragedies

So what about the poor old network of fixed copper-wire? Well, it's just something to further build on and build around. This might be inconvenient for shareholders in Telstra, but the more real tragedy is that Telstra as a Federal government instrumentality was sold off (T1, T2, T3 ya da ya da ya da go read the finance pages in the newspapers. It's all a Shakesperian tragedy minus the eloquence, wit and humour!)

Telstra can no longer simply be ordered to add nice blue fibre optic cable to its lesser-capacity copper-wire network. Now, Telstra has to make a decision. And it is hard to say what just what Telstra will actually look-and-feel like when-and-if it decides to sell its copper-wire to NBN Co.

Your present scribe predicts that a great many Telstra shareholders will soon look elsewhere. Without its copper-wire network, Telstra will have no stick to beat anyone over the head with, anymore. Telstra's copper wire network is a great asset, but Telstra has so far sat on it while Sol Trujillo rubbed his hands with anticipation about Telstra “growing the business” and then he sat on it too and did nothing.

Let's be clear, though. Telstra has been put in its place, whether or not it has been symbolically or actually holding anyone or anything to ransom due to its prior ownerships of “assets”, as some have claimed. It's a fact. That this tech-head stuff is so much fun, it is so “creative”, so flexible, so malleable, that “the broadband network can be built without Telstra's involvement”. (Ari Sharp, SMH, 8-9 May 2010) That is, we don't actually need Telstra anymore. Telstra is merely one player amongst many.

One wonders deeply where NBN-type resources would fit into the following sad scenario outlined in Sydney. The NSW Government by 2001 had outlined a $30 million IT plan – The JusticeLink Project – to modernise NSW Courts. The plan by 2010 is a year behind schedule and about $8 million over budget. Staff are stretched and stressed, document transfer is delayed. “It's a totally stuffed system,” “it's “substandard, late, over-budget and now it's just not delivering”, say those involved. The estimated cost has blown to $48 million, not including extra training and implementation costs. (Check jgibson@smh.com.au, SMH 2-4 April 2010, Joel Gibson.)

Cooking at a friend's party one night
Dan Byrnes cooking at a party

It seems, regarding communication and not missing the point of it, we have no room at all here for Rudd's stunningly intimidating but finally-idiotic phrase, “programmatic specificity”. It's all going to be a bit more chaotic than specific.

Communications Minister Conroy (by 8-9 May 2010 in SMH) had noted that part of his plan, partly to stymie the Nationals' scheme with Liberals to torpedo the NBN, would involve 540km of backbone construction to connect regional areas. Your present scribe doesn't actually know what “backbone construction” means in this context, so don't feel poorly if you don't either. He wonders though if 540km of it would be enough, because 540km is just over half the distance between his home area and Melbourne. It's quite a drive! But what about all of Queensland?

In response to Conroy, Warren Truss feels perhaps as your present scribe might, that a blend of technologies would help ensure that regional people are not left out. Brilliant insight, Mr Truss! A blend is what we've already got, what we'd have whether or not the NBN went ahead.

What might we get? In Tasmania, as many as three towns have been rolled into the NBN roll-out. Town residents are incentivated to sign up for free installation of “network termination units”, a box allowing them hook their home into the NBN so they can then buy a plan from an ISP for 100mps broadband services. But just what is technically involved here in “hooking”, we won't find from a newspaper. It's right here, at the connection point, sociologically, that computing as a peer-group activity, email and the role of word-of-mouth advertising, are going to matter vastly to NBN Co. as it tries to find a commercial return.

National Broadband Network

The End


And so for your present scribe, it's back to Armidale where in a full-page advert in The Armidale Independent, 6 October 2010, if we live in West Armidale but not north, south or east, we are invited by NBN Co. to sign up now (by 8 October) to become NBN-ready and enjoy the benefits of superfast broadband at no charge. Get your consent form in now! “Any upgrades to or installation of wiring inside premises is not included as part of this offer.” (Check out nbnco.com.au.)

This advert depicts any kind of two-garagey, color-bonded-and-brick-style home built in the past twenty years, housing two parents and two kids about six-eight. If you know Armidale, this is not exactly THE West Armidale demographic, it is more John Howard's white picket fence-family that never quite existed. The parents depicted would be the upper crust of West Armidale (not including the University of New England part of the area), IF they lived there.

Several questions are being asked in Armidale. Why not all Armidale? When is the NSW Housing Commission going to start talking to NBN Co. about numerous premises they have? How much would it cost the individual residence? Has anyone heard of any businesses hooking up with enthusiasm?

It's probably best just to phone your favourite ISP about all the what-ifs, of which there are many.

That's just what we need. Someone to do a survey of the views of all the ISPs in Australia about the NBN (you can find them listed and ranked for quality of service at whirlpool website - start with - - http://bc.whirlpool.net.au/bc/?action=list).

So far, your present scribe has not yet seen the ISP industry association viewpoint reported in any newspaper (but check whirlpool as above for some opinions).

And it would be disastrous, while the take-up rate so far is as “questionable” as it is, if the NBN plan was half-baked from inception, and we were to find that newspaper reporting on the matter was also half-baked.

Photo by Dan Byrnes, Armidale autumn 2011
Armidale autumn 2011, on Barney Street
Photo also taken on Barney Street.

Seriously, it could all be so much well-baked. All we need is a good baker. That baker is not named Telstra, so who do we talk to? Ghostbusters? Or NBN Co?

Your present scribe suggests last of all that building a NBN would be rather like creating a huge, nation-wide people-park for communication. Rather like building a national park, truly national, though nothing to do with appreciating nature. But dealing equally with healthy informal education, recreation, and healthy interaction between people of all persuasions, a national opportunity.

There's also no reason why NBN-building couldn't first concentrate on wiring all the awkward spots in Australia, making them more accessible, if only, virtually. Our first telegraph installations went in without fuss and were greeted with enthusiasm. There's no reason why the same could not be said of the NBN in the future.

What if the NBN plan all fell in a heap? We're no worse off, really. All we'd have extra is three towns in Tasmania, Armidale NSW and a few other early-release sites newly-wired with nice blue cable in a half-assed way, and that's that. There's a lot of the country already wired in a good-assed or half-assed way.

Which is what you'd get in a large country with long, indefensible coastlines and several arrogant and over-stuffed major cities and otherwise vast distances, thinly-populated by people who are not-so-good/confident at communication, educated by under-funded and over-stressed, yet-broadbanded, universities, all collectively suffering a serious cultural cringe for a century and more.

Today, a country tragically burdened with often-ignorant politicians and IT-gadget using people who don't yet realise that IT-revolutions major and minor have to do with real live communication between intelligent human beings of capability, not just interaction between gadgets.

If Australian politicians were musicians, and the future was a gig, there's a lot of them would never get the gig, and who should also be fired from their day job! Which is just one of the things our hung parliament is about.

But communications-wise, they're either living in the past or they still don't get it. Your present scribe wonders if he should email them?

Bugger it! Easier to just post it on the Net! Where doubtless they'll never see it!

As with the old joke about national security matters in the James Bond movies. If you seriously want to hide something, put it on public display.

Dan Byrnes, Armidale, 9 October 2010

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