“The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys”.
So said Sir William Preece, the chief engineer of the British Post Office, in 1876.
Adjusted for real time, Malcolm Turnbull basically said the same this week.
For all the Minister’s flip-flopping over the past few days and the subsequent reporting, one of the key aspects that has largely been overlooked is the issue of the upload: its speed, quality and availability. While Tony Abbott equates broadband infrastructure investment with a video entertainment system and thinks Malcolm Turnbull invented the Internet, one would have hoped his Minister might have acquired some appreciation of the importance of the upload.
But throughout the whole NBN debate, the issue of the upload has taken a back seat. In fact, in his whole time in Parliament, the Minister for Communications has only mentioned the word “upload” once.
And indeed, the Government’s decision this week to lock Australia’s broadband future into a multi-technology mix approach, despite foregoing its once sacrosanct prerequisite for a cost-benefit analysis, does more than just expose the Minister’s rank hypocrisy.
In its new Statement of Expectations, the once explicitly promised delivery of 25 Mbps download speeds by 2016 has been refashioned as a “policy objective”. The download promise broken, one looks to the upload. All we are given is a parenthesised objective of “proportionate upload rates”. What does that even mean?
It means Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull have sold Australia down the path of least innovation. Ours is a messenger boy future.
During its time in Opposition, the Coalition focused solely on the download, something they still do today. Yet anyone with interest in the ICT sector knows that the big gains in national productivity are achieved by the highest quality, ubiquitous broadband infrastructure with the capability for correspondingly high upload speeds.
As I said in my first speech to the Parliament on 29 September 2010:
In 10 or 20 years our children will look back on the current debate about the NBN and will be shocked by the short-sightedness of some of the views expressed about the NBN today, particularly the commentary that is fixated on the download path: the false assumption that the NBN is merely a matter of faster emails or web-surfing. The reality is the NBN is not about the download. It is all about the upload. It is about a whole new category of enhanced services and applications that can only be achieved on a high-speed broadband platform that requires speeds only fibre technology can give—services and applications that have not even been invented yet. We have a glimpse today of what some of those applications will be, and they are positive. In the area of health, they include online medical consultations, remote diagnosis of electronic medical images and in-home monitoring of elderly people and sufferers of chronic disease.
Nearly four years later, an appreciation of (and strategy for) harnessing the value of the upload for such transformation remains absent from the Abbott Government’s agenda and the column space of most commentators. Which is actually strange when one considers we are now in the user-generated content era: photos, video, commentary, applications. Don’t forget about cloud computing and video conferencing, all inherently symmetrical in their bandwidth requirements. The basic rule that download speeds are given preferential treatment over the upload is breaking down, as the gap between downloading and uploading diminishes.
Everything Everywhere, the UK’s biggest mobile company, recently reported that mobile data uploads on its LTE network have started to exceed downloads for the first time, driven by the massive surge in photo and video uploads. Yes, seriously. The demand is already here.
But where is the supply? Well, it’s just not technically possible to get decent upload speeds on today’s fixed broadband networks. And if Turnbull gets his way, that’s the way things are going to stay. VDSL and HFC, the key tenets of his multi-technology mix, are inherently biased towards the download.
This in itself exposes the utter folly of any government to formulate policy based on limited predictions of the level of demand that exists now and what it will be in future. If history has taught us anything, it’s that the William Preece view of technology is a dud.
Australia had the opportunity to be at the head of the curve of this upload-driven transformation. We can again, but it won’t be by virtue of a dog’s breakfast of rotting copper and an existing cable network that even its owners admit is not up to the task.
I wonder if, during his recent visit to South Korea, the Prime Minister turned on a wireless-enabled device. I’ve never had the pleasure, but I’m reliably informed the immediate quality of the upload and download is something to behold. South Korea is considered by many to be the poster child of the transformational power of ICT: a country with a variety of attributes that would normally impede international success such as being small in size, having a unique language, and proximity to more powerful competitor economies. A frequent conclusion for its economic miracle status is its acceptance well over a decade ago that high-speed broadband, utilising the highest quality future-proofed infrastructure, was crucial for economic development.
And what was Australia doing in comparison when such developments were occurring in South Korea? We were stuck in protracted disputes involving a vertically-integrated operator whilst facilities-based competition was failing.
The developments of the last week have been farcical in their lack of consistency and litany of broken promises. It would almost be humorous if it wasn’t so depressing, topped off by the Minister’s recent performance on Lateline which confirmed that, for all his talk, he really doesn’t care about improving broadband quality and access in Australia.
This Government has been in office now for 7 months. It’s a year since Tony Abbott stood by an awkward-looking Malcolm Turnbull and promised universal 25 Mbps by 2016. Meanwhile, I still receive a steady stream of complaints from local residents who can’t access “broadband” using anything other than a dongle – wireless broadband of unreliable quality and prohibitive cost; no ADSL and no cable access. And no improvement in sight. Yes Minister, these people do exist and there are lots of them.
The only difference between now and 7 months ago is that they have fallen off the NBN rollout map, left to rely on messenger boys.