opinion Those blinded by Labor’s glitzy NBN vision need to rub their eyes for a second and realise that Malcolm Turnbull knows what he is talking about when he says there are few consumer applications which require the kinds of 100Mbps speeds which the fibre network will provide.
The Shadow Communications Minister has come in for an extraordinary amount of criticism this week from all sides, due to a series of seemingly innocuous comments he made on the Patch Monday podcast put together by journalist and commentator Stilgherrian. “It’s certainly very difficult to think of many applications that are of interest to residential users that would not be perfectly well serviced by the speeds I’ve described,” the former Opposition Leader said, referring to speeds between 12Mbps and 24Mbps.
In the ferocious debate underneath the article, as well as a derisive follow-up commentary by Stilgherrian published by The Drum, a number of commenters ripped the Liberal MP a new one. “Shame, shame, shame,” wrote one commenter, while others accused him of simply not understanding optic fibre technology or of having “limited vision”.
On Twitter, not only was the same rage repeated, but a sense of superior amusement had already set in, following the paraphrasing by futurist Mark Pesce of Gizmodo’s rebuttal of Turnbull’s comments into the slogan: “No computer could ever need more than 640K”. – Bill Gates, 1981. “No computer could ever need more than 12Mbps.” – Malcolm Turnbull, 2011.”
Despite the fact that Turnbull never actually said those words, Pesce’s influence ensured the quote was passed around between online commentators like a well-chewed morsel of humour, including between journalists like Risky Business publisher Patrick Gray and iTNews.com.au editor Brett Winterford.
The general attitude was one of amused condescension.
Turnbull’s comments, so the sentiment went, illustrated that, like other politicians before him, the Member for Wentworth fundamentally just didn’t understand technology. While not truly a luddite, many of those who commented on the matter seemed to feel Turnbull had ultimately betrayed his true colours; that he had shown once and for all that he wasn’t qualified to set telecommunications policy and he should stick to matters he understood better … his background in law and business, perhaps, or even his popular stance on climate change.
Thus, it might surprise you to learn that I agree with Turnbull’s statements completely and believe that many of those slamming the politician have missed the fine-grained nature of what he truly told Stilgherrian.
In his commentary on The Drum this week, and previously, Stilgherrian has argued that the application which will soak up the 100Mbps bandwidth promised by the NBN is clear: Multiple streams of high-definition video to people’s residences. He has consistently given several examples to back this argument, ranging from a geologist remotely controlling a mine site or a HR manager teleconferencing with colleagues (both from home), to virtual doctor’s appointments and collaborations over school projects.
In a previous article on Technology Spectator, Stilgherrian has listed the bandwidth requirements which would allow the tasks to take place. And, courtesy of a hyped marketing video produced by NBN Co and promoted by Stilgherrian as a realistic look into the future, we can even have a look at what all of this frenetic video conferencing activity might look like in days to come.
Now, I’m not going to argue with the fact that all of the technology required for all of this videoconferencing — as much as ten HD streams from one house! – is available today. After all, vendors like Cisco and Polycom already offer high-quality videoconferencing gear for business, and in the consumer sphere there are a range of suppliers selling decent kit as well.
But what I do want to raise is the fact that it might not require quite the level of bandwidth which Stilgherrian claims it does – and also the idea that despite it being available, so far most Australians have shown absolutely no interest in actually using it.
In his article on The Drum, Stilgherrian never actually goes into what bandwidth level each of the HD videoconferencing applications he describes requires. However, in a previous article published by Technology Spectator, he does. And it quickly racks up. Let’s go through his list of what could be a typical household:
- The geologist mother: Remote mine viewing (2 X 5Mbps), plus 3D manipulation of rock strata (10Mbps), plus a videoconferencing session with her boss (5Mbps)
- The HR manager father: Videoconferencing with his PA (10Mbps, plus a possible further 10Mbps for passing handwritten notes)
- The student son working on homework with friends (10Mbps)
- Daughter streaming video online (5Mbps)
- Another family member’s doctor’s appointment (10Mbps)
- Security camera monitoring (10Mbps)
Hmm. With a sum total of 80Mbps of capacity being used in the vision outlined here, it’s not hard to see why some people believe that the sooner we get the NBN, the better. The only problem, of course, is that all of this is complete horseshit of the highest magnitude.
Let’s take the geologist mother. Does anyone seriously believe that it’s possible to remotely manage a complex mine site from their home office thousands of kilometers away? Doing so raises so many issues around safety, duty of care and even simple management philosophy that it’s not funny. In the event that there was an accident on site, how happy do you think the authorities would be that the facility was being overseen from Ballarat?
And even if you assume it is possible, why would someone doing so maintain two high-definition video cameras trained on the site at all times? What could they possibly be watching that wouldn’t drive them nuts with security guard-esque boredom? And how could they keep an eye on those two cameras, while also carrying out a videoconference with their boss? This use case makes absolutely no sense.
Lastly, why would anyone carry out all of these tasks simultaneously while manipulating a complex three dimensional geological model? And even if they were doing so, why would displaying that 3D image remotely soak up 10Mbps of data, given the easy availability of remote terminal tools like Citrix, which require quite a bit less than that, and are used every day for access to remote sites?
What Stilgherrian has described in the case of the geologist is the extreme example of a professional working from home but using none of the tools commonly available today to get around issues of limited bandwidth. Tools like … the telephone, for calling your boss. Virtualisation software from companies like Citrix for accessing remote computing resources. HD webcams which squirt an image down the pipe to you once every few minutes … so that you don’t have to waste bandwidth with a constant, needless HD video stream.
The same is true for the other examples listed. There are plenty of HR managers out there who already work from home. But they don’t need HD video to do so – what they normally need is a software as a service application like NetSuite which enables them to work through a browser, as well as a basic Unified Communications suite. Showing their personal assistant a picture of their kids’ sporting trophy? That’s what Facebook is for.
As for the other examples … have you ever tried multi-way videoconferencing? Between more than three people? I can assure you it’s normally a glitchy nightmare, unless you have a whole room set up for the purpose, such as with Cisco’s pricey Telepresence suite – and even then it gets a bit complex. The days when kids will be able to use HD videoconferencing to effectively work on a school project with “three classmates across town”, as Stilgherrian describes, are very far away indeed. Right now, it’s just more efficient to work together in person.
And the numbers of doctors who would consent to consult remotely via videoconferencing – a format which does not let them touch a patient or examine their symptoms as easily as they could in person – are very slim indeed, right now, and likely limited to those servicing patients in very remote areas. And I should know … I grew up in one of the most isolated ‘cities’ in Australia – Broken Hill, in Far Western NSW.
Perhaps the most realistic example Stilgherrian gives is that of a daughter watching a streaming film online (5Mbps). However, again, this does not represent a completely accurate picture of the situation.
I regularly watch 1080p videos streamed online from sources like YouTube. This morning I tested what impact this had on my home ADSL2+ connection. What I saw was that the application grabbed all the bandwidth it could (16Mbps) to download the entire video file and cache it on my PC. That took only a few minutes for the video I was watching. Thereafter – and for the vast majority of the time I was watching the video (a StarCraft II game, if you must ask) – YouTube was using no bandwidth at all from our broadband connection.
Even if you assume constant streaming video as delivered through an ISP’s IPTV video service, such as the FetchTV service being offered by ISPs like iiNet, such ISPs only recommend you have a minimum total connection of something like 4.6Mbps to access such services.
Turnbull, I can assure you, is painfully aware of all of these facts. During a recent visit to South Korea, the world’s global fibre broadband mecca, the Shadow Communications Minister received a demonstration of a high-end Cisco videoconferencing solution which required just 1.5Mbps (symmetric). This is a far cry from the 10Mbps which Stilgherrian has listed – and if you have the Annex M standard set up on your home ADSL2+ connection, with the higher uplink speed it allows, you could probably get two going at the same time.
In short, much of the vision which NBN Co and Stilgherrian are painting also doesn’t gel with current usage of videoconferencing technologies which have in some cases been around for decades.
Vendors like Polycom have long been spruiking desktop videoconferencing as the solution to quickly boosting business productivity. However, in practice, what most employees have found is that technologies such as screen-sharing, integrated unified communications (employee directories linked to VoIP with click to call and instant messaging) have found far higher adoption rates in the workplace.
More often than not, Australian workers simply do not want or need to speak to each other face to face via videoconferencing to get their job done. It just takes far too much attention, and they would rather be showing each other a document on a screen, instant messaging for a quick answer, or having a phone chat while looking at something else on their desktop PC.
Even in the small business sector (which I personally work in), videoconferencing is far from popular. Many small Australian businesses are closely linked via consumer-grade unified communications platforms like Skype; but again the videoconferencing feature is rarely used; it just takes too much effort and attention.
Where videoconferencing is being used, so far, is by large corporations devoting whole rooms to videoconferencing ‘suites’, where a group of executives can have a coffee meeting without flying to the next city. These suites are popular inside national organisations like ANZ Bank, which has a great deal of interstate travel, but haven’t taken off in smaller companies.
Perhaps the only example I’ve seen of a major Australian corporation deploying desktop videoconferencing widely is the Commonwealth Bank, and in a recent case study published by Microsoft about the effort, it was the instant messaging and directories component of the wider unified communications rollout which got more attention – not the video aspect.
Now, the obvious response to much of my argument here is that videoconferencing hasn’t taken off yet in Australia because our broadband hasn’t been fast enough to support it. But I would point out that inside major corporations, this simply isn’t true. Fast broadband to the desktop via internal Ethernet networks, with Internet access and inter-office links often provided by high-capacity links, has long been a reality in Australian business, as well as the education and health sectors, as Turnbull has consistently pointed out.
However, videoconferencing has just not taken off.
With the videoconferencing argument largely out of the way, few residential applications are left which could possibly soak up more than the bandwidth we enjoy today. Video gaming? It’s a very popular pasttime right now. E-health? Online education? Working from home? All of that is already being done on today’s networks. There is no doubt that all of these networks will gradually require more bandwidth, but we can tackle that as it comes … doing so right now with a national fibre network constitutes massive overkill … and represent a solution to a problem which doesn’t largely exist.
In addition, underlying all of these points is the question of who should pay for the next generation of broadband. With most applications being able to be run on today’s networks, Turnbull’s argument, and it’s a good one, is that Government telecommunications policy should set a framework so that the private sector can invest in better services where it makes financial sense to do so — that is, when and where there is demand.
A perfect example of where this has already occurred is in the CBDs of our cities, which have long been wired for fibre, because businesses there need the faster speeds and are willing to pay for them. Where there is demand but not enough demand to make deploying infrastructure in remote areas financially viable, Turnbull has proposed a policy which would see the Government step in. It’s a classic liberal-style minimalist policy — and a good one to compare with Labor’s big-spending NBN alternative.
In conclusion, before you go slamming Malcolm Turnbull for his views on the NBN, ask yourself this: What bandwidth do you currently have available in your home and workplace … and have you ever used it for videoconferencing? Why not?
As an absolute technology nut, early adopter, online gamer, lover of HD video and small business owner who works from home, I would personally love to have 100Mbps broadband connected to my home. But then again … I’m really not sure what I would use it for that I can’t do already.
Image credit: Office of Malcolm Turnbull