opinion There was a beautiful moment in Telstra CEO David Thodey’s speech this afternoon at the annual Charles Todd oration which perfectly encapsulated Australia’s enduring obsession with the idea that wireless broadband technologies could somehow make the need for NBN fibre obsolete.
A few moments earlier, the executive had been waxing lyrical about the glorious future that wireless technologies would offer, noting that there were currently about 24 million mobile connections in Australia (smartphones, mobile broadband dongles, tablets and so on), a number that was expected to increase ten-fold by 2020 and perhaps to “a billion” by 2030, as cars, fridges and every other appliance were hooked up as well.
“Who would have thought the amount of data on our mobile network would double every year?” asked Thodey. And then, getting a laugh out of the audience: “I’m trying to double the price on it, but it’s a little hard.”
Then the executive mouthed the dreaded words.
“People often ask me: David, what do you think about the NBN?” he said, as the room suddenly grew slightly more hushed and journalists all around me instantly started scrabbling for their pen and paper or iPads to take down every nuance of the Telstra CEO’s NBN response. “I say it’s great,” Thodey said with a relaxed grin. “We do not see a world of mobile versus fixed, we see it as integrated. It will be integrated with wireless, because wireless is a fundamentally enabling technology.”
It’s a refrain which virtually everyone involved in Australia’s telecommunications sector has been mouthing constantly for the past 18 months or so. NBN Co chief Mike Quigley, Optus chief executive Paul O’Sullivan, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy and even his shadow, Malcolm Turnbull, have all acknowledged the reality that future generations of Australians already do and will continue to need both fixed and wireless technologies to get by.
And yet, as the press focuses this week on revelations that not just Telstra, but also Optus has provisions in its contract with NBN Co restricting how it markets its wireless broadband compared with the fledgling NBN fibre, it seems a little hard to take the ‘complementary’ argument completely seriously. Why, if the two technologies will exist side by side, do all parties involved in the NBN process continue to make such a big deal out of it? Why do there need to be clauses in the Telstra and Optus NBN contracts dealing with the issue? Why can’t industry commentators stop pointing out the incredible growth of in wireless adoption, and the flatlining of fixed broadband? Why does this theme come up again and again in the NBN debate?
To answer this question, we need to go back a few weeks to an article I wrote trying to push the NBN debate to a different level.
In the article, I argued that the reason that the NBN was so contentious as a national issue was related to technical limitations in the kinds of fixed broadband technology we have available to us. On the one hand, we have the existing copper network, which in practice usually limits Australians to speeds of up to 16Mbps, with mediocre latency and constant faults.
On the other hand, I pointed out, we have fibre, which represents complete overkill for the sorts of applications which most Australians need broadband for today, offering speeds of up to 100Mbps, which will only rarely be fully utilised, and awesome latency which only a few applications will ever take advantage of.
In this light, governments are right now faced with a difficult policy choice – there is no middle ground between these two technologies – but the middle ground is what Australia probably requires, at least in the medium-term. Hence we have the NBN’s universal fibre: Complete overkill for today’s requirements, but probably a useful technology to have bedded down when 2030 rolls around and the computing paradigm is a thousand times more advanced than it is right now.
Today what I want to argue is that the reason wireless technologies are so contentious in the NBN debate is that they potentially represent a realistic middle ground scenario to resolve the problematic dichotomy between ineffective copper networks and overkill fibre.
Again, David Thodey described this situation well in his speech this afternoon, pointing out that Telstra’s Next G network – which remains the most capable network in Australia – currently offered speeds of up to 42Mbps down and 21Mbps up, with 84Mbps on the horizon as the telco rolls out the Long-Term Evolution standard in its network (the first LTE base stations soft-launched on Telstra’s network last week).
“It probably will rival many other fixed-line technologies,” Thodey said.
But he also clarified his speed comments. “42Mbps on HSPA+ … it doesn’t go that fast, you all know that, divide it by three and you’ll get the average speed,” the good-humoured Thodey added. And on LTE, he laughed: “If you’re the only one in the cell, you’ll get 84Mbps.”
It’s this uncertainty about the current and next generations of wireless technologies which makes them a permanent fixture of Australia’s National Broadband Network debate, and the wider debate about how consumers across the globe will get access to broadband services over the next several decades and beyond.
Over the past few years, Australians have come to rely on wireless technologies in so many aspects of their lives – from our iPhones and Android smartphones in our pockets with their rich media access, to the laptop USB dongles which keep us connected on the road, and now to the current generation of tablets which are speedily replacing paper in our workplaces and in our lives, we’re a nation which loves wireless. And we are not hesitant to either praise companies which get it right (Telstra, and sometimes Optus) and damn those who it wrong (hello, Vodafone).
But right now there is a general uncertainty in the Australian population about wireless technologies. Our smartphones sometimes lose signal, streaming video via mobile broadband usually requires annoying buffering, and it can be an absolute pain in the ass trying to sync your tablet to Dropbox via 3G, when all you want is that tiny PDF document to show your boss or the board.
Too often, it seems just when you most want wireless to work, it drops out or is too slow.
Then there is the mysterious development of the technology, which appears largely governed by shadowy committees of organisations such as the IEEE, which took an age to ratify the 802.11n standard which many equipment manufacturers were already shipping in their routers and laptops. LTE versus WiMax was a vigorous debate for a while, and even now that most of the telcos have standardized on LTE roadmaps, the ultimate end of those roadmaps is so less clear than that of fibre. Will wireless eventually get to gigabit? The CSIRO seems to think so, and LTE seems on an ever upward curve. But the truth is that we really just don’t know yet.
This uncertainty around the role of wireless and its potential to fit in between copper and fibre plays strongly to the long-held idea that governments should not make hard and fast decisions backing certain technologies – an idea which the NBN policy clearly abandons as an irrelevancy.
We have only to look back at promises made by politicians such as then-NSW Morris Iemma a few years ago to blanket central business districts with Wi-Fi to realise how futile it is for politicians to try and pick technology winners. With 3G mobile broadband now universal in every CBD in Australia, it would have been foolishness indeed for any state government to waste money on building Wi-Fi hotspots everywhere.
And yet the thing about telecommunications policy is that it currently does require the Federal Government to make technology choices. We do have a national network based on one technology – copper – and the Government must of necessity choose where it will place its funding and policy efforts to resolve some of our current roadblocks.
Personally, I believe most people actually use fixed and wireless broadband technologies for completely different things. They’re not so much complementary technologies as they are adjacent. My smartphone has little relevance to my ADSL2+ broadband connection, and I don’t really need it to. My loungeroom media centre has few links to my multiple Telstra Next G mobile connections, and that’s fine.
Because of this, I think the Government’s NBN policy is the right one from a purely technological point of view – although I don’t approve of its commercial model. And I think most people feel the same. But that won’t stop wireless rearing its head up continually over the next decade as the NBN debate continues on and on and on. It will do so because the role of wireless in our society – the end game for the technology – is not clear yet, and will likely not become clear for decades to come.
In the meantime, it remains a tantalising, luscious-looking, question mark.