NBN: Of course there are no applications yet!

Photograph of Jerry Watkins

The guy in the photo is Jerry Watkins, Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Design at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne — and I want to slap him.

This morning he was a guest on ABC Radio National’s FutureTense, where he talked about some fantastic third-world technology projects, like India’s DakNet.

A Wi-Fi transmitter and receiver is fitted to the local bus. So the bus drives along its normal route, goes through a number of villages, and what it’s doing while it’s stopping at the bus stop in each village, is simply picking up and delivering information via Wi-Fi from publicly-accessible computers in each village… Once it gets back into town, it simply uploads all its stored data onto the Internet… So in this way, the rural community is getting access to a very affordable internet connection, it’s just simply not always on…

It’s services like e-shopping which are proving increasingly popular with these users. So e-shopping is using the bus internet system, and it allows villagers to order essential items and luxury items, which just aren’t available at the village market. And what’s more, the items are often delivered to the village on the very same bus with the Wi-Fi transmitter.

Awesome. But that’s not why I want to slap him.

I want to slap Jerry Watkins because he said daft things about Australia’s proposed National Broadband Network.

It seems that Mr Watkins is rather skeptical about the point of the NBN.

We’re going to have a super-fast broadband network put into 98% of the country. That’s absolutely great for me; I’m looking forward to it. I use the internet a lot and a faster connection in my front room would be fabulous. However, a lot of the things I do, do I need super-fast broadband? Well email doesn’t, banking and bill-paying doesn’t, e-government doesn’t, searching for stuff on Google doesn’t, selling stuff on eBay doesn’t, iTunes doesn’t, Facebook doesn’t, Amazon doesn’t. These are some of the main applications that have been talked about as like the hero apps of internet. They don’t really need fibre to the node or super fast broadband connections.

The kind of things that do, with current technology, might be sharing video on YouTube, or online gaming, or internet protocol TV, like Bit Torrent, even bidding on eBay where you want fast internet connection so your bid gets in quickly at the last minute. But do I actually need a national broadband network to deliver online TV? Hmm.

Jerry, there’s a reason that “searching for stuff on Google”, “selling stuff on eBay”, “Facebook” and “Amazon” don’t “need” 100Mb fibre. That’s because they exist now, but the network doesn’t.

The applications that need near-universal 100Mb broadband don’t exist yet. They can’t exist and won’t exist until the network itself is built.

Only once the network is built will people be able to use it to develop those applications. Some article I linked to once — and I couldn’t be arsed looking for it now — pointed out that those clever Swedish folk could develop Skype only because they had the network and could tinker.

Also, it’s a bit rich to snidely imply that high-speed broadband is only useful for indulgences like gaming and “sharing videos on YouTube” — although videos can also be used for education and commerce, not just passive entertainment.

Also, BitTorrent is not IP TV.

Mr Watkins, I don’t know you. Your work maybe good. But on this occasion you’re suffering from a failure of the imagination, I reckon.

Oh, there’s other good stuff in the program, including the fact that Kenya has more advanced mobile phone-based services than the US, and an interview with ActionAid‘s CEO Archie Law about Project TOTO.

10 Replies to “NBN: Of course there are no applications yet!”

  1. He is sort of right — Australia is a really big island — this means not only are we spread out from here to eternity but we are also from here to eternity from anywhere else. This has a huge impact on how our internet providers have to pay for a connection to the internet, because most of the content is overseas. Almost all providers have to charge by data sent and/or received, so while the NBN might be a thousand times faster then what you have today, all it will mean is that you burn through your data allowance a thousand times faster. Unless of course that money was spent on international deep sea fibre to connect us to more internet backbones overseas. Remember most of the good stuff is not here. More here — http://lyricalwax3000.blogspot.com/2009/04/why-australia-shouldnt-speed-43b-on.html

  2. There’s more to your desire to “slap” this young man than you’re letting on, Stil.

  3. @James: You’re right about one thing, but I reckon definitely wrong about another.

    Network engineer Glen Turner supports your point about much of Australia’s Internet traffic being international.

    Australia is almost unique in being a long way from the centre of gravity of its language. Broadly, almost all German-speakers live in Germany, whereas a tiny proportion of English-speakers live in Australia. That has an effect on Internet traffic. Most Internet traffic in Germany stays within Germany. Most Internet traffic in Australia goes offshore.

    However I reckon if the demand for international data increases — as it most definitely will with 100Mb to 98% of the population — then new capacity will be laid in to fill that demand. Indeed, this already happens continually, which is why data prices dropped even as we moved from 56kb dial-up to 512kb and 1.5Mb ADSL to 12Mb ADSL2+.

    As I wrote in Crikey recently, Australia just got 1.92 Terabits per second of new capacity, thanks to the PPC-1 cable from Guam to Sydney. Our existing international data capacity was around 4Tb, so that’s an increase of nearly 50% for just $200 million.

    New multiplexed laser equipment will be added to each end of that fibre as it becomes available. The capacity of PPC-1 and its successors will be doubled, quadrupled and more for a lot less than $200 million, because no new fibre needs to be laid to do that.

    Also, because PPC-1 is the first international link not to be owned directly by a Tier-1 telco like Telstra or Optus, it’s bound to increase competition and bring prices down. Finally. There’s more on that in Midnight Update‘s video report.

    1. I agree that demand will drive investment in OS links however you need to consider that $43b only gets us a national speed increase. How much is needed to ensure international links can actually feed this? If the average speed of Internet access in Australia today is say 1Mbps and total OS links are 4Tbps (these are numbers out of the air mind you — does anyone know what they really are?) then the ratio is 4,000,000 to 1. That means with 100Mbps to keep the same contention ratio we would need a 400 times increase in overseas link speed = 400Tbps. Now that’s a lot of link! How much would 396Tbps of extra capacity cost?

      I don’t disagree that fast, widely available Internet access would be great. I do think that spending $43b on NBN isn’t the best use of money and maybe there is a better way to get what we all want. I think NBN is way to break Telstra’s local loop stranglehold (ie Telstra privatisation should have ended up with two companies, wholesale and retail — which I agree would have been a better outcome) however that decision was made many moons ago and I don’t think it is worth $43b to reverse it.

  4. @James: Those figures for an average household connection being 1Mb and total international capacity being 4Tb are about right, from memory. Close enough for our discussion anyway.

    I can’t argue with your arithmetic. But perhaps we can question the assumptions. If we have 50x the bandwidth to the home, does that mean we use 50x the total data in a day? Or does it mean we’re just doing things faster and there’s idle time in between? Just because we have 100Mb, do we then use that capacity flat out? Or do just end up with a higher contention ratio?

    I don’t know the answer to that, and I’ll point out this conversation to people who may know.

    Meanwhile, there is a theory that the $43B NBN announcement was mostly about slapping Telstra back into their box, and that over the next 9 months as the NBN technical, regulatory and economic framework are worked out we’ll find out what’s really going on.

    Remember, this is a political announcement, not a technical one.

  5. In considering what the FttH FttP (Fibre to the Premises) concept is I am drawing on a two presentations given by those involved or seemingly involved.

    Paul Budde http://www.budde.com.au/Research/ stated explicity at CeBit 2009 that this isn’t about “The Internet” but can include delivery of an unlimited number of services or applications delivered over Fibre – and this can (but may not) include carrying electrical power if there is a demand for Fibre for this purpose.

    I listened to Reg Coutts who was on the Expert Panel. It is clear from publicly available documents that the ALP election promise of FttN was rejected by the Expert Panel on the grounds that Fibre to the Node would eventually inhibit the building of FttP which I believe is the ultimate “end game”.

    Fibre can deliver a number of different services to the premises and this can include “The Internet” but whereas FttN could only deliver Internet, Fibre to the Premises can deliver a variety of services and applications some (most) of which haven’t been invented yet.

    In short “It’s not about the Internet”. Yes “The Internet” can be carried over Fibre but it can also be carried by other means. FttP is about infrastructure and clawing back some of the fibre from Telstra.

    When considering electrical power being carried over Fibre there was an interesting presentation by a company interested in delivery of geo-thermal power over dark fibe in one of the “Series of Tubes” programs.

  6. Here’s a couple of URLs relating to the Distribution of Energy and Paul Budde’s presentation..


    By Paul Budde 20th. May 2009



    The Great Economic Revolutions In History: The Convergence Of New Energy And Communications Regimes – 05 Jun 2009

    “The same design principles and smart technologies that made possible the internet, and vast distributed global communication networks, will be used to reconfigure the world’s power grids so that people can produce renewable energy and share it peer-to-peer, just like they now produce and share information, creating a new, decentralized form of energy use. We need to envision a future in which millions of individual players can collect, produce and store locally generated renewable energy in their homes, offices, factories, and vehicles, and share their power generation with each other across a Europe-wide intelligent intergrid. (Hydrogen is a universal storage medium for intermittent renewable energies; just as digital is a universal storage mechanism for text, audio, video, data and other forms ”

    Not just about the Internet (perhaps)

  7. @Bob Bain: You’re right, depending on a how a FTTH/FTTP network is constructed, data streams can be plenty of things other than the publicly-connected Internet.

    Just one (lame) example is a security company providing video monitoring.

    I daresay we’ll also see movie distributors rolling out something akin to pay TV, where we can see video on demand from their catalog without the black box providing anything else. I mean, that’s all that Foxtel does now on its coaxial cable to the home, while BigPonddelivers the Internet over the same physical network.

    Paul Budde also said that the majority of the cost isn’t computer networking but construction work: negotiating with local councils and householders to dig trenches, string fibre through pipes, and bury them. He therefore reckons the overall coordinating role should go to one of the big constructions firms, not a telco.

  8. Dear Mr Stilgherrian
    Many thanks for your invitation to respond to your blog post. Unfortunately, I must decline your spanking offer. With regard to NBN, I do appreciate that you would like an NBN to be established as a start-point from whence designers and programmers can ‘imagine’ new applications. This is a familiar position with much evidence to support it; we only need to look at how networking applications and intranets were the result of local area networks. However, this kind of imagining is often financed by private sector entrepreneurs.

    I propose that Australia’s NBN should be considered differently because of its significant financial and opportunity costs to the taxpayer. Within the current economic climate, the taxpayer needs maximum bang for the buck; and in the Future Tense interview I questioned whether a FTN or even FTP is the correct solution for rural and regional users.

    I note the earlier response made to your post by James, who questions the cost/benefit of NBN when our international deep sea pipeline remains restricted. On his Lyrical Wax 3000 blog, he also suggests that 3G may have deserved consideration as the recipient of public funding (http://lyricalwax3000.blogspot.com/2009/04/why-australia-shouldnt-speed-43b-on.html). I would largely support both these observations. Again, many thanks for inviting me to respond.

  9. @Jerry Watkins: Thanks for responding, and yes I perhaps didn’t correctly capture your emphasis on rural users when you questioned Australia’s NBN strategy. I do recommend people listen to or read the full Future Tense episode to capture the subtleties.

    We do need to get broaden the discussion on the NBN, otherwise it’ll be the usual suspects from the big end of town: the telcos, the state governments and the major investors like banks. As a result, it will have an emphasis on top-down centralised planning, rather than the bottom-up approach. That’s why developing nations end up with a gigantic hydro-electric scheme when maybe ten million solar panels would be more effective.

    Thanks also for the link to the paper you co-wrote, Optimizing Rural E-service Engagement: Comparing development-driven and entrepreneurial models. The comparison of the bottom-up entrepreneurial DakNet approach to the top-down UNESCO approach is fascinating. As is the fact that DakNet’s services include Infoguru (an operator conducts a web search on behalf of the subscriber) and matrimonial services (“Subscriber receives information about potential brides/bridegrooms”).

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