Selling the NBN: couldn’t you do better?

I’m reviewing the week’s news about the National Broadband Network (NBN) and I’ve come to a conclusion. Labor government spokespeople, and communications minister Senator Stephen Conroy in particular, have been dismal at selling the concept. Couldn’t you do better?

The government’s expensive-looking TV adverts are nothing but vague generalities.

Back in August, Conroy was enthusing about his smart dishwasher that negotiated cheap electricity, seemingly oblivious to the fact that it wouldn’t need any more bandwidth than dial-up. I haven’t heard anything specific from him since then, just more hand-waving about improved health and education.

Even NBN Co chief Mike Quigley, in an interview for KGB TV at Business Spectator, couldn’t present a compelling scenario that’d make sense to a “normal” voter. Just waffle about video conferencing.

[W]e are at an age now where video is just beginning to really come into its own online. So we are going to see more and more video applications and not just entertainment, but applications such as teleconferencing. Right from here in NBN Co in Sydney we’re using a system that’s high-definition, low-latency to our Melbourne office, three big 1080 screens. That requires quite a bit of bandwidth and that is going to become more and more widely used, I believe, even for people for teleworking, for example. So I think we’re going to see more and more video, which is going to drive the requirements for bandwidth up, and there are not many infrastructures that can carry that type of traffic successfully. Fibre is one of them.

None of this explains why we might want or need vastly more bandwidth than is available today. None of it explains why the NBN should be a taxpayer-funded project for all Australians, not just the few who might want video conferencing and could pay for it commercially. None of it explains why we might want the cities to cross-subsidise the regional areas.

And yet there are applications sitting there right now, or that will emerge any day now. Real applications crying out for more bandwidth. And not just gaming and more TV. It shouldn’t be hard to list a few. And that’s why I want your help.

I’d like a few examples for tomorrow’s Patch Monday podcast. If you can list them here, great. If I can record you saying it in your own words for a minute or two, even better.

So what have you got for me?

[Update 10.00pm: If you’d like to leave your suggestions as an audio comment for the Patch Monday podcast, just Skype to “stilgherrian” or phone Sydney +61 2 8011 3733 and leave voicemail.]

[Update Monday 25 October 2010, 1.40pm: This week’s Patch Monday podcast has just been posted: Why can’t Labor sell the NBN’s benefits? Enjoy.]

19 Replies to “Selling the NBN: couldn’t you do better?”

  1. Video conferencing would give regional residents access to doctors. Show a 24-hour clinic in Melbourne your baby’s rash and let them hear the cough to find out if it’s serious.

    Telerobotic surgery, with haptic feedback. Specialist surgeon in Sydney operates on patient in Perth. This technology exists today, but needs the bandwidth. Admittedly, not an argument for rollout to regions unless the bots get cheap enough to be installed in GP’s offices.

    Centralised data hosting for geographically spread-out workforces: If an engineer for Woodside can access large amounts of company data quickly and securely from home (and can videoconference with supervisors), she has access to that job without having to move to the big smoke. Same goes for access to learning for regions.

    There are, of course, plenty of recreational benefits – low-latency gaming, streaming HD movies, chat. But you’re right, they’re not things the govenment needs to pay for.

    The real answer, of course, is “We don’t know.” We can’t predict the NBN any more than we could, 20 years ago, have predicted the current ubiquity of email. We don’t know what the applications will be; and that’s precisely what’s exciting about it. All we can reasonably predict by extrapolation is that there will be applications, and they will require more bandwidth.

  2. Over the years of my dabble with the internet in gaming, web pages and video the most enjoyable experience I have had is with the use of virtual worlds. Starting in 2007 I arrived in Secondlife , surprisingly at the virtual location of the ABC Island.

    One of the bigger drawbacks I have found with gaming ( think Doom, COD etc not cards/money) is the poor connection speeds available . These poor speeds resulted in lag or high ping rates which had two effects, 1. You got shot very quickly or 2. You reduced the game environment to a crawl for all playing. This resulted in being booted from the server.
    With the spread of ADSL slowly across Australia those ping rates where greatly reduced and the environment opened to a few US east state servers and a couple in Australia, allowing those with a lag problem to at least try out the gaming on line experience.

    The games packages of those early years included everything you required to play them, all installed on your PC via the CD you purchased, The only info required to be transmitted to the host server was your location, type of weapon and direction moving. All the artwork for the game was on a fixed map, common to all.

    Enter Virtual reality worlds (VRW). They have been about for a decade in various forms as MUDS, MUSHES and MOOS, under development and change before going general public. Second Life ™ from Linden Lab is one such VRW where the user base create the environment in which they socialise. Since this VRW and other Grids allow rapid change of the scenery that information, sounds, textures and meshes That data needs to be downloaded to the viewers computer as fas as possible. It still contains the positional data of the Avatars as well as directional data. A jump in the throughput required to even function. I chew 20GB a month in data and that was before iView , with out resending movies or music as buying a DVD is cheaper for a remote location.

    These VRW have allowed me to not only communicate with friends and artists overseas in a new fashion but also made it easier to share that art and builds with in the VR environment. They have allowed me to participate in University lectures , assist teaching in Primary schools, discuss community and even have input to TV series content. I have learnt to explore my arts side via these experiences, as well as sit in on NASA lectures in real time.
    This is only one form of increased band width programs that are available and in use by a number of Educational facilities around the world. And the VRW grid chart is increasing every week depending on its specialty.

    I’m in strong belief that the quality and direction of programs will increase very quickly, requiring even more bandwidth.

    Thats why I am Pro NBN . Oh and I live in Woomera XD.

  3. @Bondles and @Gumby Roffo: They’re great examples, thank you. Keep ’em coming, folks! I’ll respond in more detail tomorrow. I’m still gathering thoughts and editing audio tonight.

    Meanwhile, here’s some of the suggestions that arrived via the Twitterverse:

    1. @Wolfcat: For me the NBN is on demand access to any data at above full HD quality.
    2. @jonoabroad: Higher quality video calls with the other half of my company in the UK. Video + screen sharing.
    3. @MrShlee: VOD [video on demand] *will* be awesome. VoIP is king. Steam proves digital distribution is ripe if it’s easier than piracy.
    4. @kirkbroadhurst: Media, retail, ‘telecommuting’ aka remote work, business and social comms, gaming and creative arts interaction.
    5. @aDB: Backups baby! With serious bandwidth everyone could backup everything offsite continuously, and restores could be < days.
    6. @Gin_ev_ra: In home context diagnosis/advice for parents w/autism spectrum child; virtual craft groups, expert identifies your errors.
  4. One example I can think of would be in the engineering and construction sectors. A few years ago, I was working in the design office of a major brownfield upgrade of an alumina refinery. They were on the cutting edge then, using laser scanning of the existing pipework and equipment to produce “point clouds”, which could then be incorporated into 3D CAD models.

    From these, the design and manufacture of new & replacement pipespools could be done to millimetre accuracy, and would fit perfectly in place, instead of having to be fitted and welded on-site – a costly and somewhat dangerous proposition.

    The problem we had, was that these point clouds ran to several GB for each location, and we ended up transferring them on external hard drives, either carried back by someone visiting site, or mailed back to the design office in Brisbane. A NBN would make it much easier for this sort of technology to be used, and integrated into design-fabricate-install cycles.

  5. The one thing I should note is the issue is bandwidth That’s the NBN’s selling-point. I ridicule Conroy’s dishwasher example because that’s all about ubiquitous access, not massive bandwidth use. I’ll talk more about that point later.

  6. I’m currently working on a project with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra to allow the orchestra to play interactive concerts with remote schools using NBN. The requirements for musical timing and very high media quality make such concepts impossible with other network technologies.

    The smart grids concept (those dishwashers etc) may not need the speeds and bandwidth of the NBN but the ubiquity and availability of NBN makes them feasible and useful rather than the current patch work of (lets face it) not very reliable networking techniques built on the back of the telegraph.

    These factors also play into the feasibility of the medical applications of the network far more than is recognised.
    Another real world application which becomes far more useful with FTTP is offsite networked back-up systems. This is a major consideration for another project I am working on with the orchestra to develop a digitised archive of the orchestra’s media, such an archive will grow to many terabytes so high bandwidth networked back up is ideal to protect these assets.

  7. @Jason Langenauer: That’s a great example the speaks directly to the issue of bandwidth. There’s a point at which moving 5GB of data online becomes easier than schlepping a hard drive across town. At that point you get the carbon savings from having reduced transport.

    @Dan Animal: The other factor is that the sheer speed makes all of these new cool things possible all at once. Granny’s heart monitor may not need much bandwidth on its own, but it’s kinda inconvenient if Dad watching the hockey on streaming HD TV wipes out her comms to her doctor.

    And more from the Twitterverse:

    1. @NineSortJam: Real-time distributed computing; remotely controlled networks/machines/robots (mining, surgery, in-home health monitoring) and To expand on that last one: granny is at home with her vitals being transmitted 24/7 to the hospital and Heaps of stuff is currently done poorly (eg VideoConf, distr. comp) that cld be improved with NBN. Not sexy for non-geeks, tho.
    2. @robbieg8s: No local storage. all my data lives in the cloud. backups are a cloud service. some homes need no pc, only web capable tablet. and video so cheap app builders can cut corners. as per ++ CPU speed for apps. poor code 1st gen can still get idea in the market.
  8. Since the suggestion is bandwidth, I’ll take a slice of video applications.

    • Remote access to higher education in real time streaming between locations. The ANU has approximately 50 lecture theatres in parallel use — being able to stream live out of our boxes without choking the rest of Canberra’s supply line would be great. Streaming data into the university from field work, live experiments, Woomera rocket range tests, Bathhurst race tracks, and anywhere else big data sets get generated quickly. Mt Stromlo Observatory (and kin) pushing out datasets in full to anyone with a processor set and an interest in number crunching. Mining industry datasets pouring straight out of the data catchment into the number crunching bureaus in the capital cities.
    • Sport 1. Olympic level minor sports in Australia can have full broadcast capacity over the NBN, and can then stream events to their fanbase, followers and new potential players. Being able to access all of the synchronised swimming, fencing, badminton, shooting, and other smaller elite sports will increase the potential participant base, improve the aggregate skills set (education through observation, reviewing opposition tactics etc), and improve gold medal chances at the Olympics. If you want populist support, wave a flag and a set of running spikes at the press conference.
    • Sport 2. AFL remote coaching. Regional Australia has a major AFL grassroots presence, and limited access to the resources of inner city clubs. Stream the Aboriginal community matches back to the AFL’s Melbourne coaching clinics, have the football clinics be able to offer advice to remote Indigenous community club players without having to travel — particularly during the wet season when the roads are cut. Have Andrew Demetriou at the press conference with half a dozen Norm Smith medal winners and Brownlow medalists saying how this will be great for the future of the game. That’s Melbourne and Sydney, because the NRL won’t miss the opportunity to dive in and mimic the AFL.
    • Creative Industries. Punching high-def edits across the national network. QUT’s creative industry program can champion the need for wide spread broadband access for the commercially valuable Australian post-production editing industry. Set up a WETAesque enterprise near one of the bigger offshore exchanges, and have it farm out the work to a range of production houses in regional and national centres.
    • Data infrastructure. Remote port access and control. National air traffic control grids. Weather station services. Remote safe harbour monitoring. Real time traffic cameras, traffic light data and interstate freight vehicle movement tracking. Stick a camera on the front of every moving train to watch the lines. Do all this, and more, without scratching the ability of the public to watch YouTube.
    • University to University content peering (voucher system anyone?). Distance education delivery with on-campus access points. Want to study Uni of Adelaide’s specialist astrophysics program from James Cook Uni? Sit in at the campus tutorial room, access the lecture, tutorial and other content at Adelaide. Create the voucher system higher education system without requiring students to fly around the countryside for individual subjects.
  9. My two have already been mentioned but I will second them.

    • Backups/Restore: We have the applications and services now to make data backup easy for everyone, but when uploads are capped at 1 Mbps (2 if you are lucky with an AnnexM service), it is very difficult to upload it all. Photos, home movies, music — big chunks of valuable data that really should be stored off-site. Surely a clever person could get through to the voters about the importance of keeping treasured memories safe?
    • Creative Industries: Movie editing, animation, audio recordings – giant data files in raw forms. I can imagine it would be a benefit in the international economy if Australian companies could easily and quickly shuttle these files around. I also imagine there are a number of creative recluses who could then work freelance in these industries without having to move to a major city. I’m sure many of us know a musician, or painter, or film maker who moved to a small country town to concentrate on their art. Now they don’t have to move back to participate and distribute widely.

    I’m sure there are other things, but in bandwidth terms, these are two things I would like to see pushed.

  10. Many of the comments and applications listed so far are pretty good, however I’ve got a few observations to add. As already noted above, the NBN delivers two fundamentals: The first is ubiquitous access, which is also intended to be affordable as well (unlike mobile data services). The second of course is bandwidth, lots of bandwidth (here though, you get what you pay for).

    Also, it’s important to distinguish between mass market services (like communication and entertainment) and the bespoke opportunities (like data transfers between hospitals/broadcasters etc), I’ll focus on the mass market opportunities as the NBN is fundamentally for households.

    The affordable ubiquity aspect of the NBN will support:

    • The Internet of Things: The connectivity of a myriad of devices that will want to send and receive (albeit it small) continuous streams of data to simplify (arguable) our lifestyles. These are the smart appliances, the smart houses, the smart organisers, the smart messaging systems etc. They want cheap, always-on data.
    • Telephony: Yep, that plain old telephony service, also called the USO in Australia, will be delivered using the NBN. I’ll argue that a basic Internet service should also be considered as part of the USO. I’ll also argue that voice telephony in the future really should a free hitchhiker on the data network (it’s that small in comparison).
    • Backups/Restore: I completely agree with this opportunity, and in fact I don’t think enough people have lost a big enough data store yet to realise just how much they need this. The reality though, is that the amount of data we generate per day that we need to preserve, is relatively small (ie. measured in megabytes, not gigabytes per day).
    • Internet/Information: Having access to the typical Interweb as we know today, with decent speeds and decent traffic allowances (bandwidth caps) should be available to all Australian demographics, regardless of income levels. Some aspects of remote learning can be addressed here but not the video ones.
    • Remote Working (teleworking): As we focus less and less on industrial processes and more in informational processes, the opportunities for remote working become increasingly viable. Again, this is with the proviso that only some aspects of remote working can be supported, future remote working is likely to require significant bandwidth and connectivity.

    The greatly increased bandwidth aspect of the NBN will support:

    • Television: Television based video is just going grow, from the SDTV video broadcasts of today to the 3D HDTV video on demand of tomorrow. In the US trials and experiments with multi-view (think reality TV with simultaneous casting of all screens instead of cutting between them, although the experiments were soap dramas) and interactive television (how is this different from modern computer gaming) in the future.
    • Teleconferencing and Telepresence: This application is a real game-changer as it transitions from the early adopters to mainstream. The applications for teleconferencing and telepresence range from work related, through entertainment, to socialisation and all the way through to health and wellbeing. The cost and efficiency savings in this area alone will be significant if a NBN Cost/Benefits Analysis is ever done.
    • Virtual presence: I separate virtual presence from telepresence although they are related. This is a huge driver for bandwidth. As the costs and inconvenience of travel increase (we may have forgotten about it, but global warming hasn’t forgotten about us) the opportunities to offer:
      • Virtual Tourism: The ability to visit another part of the world from the comfort of your own home, cost effectively. You could take tours (either group or individual) through historic areas or visit natural wonders. This can be either simulated or even done for real. Imagine joining a live and guided tours of the Great Pyramids in Egypt, The Louvre in France, a River trip down the Amazon or just a walk through a Himalayan village.
      • Virtual Socialising: The ability to organise a virtual get together for either social, entertainment or business use. Rural and regional communities could use this application to organise local event meetings, families which are more geographically dispersed nowadays could use these applications to attend major family events such as weddings remotely.
      • Virtual Concerts: Imagine being able to get front row seats to see the biggest name in entertainment perform live in the comfort of your home, instead of putting up with a ticket that places you at almost telescope distance away from the stage and something god-awful has happened to the sound balance.
      • Virtual Experiences: And finally the application that is already happening and continuing to improve every year. All of the online virtual worlds, aspects of distance video education and multi-user online games fall into this category. As available bandwidth and network performance increases, these will only become more realistic, more useful and more fanciful.

    And that’s my 2c worth, hope it helps.

  11. I second Shane and Michael’s comments about backup/restore. But in particular source control. Committing source to the cloud for us is cumbersome with large projects/solutions. A colleague in New York commits his code to our cloud server in barely a minute. It then takes us up to half an hour to get it back down at this end. Productivity nightmare, especially when we’re Skyping live and need to be on the same page while discussing the code in question.

  12. Even the simple things: being able to up/download business data, and databases – like, say, several gigabytes worth – quickly. Instead of having to wait an hour, or more usually several, due to terrible uplink bandwidth.

    Satellite and Aerial Imagery on demand, using proper cloud architecture.

  13. The problem with the majority of these suggestions is that they boil down to

    Entertainment uses for the home (High definition TV, gaming, streaming a lot of data through multiple devices)


    Companies, business etc etc that should already be running Fibre (something that has been the oppositions argument the whole time)

    Even teleconferencing doesn’t actually need a FTTH connection, telesurgey can be done at the local hospitals/clinics (which again should be connected to Fibre, no one is debating it here)

    Really the reason why its hard to sell the speeds of the NBN to the average Joe is because, and as backed up the Nielsen’s Law, right now we don’t need those speeds. Speeds of 100mbit are only expected to be “required” in around 2020 (at the very minimum) and so you will find very few reasons (for Today) to justify EVERYONE needing FTTH (as opposed to the people that actually require it)

    1. @deteego

      You’re right in that a massive part of the economy is built on stuff we don’t need and solve a problem that we didn’t know needed solving. The average joe not conceiving the need just means the average joe isn’t going to invent the next Facebook, Apple, Google, etc.

      I don’t think it matters because companies are already investing in the next generation of products that will use FTTH, it’s just that previously they haven’t looked at investing in Australia first. A guaranteed rollout timetable means a predictable market size for investment in FTTH products such as gaming, iptv/paytv etc, and means we’re likely to see them coming into the Australian market pretty quickly, instead of relying solely on an uncertain US market.

      For the government, they just need IT businesses to invest now in data centers etc and announce new services just prior to the next election to ensure there is enough momentum that there would be lobbying outcry if the rollout was threatened. Apple just spent 2 Billion on a US data center, and we’ll probably see quite a few smaller versions from companies here, but it’s not something you’re going to take lightly if the opposition pulls the rug out from underneath your carefully planned investment.

      Apple has proven that you can build a business on stuff people don’t need and couldn’t conceive of from nothing to 40% plus market share in a very short space of time if the ‘envy’ factor is right.

      The gaming industry I think has the biggest potential because it’s the industry driven by the people who will accept FTTH the easiest. The under 18’s. Companies such as OnLive are interesting because they will use FTTH to remove the major impediment to getting at a parent’s wallet. Expensive initial outlays of cash on expensive hardware.

      I’m the next market for this because hardware gaming devices are hard to justify to partners who don’t game :0

  14. The computer gaming industry in Australia is already bigger than pay tv and will use a big slice of the NBN. It’s much more sexy for the household sector than video conferencing, and will be up there with paytv + iptv + ondemand video as a massive industry that will grow with the service.

    Instead of purchasing expensive hardware, gamers will be able to use cheap controllers to play games running in data centres which do ALL the processing and just pump the output down to your ipad etc. OnLive is already trialling these kinds of services which need efficient local data centers, high bandwidth and low latency. The business argument for a renting a game that will play the same on cheap hardware vs endlessly upgrading is compelling for households.

    Still on the gaming front, a lot of games require data to be loaded from a DVD onto a hard drive, but with fast connections, games will load data directly through the net. As others have mentioned, Second Life was a good first introduction to this, but once gaming giants such as Blizzard with World of Warcraft make use of it, then virtual worlds as games will become a massive industry when they are no longer restrained by the humble DVD.

    Viruses and malware are a massive problem for industry, but a problem that can almost certainly be solved with the NBN. Where now most people have both their operating system and data on their local computer, it will be straight forward to boot directly from a data center, and just cache or backup data locally. This solves a big problem where people don’t update their computers. Instead the computer image is maintained separately from data in the data center, and you boot from something that is always up to date and virus free. This is something that is done in companies now but will become household and small business friendly.

    The endless upgrade of computers every 3-5 years is unsustainable in the long run. With increasing electricity prices, household electronics need to be small and efficient and are moving that way. It’s much more efficient for the processing power to be hosted in regional data centers that are designed with efficiency, scalability, and redundancy in mind. One typical high density server in a data center can serve the needs of 10s to 100s of households or small businesses without breaking a sweat (depending on the application).

    Opponents of the NBN don’t get that the industry is not the connection anymore, the industry that will surround the connection is what is important. If we rollout with speed and at low cost to the consumer then Australia will be first to market and an exporter of a lot of services that utilize fibre, instead of playing second fiddle to the US.

  15. I think the issue of ubiquity is very important. When you have fragmented technology access it doesn’t matter if you are prepared to pay or not, quite simply if your exchange is not equipped, you won’t get it. Or there will be a patched solution (if you are big enough) which will have its own limitations. The pair gain systems which are in place all over the country are a good example of this.

    If no matter where you are ( within reason ) you can simply hook up to the network and run your application, this is a major benefit to both users and the economy.

    Just a thought Stilgherrian why not interview suitable people from the Asian countries who already have large bandwidth for their ideas.

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