Vertigan killed FTTP but the battle for scalable FTTN has not begun

Australia's technology industries need to fight for the best-possible FTTN

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At a conference early this year, I attended a talk by a major Australian industry association. The talk's only good feature was its possible use as a cure for insomnia.

I fled the room as soon as it was possible and polite to do so. As I left, I surprised to feel a tap on the shoulder from a representative of the association who commended my disgruntled tweets during the talk. More such criticism was needed, I was told, if the association in question was ever to become more relevant to the technology industries, never mind find a voice in the nation's affairs.

That incident came to mind last week after the release of the the Vertigan panel's cost/benefit analysis of the national broadband network (NBN).

The Vertigan document did two things: it proved Australia's technology industries have no voice or power in Australian affairs and finished the process of making the NBN debate about economics, not nation-building.

That transformation was possible because Australia's technology industries aren't heard – or don't speak – at the highest levels of our national discourse, never mind have anything to say that will rouse the nation's passions.

There's a lot not to like about the Vertigan review's results, not least that it reached a conclusion communications minister Malcolm Turnbull had already decided upon.

Especially upsetting is the review's use of conservative assumptions about future bandwidth requirements. I'm not going to dispute the methodologies or fall into knee-jerk "but fibre is better" arguments. Instead, I feel that the review's assumptions and conclusions were possible because Australian businesses have to “dream in ADSL”, a term I use to describe the constraints entrepreneurs and developers must consider when designing online services for consumption in Australia.

Working under today's constraints, locals simply have no incentive to devise high-bandwidth applications. Users therefore cannot explore higher-bandwidth services, so the egg is never fertilised and the chicken never arrives.

The good news is that can change, if two things happen.

The first is that those who believe Australia's future bandwidth needs will accelerate past Vertigan's predictions must fight to ensure the NBN is built with the most-scalable-and-upgradeable technologies available.

Innovators like Cable Labs and the many organisations working on DSL successors show us that it will be possible to deliver gigabit speeds over copper or hybrid-fibre-coax. If not this decade or the next, then in the future.

The economic argument that proved so devastating in the FTTP vs. FTTN debate can be used again here by pointing out that shortcuts in NBN design and implementation impose future costs on those who might want to upgrade the network. Arguing for an extensible and upgradable NBN design should not be hard.

The second is that Australia's technology community' contribution to debate can't get any worse. During the FTTP vs. FTTN debate the community's efforts were largely risible. Innumerable blogs preached to the converted and confirmed biases, but made negligible impact on policy even as it became crystal clear that Labor's FTTP NBN was not going to survive the election.

The grass roots, as I discovered at an “NBN defender” rally last year, seem largely the product of slacktivism, if the poorly-attended-and-organised event, and the invisible follow-up, are any guide.

Australia's technology industry bodies were conspicuous by their absence from debate about the NBN. When they did come to play, they were anodyne at best.

Rather than risk political hostility under the new government, vendors largely vacated the field, despite the likes of Microsoft and Google having shed some skin in past broadband debates. Telcos kept their counsel, as only those hoping for table scraps can.

Even startup-land wasn't helpful, placing self-interest – more share schemes, less tax please! - ahead of the national interest.

If Australia is to build the best-possible NBN on the current model, and give stakeholders a chance to dream in something other than the dull shades of ADSL, the nation's technology industries need to find their voice.

That fifth columnists like those who tapped me on the shoulder recognise the opportunity to do better is encouraging. Let's hope there are more such agitators out there. And count Vulture South among their number. ®

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