The past two weeks have seen a lot of attention given to the Coalition’s proposal of ditching Labor’s version of the National Broadband Network, and instead implementing a cheaper solution. In short, the ALP wants to spend $37 billion running fibre optic cable to every house in Australia. Paired with requisite equipment, this will allow Australians to connect to the internet at a speed of 100mbps, and, apparently, fibre optic cable is “infinitely” upgradable, so if necessary the speed could be upped to well in excess of 1000mbps. By contrast the coalition wants to spend $20bn in what is called “fibre to the node”; running carbon fibre cable to big boxes on street corners and then using the existing copper network to connect from that box to the individual houses. The coalition’s plan will allow Australian consumers to connect at a “whopping” speed of 25mbps.
I have relished the debate that has unfolded in the past few weeks – especially the contributions of the Communications and IT experts that have lambasted the Coalition for overlooking the quality downsides and operating costs of maintaining the copper wire network and providing power and utilities to the “big ugly boxes”, for sidestepping how ugly the “big ugly boxes” will be when placed on streets, and their insistence that 25mbps is more than enough for average Australian households (let me just state right now that I once had a 20mbps connection and I was not that impressed). I am not a futurist, and I don’t have the IT or Communications expertise to predict what the internet needs will be in the future. However, I can point to two examples that show how unwise it is to build infrastructure for today’s world.
I grew up in North Sydney. I lived in a house off a beautiful road called Burns road. But while this road was indeed beautiful, framed by magnificent trees and nice houses, it had a massive downside; it is only a two-lane road. This was a vital route through my suburb, not only for people living in my suburb but also for many who worked, or went to school around it. But because this road was built oh-so long ago, and was built with only two lanes, every morning and every evening it becomes a parking lot. When I was in primary school I used to walk almost a kilometre down this road every morning and every afternoon, and there is no doubt my speed was comparable to the poor saps sitting in their cars. When I started driving to university in 2009 it would take me about 10 minutes just to traverse the 500 or so metres of Burns road I needed to cover. The rest of my trip, which covered about 15 kilometres, but which mostly took place on 6 lane roads, did not take much longer. Burns road alone accounted for a considerable proportion of my travel time. What’s more, there is no possibility of Burns road ever getting expanded to meet the needs of ever more motorists, as it is already built right up to the property lines of houses on both sides. Burns road is a perfect example of building infrastructure to meet the needs of the day, rather than the needs of the future. It might have made sense when cars were a luxury and only local residents needed to use the road, but that is no longer the world we live in.
The second example I have is the Pacific Highway. I have driven between Sydney and the Gold Coast on the Pacific Highway many times, and every time I do I notice how piss poor the design was. The Pacific Highway is one of the lifelines of Australia, but it too was only built as a two-lane highway. The road is by used everything with wheels – cars, buses, trucks, and learners. And the only opportunity given to overtake the latter two is at one of the sporadic overtaking lanes. Furthermore, rather than going straight, it winds slowly through the country side and frequently passes straight through little villages and hamlets – a large part of the reasoning behind the low speed limit. What is a 900 km journey often takes more than 12 hours to accomplish. Again, this is a road that was built for another time. Building it as only two lanes was a drastic oversight, and allowing villages and houses to spring up around it has stymied any improvement. We have paid the price in more than just travel time as various governments have spent decades and billions of dollars trying to overcome this shortfall.
We cannot always see the needs of the future, and obviously the explosion in the ownership of cars was something no one foresaw. But claiming that a 25mbps download speed is sufficient or will be sufficient for everyday life is just being willfully blind to what is happening all around us. Even with Labor’s 100mbps proposal we will only just be catching up to the likes of South Korea. Furthermore, Australia is only just starting to see the beginnings of internet media streaming, and there are already many improvements in media quality that we know are in the pipeline – let alone the ones that have not been conceived of yet. Many of my generation might forsake traditional media models altogether and take up an internet only approach – something I have basically already done. What all this comes down to is that we don’t have to make the same mistakes we made with our appalling infrastructure. If we did it again we would not build Burns road or the Pacific Highway with only two lanes. Let’s apply the same logic to our National Broadband Network. We already know that 25mbps is not sufficient, why can’t we learn from our past infrastructure mistakes and do it right the first time?