NBN: a real need for speed?

Please Wait. ABC

I am watching the ABC logo on iView spin around, not going anywhere, stuck at 68%. The problem is not with my broadband connection. I am on cable broadband and according to Speedtest I can download at speeds of around 30 Mbps. That is around 30 times the recommended speed I need to watch streaming video from iView.

According to NBN Co, waiting for things to download will be a thing of the past once we have access to the NBN. In fact, they claim that it will lead to increased productivity and reduce time wasted.

Clearly, this can only happen if companies such as the ABC can actually deliver content from servers powerful enough and over a big enough connection to service the demand.

And there is the rub. The speed of the connection to the home is only a part of the whole equation that determines whether you spend an hour waiting for a file to download or 60 seconds.

NBN Co claims that with the NBN, we will all be able to use high definition video conferencing. But at a university where I can get speeds of 100 Mbps (the fastest speed promised by the NBN), I can’t guarantee a clear, unbroken Skype audio session, let alone video, with someone else at another Australian university on an equally fast connection.

When people claim that the NBN will bring about a technical revolution, they talk as if the speed of the Internet was the only thing holding it all back. But again, unfortunately, there is more to it than that.

Promoters of the NBN claim that it will spur the use of telehealth. However, recent uptake of videoconferencing by GPs in Australian, even with government financial incentives, has been poor. The barriers to adoption did not include the speed of the Internet but were to do with time constraints, interoperability issues and workload.

From a consumer perspective, it is also not speed necessarily that is the main priority when choosing an Internet connection. The real growth in Internet connections in Australia has been in wireless. Mobile broadband makes up 47% of the total Australian customer base. 90% of new connections added between June 2011 and December 2011 were wireless. Convenience and the post-PC world are continuing to drive our usage of the Internet, not speed.

Speed of Internet connections is obviously an important factor in determining what it can be used for. There is a point however, at which it is not speed, but other factors that are holding back the use of particular technologies. It is unfortunate then that it is this just this one feature that has been used to justify the NBN’s $36 billion - $50 billion price tag.