Australia’s new prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has announced what he calls a “21st-century government”. This article is part of The Conversation’s series focusing on what such a government should look like.
Earlier this month, the US Broadband Opportunity Council declared that broadband is “taking its place alongside water, sewer and electricity as essential infrastructure for communities”.
Descriptors like “very fast” (Australia), “superfast” (UK), “ultra-fast” (New Zealand) or “ultra-high speed” (Singapore) reinforce the message that speed is an essential component of good broadband.
But what would a genuinely 21st century broadband infrastructure look like? And can the National Broadband Network (NBN) under the stewardship of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull fit the bill?
Around the world there are broadband projects that give us a taste of what 21st century broadband might look like. One is Google Fiber, which promises “endless possibilities” along with 1 gigabit per second (Gbps) download and upload speeds in three American cities.
In comparison, the ADSL2+ broadband serving more than 5 million Australian households today has a maximum download speed of about 20 megabits per second (Mbps) and upload of 8Mbps. However, real-world speeds are typically significantly lower.
Today’s fastest NBN plans offer 100Mbps download and 40 Mbps upload, although NBN Co’s original fibre-to-the-premises approach could match Google Fiber’s gigabit speeds.
Google has plans to expand Google Fiber to more cities in the US, making it one of the most high profile private sector broadband initiatives globally. But it is far from the only one.
In cities around the world, many companies are building new broadband networks that offer symmetrical gigabit speeds (1,000Mbps downloads and uploads) and more competitive pricing than incumbent broadband providers.
In the US, more than 100 cities have joined the Next Century Cities alliance, sharing expertise to bring “fast, reliable, and affordable Internet – at globally competitive speeds” to their communities.
A successful example of this approach is in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where the community-owned electric utility company built and operates a fibre network connecting every home and business.
In addition to offering symmetrical gigabit broadband, the network has improved the reliability, resiliency and responsiveness of Chattanooga’s electrical services. It also provides a platform for economic development that drives growth and innovation in the city.
The people of rural Lancashire in England were tired of waiting for better broadband, so they took matters into their own hands. They raised money from the community, and volunteers learned how to install fibre.
Their broadband for the Rural North (B4RN) project now delivers gigabit symmetrical broadband to more than 1,000 households.
Singapore’s Next Generation Nationwide Broadband Network connects all Singaporean homes and businesses to an open access fibre network, meaning that any qualified provider can deliver services using the network. Many ISPs now offer symmetrical gigabit connectivity over this national network, with plans to offer even faster speeds in future.
These initiatives serve different constituencies in different ways, with three very important commonalities. Each project has built, or is building, a new fibre-optical network that connects directly to homes and other premises. Each has developed a business model that allows customers unlimited symmetrical access at the fastest possible speeds.
Speeds can also be increased in future by upgrading networking equipment, allowing for faster data transfer over the fibre. Additionally, these fast, unlimited internet services are offered at a reasonable price, typically less than A$100 per month.
By demonstrating what is possible, these projects are likely to shape expectations of what fixed-line broadband networks can deliver in future. The willingness of local communities, municipal and national governments and private sector organisations to invest in new fibre networks demonstrates that there are business models that work, today.
Bringing it home
Opportunities for using broadband to deliver services to citizens in innovative, economical and convenient ways are well understood. Research also suggests that increased uptake of broadband technologies results in economic growth, providing strong rationale for public investment in broadband infrastructure.
However, when he was Minister for Communications, Malcolm Turnbull instructed the National Broadband Network company (nbn) to meet short-term needs by incorporating existing copper and HFC networks into a multi-technology mix network.
Research for the government’s NBN Panel of Experts concluded that Australians would not need very fast broadband service in the immediate future.
But if broadband is indeed becoming as essential as roads, water and electricity, the current patchwork approach will be insufficient to enable the innovation, productivity and socio-economic activities already possible on the networks described above.
The approaches discussed above show that investment in broadband infrastructure can deliver uniform, affordable, and very high quality service. New models provide services without limits or constraints, enabling innovation and experimentation with the possibility of increasing network capacity to meet demands for services that have yet to be invented.
A few days after taking office, Prime Minister Turnbull announced “a 21st Century Government and a ministry for the future”. He called for Australia to become more competitive, more innovative and more productive. He called for increased efficiency in service delivery, and spoke of integration across all levels of government to ensure the prosperity of Australian cities.
He did not mention the National Broadband Network, but he would understand the important role that broadband can play in facilitating his objectives and know that there is enormous opportunity for his government to explore the potential of 21st century broadband.
A good first step would be to articulate the ways that broadband underpins innovation, productivity and integration across his ministries and across the Australian economy, in cities and in rural and remote regions.
With a clear set of outcomes in mind, the government may then reconsider its commitment to a plan that constrains and limits the capacity of the NBN, and may even hinder Australia’s future prosperity.