Tuesday 17 September 2013

The Bandwidth of Democracy

What is Democracy? Hundreds of thousands of lives have died for it. Entire wars fought over it. Statesmen in funny wigs have had clandestine meetings in secret to work towards it. But what does it mean to live in a Democracy? I won't bore anyone with definitions that you've probably already read (Kieran Cummings aka @Sortius already dissects it very well in his latest blog post) But suffice to say there seems to be a disagreement brewing between newly appointed Communications Minister, Malcolm Turnbull and the online community.

Several days ago Mr Turnbull posted what he might've thought was a rather innocuous tweet in response to a fellow Twitterati who was calling for Mr Turnbull to recognise a recent online petition asking the new government to reconsider its' NBN plans. The tweet, from Phillip Tyson, said:

@TurnbullMalcolm I ask that you reject the coalition's NBN. Nearly 200,000 people have signed a petition for FTTH @ http://iwantthenbn.com

To which Mr Turnbull replied:

@PhillipTyson wasn't there an election recently at which nbn policy was a key issue?

Now, I don't know about you, but I see clearly Mr Turnbull has said there he believes the election result has, without question, determined the direction of the NBN under a new government. Strange considering the NBN was not part of the Coalition's oft repeated multi-point plan during the election, much publicised on TV and on pamphlets. In fact, the only well publicised (unless you count 11pm on Lateline) talk about the NBN under the Coalition....was from Labor. And the resulting rebuttals from Turnbull which usually made it in on page 17 somewhere of the Telegraph or Australian.

Now regardless of this fact, Mr Turnbull knows full well petitions are an important part of Democracy, he himself having linked to dozens over the course of his time in Opposition and indeed his political life (Sortius covers several). They are a vital gauge of public opinion on individual issues that an election cannot hope to canvass- there is so much extraneous noise and so many policies flying around, the voting public would be hard pressed to understand and comprehend all to the degree required for proper scrutiny. Mr Turnbull's response however, was not so affirming:

Last Saturday there was a general election at which the NBN was one of the most prominent issues. The Coalition's NBN Policy - which can be read here  had been published in April - five months ahead of the election. The Coalition won the election.

Again, Mr Turnbull appears to be suggesting a Coalition win, without question, determines the direction of the NBN. What many people may not realise is, the NBN does not require legislation to pass to radically alter its' direction. Unlike Direct Action or Stop the Boats, this Coalition plan, to change Labor's 93% rollout of Fibre to the Premises, to 22% FTTP and 71% Fibre to the Node, requires only the sign off of the Shareholder Ministers- Communications Minister, Malcolm Turnbull and Finance Minister, Mathias Cormann. That's it. No legislation (that's to come later - paywalled). No parliamentary debate. It is, essentially, a Dictatorship for the NBN. Something ex-Comms Minister Stephen Conroy relished.

The online community didn't appreciated these responses from Mr Turnbull and one particular response was jumped upon by the Earl of Wentworth:

On 13 September, Stuart Rintel, who is a Lecturer in Strategic Communications at the University of Queensland published a blog on the Conversation entitled "NBN Petition and the backlash: when does democracy speak?

His first misrepresentation is in the first paragraph where he writes that social media users "are mobilising against ...Malcolm Turnbull's claim that "democracy has spoken" on the issue of the NBN".

I am not sure what the University of Queensland means by "Strategic" Communications, but I doubt they mean "false" or "misleading".

Ouch. And it doesn't get better:

Stuart Rintel's blog is one which would disgrace any of his students.

Mr Turnbull has a history of personal attacks on the NBN, from NBNCo. former (still serving) CEO Mike Quigley, twice no less, to the NBNCo. board in general and even the new Chairwoman Siobhan McKenna. It seems Mr Turnbull doesn't play by the rules of 'play the ball, not the man.'

Recently, many groups online have sprung up to try and make Australians aware of the importance of FTTP to Australia's digital future. A dozen Facebook pages, a dozen Twitter Avatars and dozens of individual web pages and web sites dedicated to trying to allow the public of Australia to understand that while Labor's NBN was far from perfect, its' underlying majority technology, FTTP, was essential for growth and innovation in Australia. Much of the public sees the distinguishing factor between FTTP and FTTN as simply speed- FTTN is capable of around 100Mbps, depending on where you live. While FTTP is capable of 1000Mbps in its' current form, as being rolled out by NBNCo.

But the simple fact is, speed is only of secondary importance right now. Let's face it- few people have legitimate uses for over 100Mbps. Sure, 100Mbps and above is fantastic for businesses (current DSL and Ethernet prices for businesses are far beyond those for even business aimed plans on the NBN in many instances), but for your average consumer; it'll be several years before they are demanding 100Mbps....not as long as some would think though. But the primary characteristics of FTTP are:

- Reliability- Fibre has only one major weakness; physical damage. It and its' architecture is impervious to Water & RF interference. And poor joints are easily determined within a few metres via optical testing techniques.

- Ubiquitous speeds- NBNCo's FTTP network has a range of 14km from the fibre version of an Exchange (FAN) in which no matter which speed tier you order, at a wholesale level, you receive that speed. Of course, your RSP may throttle or contend the link. But this is the same between FTTN and FTTP. The point is FTTP has little physical limit like copper for speeds and distance. Certainly not in that 14km.

- Maintenance- Fibre in FTTP is between 2 and 5 times cheaper to maintain than copper. Verizon in the US, with its' branded FiOS FTTP system, show the company willingly upgrading people to fibre upon failure of their copper telephone line. The primary citation given for doing this is the failure rate of fibre- 2 to 3 times less than copper. That's a big saving when you're looking after millions upon millions of copper lines. In fact after Hurricane Sandy several years ago, Verizon chose to dump their copper network and replace the damage done with fibre. Several numbers have been bandied around from Verizon, $35/year/line for FTTP and $128/year/line for copper. But references for these are hard to find, being commercially sensitive industry information.

All this and you get a major boost in speeds available too.

Now, Mr Turnbull knows all this- he's talked to dozens of Telecom experts around the world during his time in Opposition. But they have apparently told him FTTN is an excellent and well performing technology. What he doesn't say is....all these experts are either incumbents and own the copper network or have already substantially, or completely, finished their FTTN networks (such as Germany or the UK). While Australia, under the new government, would not even start until late 2014/early 2015. There seems to be a major gap of information here not being talked about.

What myself and many others like me would like to see is Mr Turnbull's reviews. We want to see them happen in an open and publicly transparent manner. We want to see engagement with the online community, the telecom industry and experts in the field. Not behaviour such as we've seen (above) from Mr Turnbull is simply ignoring calls to be truly technologically agnostic. After all, if he was....why would he insist on giving a percentage coverage for FTTN? Would it not be prudent to wait for these reviews, as he chastised Labor for not doing originally on the NBN?

Our group, Mr Turnbull, wants to see you provide the best telecommunications infrastructure for this country to grow and evolve our services. We are apolitical- this is not about Labor or Liberal. This is about the best system that Australia needs not only now, but for decades to come.

James Archer is a member of the Australian FTTP Action Group, which includes groups such as Save the NBN and weneedthenbn.com, the author of the Change.org petition Nick Paine, former Telstra technician Kieran Cummings, telecoms and technology blogger Steve Jenkins and has support from several experts including Paul Budde and from ISP iinet.

1 comment:

  1. People want to turn NBN the down and simply let internet providers improve services on their own. Should this happen, small networks will be at a disadvantage and only the big networks can remain in business.