What Do Australians Actually Think Of The NBN?

It goes without saying that the National Broadband Network (NBN) — regardless of who steers the rest of the build — is a major infrastructure project for Australia. And we all know its cost, technical configuration, corporate configuration, end-user value-proposition, economic benefit, social benefit and roll-out pace have all been subject to claim and counterclaim. But what do the people who will actually be using it think?

Fibre picture from Shutterstock

Over the past year our team from the University of Melbourne and Swinburne University of Technology have followed the progress of the debate.

We've sampled and analysed public attitudes to, and perceptions of, the NBN through the eyes of end-users who will be the ultimate arbiters of its value, and through the lens of the media who are, at this point in the roll-out, an important source of public information about the NBN.

To do this, we conducted a national online survey of more than 2000 people to identify broad trends in public attitudes to the NBN, and the factors shaping these attitudes. The survey was open to all people, regardless of whether they had the NBN connected or not.

We followed this quantitative work with in-depth follow-up interviews, and sampled the popular media landscape, undertaking a content analysis to ascertain the type of media coverage that may be influencing public perception.

Our respondents had an overwhelmingly positive attitude to the NBN in general terms. In round figures:

  • 64 per cent were positive or very positive
  • 20 per cent negative or very negative
  • 15 per cent undecided.

We then looked for why this might be the case.

Satisfaction levels

Positive views about the NBN do not appear to be driven by a sense of dissatisfaction with people's current internet service.

Most of those surveyed regarded themselves as heavy users of the internet, most thought the internet was personally important, and most were satisfied with their current service, regardless of whether they were on dial-up or ADSL2 broadband.

Levels of satisfaction with an internet service are in relation to expectation of that service, not to the objective performance of that service. People pay less for dial-up, expect less of dial-up, and are satisfied with their choice.

Respondents with all types of internet service had a positive attitude to the NBN, and interestingly, the better the current type of internet service the more likely people were to have a positive attitude to the NBN.

As we detail below, positive views about the NBN are more closely associated with expected national benefits rather than any particular or anticipated personal benefits.

Most respondents indicated that they thought the NBN would be of personal benefit (58 per cent), compared to 26 per cent who did not believe this to be the case, and 15 per cent who were neutral. But even after agreeing with this general proposition, our respondents found it hard to identify just what difference to their lives the NBN would make.

To tease out the particulars of personal benefit we put forward 12 commonly made positive propositions suggesting aspects of life which might change (shopping from home, access to education, access to healthcare, and so on) and none of our propositions attracted more than 16 per cent support — the highest being "working from home" at 15.7 per cent.

This, and all the other proposed personal changes in life, were outweighed by those respondents who strongly disagreed with the proposition.

We speculate that respondents find it difficult to imagine how their lives will change, though they do anticipate unspecified personal benefits for themselves and for unspecified others. It may be the bar was set too high in this question, with reference in the question to benefits that will "make a difference in your life".

Connection rates

While 64 per cent were positive about the NBN as such, and 58 per cent could see a personal benefit:

  • 49 per cent reported that they were likely to connect when the NBN reached their area (and we recorded many positive stories of this)
  • 35 per cent were unsure (in the 40-60 range on a scale of 1-100)
  • 17 per cent stated they were not likely to connect

Likelihood to connect thus lags significantly behind perceived personal benefit (58 per cent), which in turn lags behind a generally positive attitude to the NBN (64 per cent).

Parts of our qualitative work suggests this apparent inconsistency between general benefits, personal benefits and likelihood to connect may be accounted for by perceptions of cost or the relevance of the new service: that is, while the NBN may be regarded as better than existing infrastructure, particularly in regard to speed, costs may be seen to outweigh personal benefits and thus some may not connect.

According to a respondent from Brunswick, Victoria, one of the first roll-out areas for the NBN in 2010:

Before the NBN there were primarily two variables: price and data. But [with the NBN] there are three variables: price, data, and speed. The current speeds we have are slower than the NBN, but we have unlimited download.

It would cost us almost twice as much to download as much as we have now, regardless of speed. So we decided not to get an NBN plan as it didn't seem as good as the one we have now.

Alternatively, the NBN may be perceived as nationally beneficial (for example for business productivity or rural residents) but this is not seen as offering a personal benefit.

In addition to personal benefit, our respondents identified and supported national benefits associated with the NBN. Six positive claims about the NBN were plucked from the political debate (such as "it will future-proof Australia"), along with six common criticisms (such as "Australia cannot afford it").

All six of the positive claims received majority support and while no negative claim did, all negatives received a majority neutral response.

Our respondents also approved of the fact that the NBN roll-out is at this point an exercise of public enterprise rather than private enterprise or a public-private partnership competing in a market.

In round figures, 60 per cent agreed or strongly agreed with the public, national nature of the NBN roll-out, as compared to 10 per cent who disagreed or strongly disagreed.

Newspaper biases

The perception of both personal and national benefits associated with the NBN stands in contrast to the way the NBN has been covered in the media.

We sampled 30 opinion or analysis pieces in The Age and The Australian newspapers mentioning either "NBN" or "National Broadband Network" in a title over the last five years.

The analysis of the sample indicates that media sentiment about the NBN is almost always negative, regardless of masthead, and this negativity was primarily focused upon the technical configuration of the NBN, and the cost and the management of it.

More surprising, however, is the disparity between media representations and public perceptions, given that there were only two opinion articles that placed the NBN in a discernibly positive light (one in each newspaper).

Public attitudes, whether related to personal or national benefits, appear to be resistant to the influence of parts of the media, and instead shaped by other sources of information.

These other sources of information may be word-of-mouth, NBN advertising, or even online sources, each of which requires further investigation.

The full report this article is based on will be available in October 2013 on the IBES website.

All authors work for the University of Melbourne. Craig Bellamy receives funding from the Institute for Broadband Enabled Society (IBES). Bjorn Nansen receives funding from the Australian Research Council (ARC), the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN), and the Institute for a Broadband Enabled Society (IBES). Martin Gibbs receives funding from the Australian Research Council (ARC), Australian Communications Consumers Action Network (ACCAN), and the Institute for a Broadband Enabled Society (IBES). Michael Arnold receives funding from the Australian Research Council (ARC).

The ConversationThis article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.


Comments

    Online survey about internet service?
    Of course you're going to get a positive feedback from people who are already heavy users of the internet.

    It's the large segment of society (baby boomers and older) who are already less likely to use the internet compared to younger generations, and are more likely to adopt a short-sighted stance, such as "why do we need to spend $90 billion so you can pirate stuff faster," as well as not understanding the difference between FTTN and FTTP. These people vote, and they have happy memories of boom times under the last liberal government.

      Came here to say this. This survey is seriously flawed. I'd venture that more than 50% of the population is against the project (from a cost perspective at least) because more than 50% of the population don't care about super fast speed internet.

        "from a cost perspective at least"

        So I guess you're saying that 50% of the population missed the bit where ultimately it doesn't cost anything and actually makes a 7% profit?

        Last edited 04/09/13 3:53 pm

    Now if we can just figure out just how much of it has been completed without the spin and bullshit. I saw Turnbull this morning spouting that there is only 2% of it completed and then go on to say they (Libs) will get it done by 2016. Surely there has been more done than 2%, and no way in hell will they complete it by 2016...?

      Not hard to roll something out quicker if you don't actually roll anything out.

      When you compare Labors original projections to what they have actually installed by now Turnbull is right.
      Labor keeps reducing their projections to improve install base percentages.
      2% is about right and Labors NBN will not realistically be completed for at least another 25 years.
      As much as everyone loves and wants Labors NBN the reality is its just not happening. You only have to look at the current cost and installation numbers. Anyone can see that.

        Joe hockey has lost 20 kg in the last 12 months. He weighs 100 kg. Based on that, he will weigh 0kg in 5 years. Anyone can see that, based on the current numbers.

        Just a quick example to show that in real life numbers and rates can (and do) change over time. 2% now doesn't mean that that rate will continue. As I understand it most of the work to present has been in preparation for street scale rollout.

          That's the dumbest analogy I've ever heard!
          For the NBN to I crease its installation rate it needs more money. . . Who h blows the budget out even more.

            See what happens when I reply on my phone during my break with food in one hand? Predictive text and spell check go to shit.

            Actually it's a pretty spot on analogy. The fact that you think it's dumb is because it's highlighting that your point, which he was pointing out, was imbalanced and (your words) dumb.

            I don't even think it's been a full 2 years since the actually started rolling out Fibre, and certainly not at full speed. All the other time before that was implementing/setting up the groundwork/contracts/orders/infrastructure to start the roll out. Work that the Libs NBN will utilise and aren't counting financially or time wise, which they should be.

        Yeah but if the libs get in, the installation of the NBN in Darwin will Stop (its starting up in my area this December).

    Im probably not qualified to discuss but might give my two cents. ( Although that needs to be 5c today)

    I would suggest that the best result is to run out Fibre to Node as quickly as possible. Spend the bucks there and get it done across the country. Then deliver to the household fibre as the very last stage.

    On this basis everyone generally gets a lot faster and better quality internet ( quickly rolled out )

    Then when they finally get to roll out to the households the technology will have moved on and the last part might even be done at Wireless level ( for all I know about where this technology is going)

    What I see happening is that its taking so bloody long to get this done by the time we finish the first people who get it will be using a product that is 25 years old!!!

      While I understand what you're saying and agree that everyone should get fast broadband ASAP, my concern with this idea is what happens to the (presumably) 10s of 1000s of nodes once the country inevitably decides it's time to go full FTTP? Do we have to tear them all out, or do they have to stay there forever as the joining bridge between the Fibre backbone and the connections to the premises? Additionally, is FTTP via a node going to be as reliable and as fast as the direct FTTP that Labor has been rolling out? How much more is a full FTTP rollout going to cost when the FTTN network inevitably becomes too outdated? If the Labor NBN costs roughly $40 billion in 2013 dollars, what will it cost in 2020's dollars? What is the Liberal's plan if Telstra won't give them the copper, or asks a ludicrous amount of money for it? Will they abandon FTTN and switch back to FTTP or will the whole network be abandoned? Finally, how are the Liberals planning to have all of Australia's internet users up to a minimum download of 25mbits by 2016? That just doesn't sound feasible to me, particularly seeing as they themselves have just admitted there may be a 1 year delay before they can start rolling out FTTN (and even that's assuming that Telstra gives them the copper network in the first place).

      These are all serious concerns I have with the Libs' plan, all questions that they have either not answered or have been very misleading about.

      Last edited 04/09/13 11:48 am

      Hey I like the idea of making it wireless from the node! Walk anywhere and you have internet access! lol

      This is the best solution if cost isn't a concern.
      Cost is a concern though. If you roll out FTTN and upgrade to FTTP later, you will have to pay for the whole cost of FTTP plus the cost of buying and installing all those nodes, and then ripping them out again. That's excluding things like replacing batteries in the node (batteries have a limited lifespan) and power costs of running the nodes.

      Saying that fibre technology will be 25 years old by the time the whole thing is finished is misguided. The copper connecting people's houses to the nodes is, in many cases, decades old already. Fibre optic technology is constantly improving, whereas the limits of data transmission on copper has been reached (and relies on having copper in perfect condition).

      Wireless internet is not ideal for high numbers of users, as there is only a set range of frequencies which can be used to transmit data, more users means slower speeds. Basically, it gets crowded.

      Every plan has it's pros and cons.
      Labor's NBN has a higher initial outlay and a later completion date, but it offers faster speeds, is upgradeable and future proof.
      The Liberal plan has a lower initial outlay and will be completed sooner. It won't deliver anywhere near the same speed as the Labor plan, has higher costs incurred at a later date, and as of 2013, is obsolete technology.

        Can I just say that Fibre isn't going to be made redundant by another technology any time soon, and I mean in the next 50-80 years at least. I know that's a big call to make especially on technology, but fibre optics aren't new. Alexander Bell even commented on fibre being a better option for communications in the future, back in the 1800's. Most certainly not wireless, as correctly stated by djs.

        Spending $30b +plus (and it will be plus) just to keep the copper going for a little bit longer is a complete waste of money. Especially when the ONLY next step up is to go full fibre, which they plan to do anyway in 10years and you have to throw away all the equipment that you spend your $30b on. Especially when there's a full fibre plan that pays for itself.

    What I find annoying about Australia is that it takes them forever to get anything done.
    We all this money from the mining industry, hell we even sell uranium.

    No doubt by the time they actually release it, it would most likely be obsolete

    conspiracy time, the NBN along with NZ's new network is so that the NSA can spy on you.

    Quick Question regarding the NBN plan by Liberals. Will we still have to pay a line rental fee seeing as we will still be using the copper network. Or will line rental be a thing of the past like with the Labor plan.

    Last edited 04/09/13 12:45 pm

      You will not have to pay line rental in the Liberal's plan. The node and backbone infrastructure belong to NBN, with the copper between the node and your home owned by Telstra.

      There will need to be an arrangement between Telstra and NBN about paying for access, but at the moment Turnbull is saying that there's no commercial value for that copper, so there won't be any payment to Telstra. Do you really believe that Telstra will voluntarily decide to not charge for something that they own?

        "Do you really believe that Telstra will voluntarily decide to not charge for something that they own?"

        And it will also need to be maintained as well, they aren't going to be doing that for free either.

        Ironically, the copper is worthless under the Labor NBN, but under the Liberal NBN, the copper is actually worth something.

    NBN = bad news for FOXTEL:) we must give Rupert the good citizen time to sort his stuff out. Oh that's right (pardon th pun) he's not a citizen.

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