Kiama on the NSW south coast is the second mainland launch site for the National Broadband Network (NBN), and the first within striking distance of a capital city. Despite clear evidence of progress, a trip to Kiama demonstrates that the biggest challenge the NBN faces is getting people to understand what it does and why it exists.
Here's an unusual way to embarrass yourself: work for Lifehacker, show up at an NBN launch event, and discover that your RSVP has been misplaced. In a week when there has been a bucketload of largely ludicrous reporting about the NBN being "hacked", it can be hard to convince the person at the door you're not taking the piss. But I manage it eventually.
This turns out to be surprisingly useful preparation for the event itself. There's a sense of excitement in the air (or as much as you can manage in a room full of government officials in suits in a cold room on a Friday morning). Kiama mayor Sandra McCarthy in particular can't keep the smile off her face ("it's just a wonderful, wonderful day for Kiama," she proclaims), and even the often dour Senator Stephen Conroy seems in a happy mood.
Smiles aside, a good proportion of the event is devoted, one way or another, to clearing up the many misconceptions that still seem to linger whenever the NBN is mentioned. Given that you're reading this on a technology-centric site, I suspect I don't need to convince you of the potential benefits of having faster broadband available on a national basis.
But lots of people still need the whole thing explained to them, either because they think it's a waste of money or because they think wireless might do it better or because they think the pricing is too high or because they're just opposed to it because talkback radio is. This NBN launch — like the earlier one in Armidale, the one next week in Brunswick, and future launches in Townsville and Willunga — is as much about dealing with those issues as it is with letting the local community know that NBN options are quickly becoming available in their area.
The event itself follows a fairly predictable format: speeches from notables, a faux "switch-on" ceremony a brief photo opportunity for TV cameras that don't want footage of speeches, and then a doorstop for media with the Kiama surf enticingly positioned in the background. It's not the ideal environment for trying to get a message across, given that TV crews are obsessed with getting "interesting" shots and the questions from non-tech reporters make it clear that they don't know a lot. But NBN Co and government officials alike are certainly trying to educate them. Let's look at some of the issues where that needs to happen. Again, this might not be news to Lifehacker and Gizmodo readers, but it's apparently news to a good chunk of the rest of the world.
ADSL is a really lousy alternative in regional areas. Kiama is only a couple of hours from Sydney and a popular commuting choice given that it's on the train line, but that doesn't extend to its current broadband options. "Our area has suffered from poor coverage and limited availability under the ADSL and copper wire system, so the rollout of the NBN will fulfil a great need in terms of access for our community," Mayor McCarthy noted. Treasure Wayne Swan also wanted to hammer home that point: The NBN is so important to many of our regional communities who have not been able to fully participate in aspects of our national life."
The NBN doesn't have anything directly to do with mobile networks. At the doorstop, a regional news reporter wanted to know how the NBN would help with the problem of bad mobile signal on the south coast. NBN Co head Quigley patiently explained that the NBN had nothing to do with mobile services — "there are three carriers who do that" — but that many mobile users routinely switched their phones onto their home Wi-Fi networks to get better browsing and apps access. I have a sneaking feeling that grab won't make the nightly news, but it's a point that needs to be made.
It isn't just about faster connections in your home. Kiama Council is planning a range of uses for faster connections, including setting up hubs (the first being the local library) where citizens can get free access; broadcasting local council meetings via broadband; and offering online workshops explaining key council functions such as development approvals and food safety management. Those options don't make sense if affordable high speeds aren't available to both citizens and the council itself, and it's evident that this hasn't happened with Australia's existing telecommunications infrastructure.
It's not a large scale test to see how the network itself works. The initial rollout in Kiama includes goes past 2,350 homes and has just 9 test customers during the pilot phase, which runs until October. I bet a bunch of newspaper reporters are busy right now highlighting that fact and trying to suggest that this means each customer is effectively being subsidised for millions of dollars.
As NBN Co CEO Mike Quigley explained, that's not the point of the rollout: "It's really not a technology trial. We know the technology works. What we're testing is how we set up our systems and processes for wholesalers will work." (There's no winning in these situations, I suspect. If pilot projects weren't run, the newspaper headlines would proclaim that billions of dollars had been spent on a system that was being rolled out without any testing.)
There's still a lot of building to do. Treasurer Wayne Swan noted that as of the end of June, the NBN has passed 18,423 homes. "There's a long way to go but we've come a long way in a short period of time." Conroy did suggest that final tender winners to build the main NSW and Queensland networks would be announced shortly, which should speed the process up.
There will be a range of NBN pricing packages. Again, this isn't news: we've already seen pricing from Internode and Exetel, and the major ISP players (Telstra, Optus, iiNet) still have to announce national deals. However, so many people apparently freaked out when they saw the Internode pricing that everyone involved is constantly having to reiterate this point.
Having excess capacity is not a bad feature of the NBN. In a spiel he's clearly having to use a lot, Senator Conroy contrasted the building of the NBN with the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. In 1932 when it opened, an eight-lane bridge looked like overkill, but that ensured the potential for future growth. It's no different with broadband, as those of us who can remember working on dial-up modems can attest.
The NBN did not get hacked. Inevitably, a reporter asked for a comment on the non-existent NBN hack. Quigley had already spelled it out in words of one syllable: "The NBN was not hacked, it has not been compromised and our security was not breached. In spite of the somewhat hysterical headlines, we at NBN Co have not lost track of the vision of the NBN: to provide high speed broadband to all Australians no matter where we live." The fact this is still being discussed demonstrates how slow both the media and the general public are to dismiss the first version of a news story they hear, no matter how inaccurate or widely disputed.
We don't need to know all the potential high-speed apps to justify the investment. As Swan put it: "One of the criticisms of the NBN is that we can't accurately predict the future. That's precisely why we must invest in the NBN, so we can tap the unknown possibilities." I don't imagine that road builders anticipated that pizza delivery vehicles would eventually find them useful, to cite a trivial parallel example.
People with rusted-on political views are likely to continue opposing the NBN on principle, and no amount of technical discussion is going to persuade someone like Alan Jones who simply doesn't understand how fibre networks function but doesn't let that stop him ranting about them. It's a pity though that so much energy goes into re-explaining these basics, rather than turning our imaginations to what we could do once we've got better connectivity everywhere. That's when things will really get interesting rather than just shrill and repetitive.