Six Myths About The NBN You Should Stop Believing Right Now

I live blogged the launch of the 2012-2015 NBN Corporate plan for Gizmodo yesterday (Giz editor Luke was trapped on a secret mission with a camera which may or may not have involved underwear, so I stepped in). The big takeaway from the event? Cogent dismissals of six persistent NBN myths which I suspect most Lifehacker readers already know are utter rubbish, but which keep clouding the actual discourse about our broadband future. Let’s review.

If you want the full details of what was announced, check out the whole Gizmodo feature, which covers all the notable comments from comms minister Sentator Stephen Conroy and NBNCo chief Mike Quigley. Predictably, most of the coverage of the corporate plan launch I’ve seen to date has focused on the increase in NBN costings, though rather less of that reportage has noted with the same prominence that the predicted rate of return as an investment from the NBN has increased.

But I’m not going there, because arguing solely over the costs ignores all the other issues. If you want “Aaargh the NBN is evil and overpriced” coverage, you have most of the mainstream press at your disposal already. And I’m not going into the whole fibre versus wireless debate either, because we’ve already covered that a number of times.

Myth #1: No-one wants higher speeds

A standard anti-NBN trope is that “the speeds we have now are more than adequate”. That approach ignores all the statistical evidence, which clearly shows our appetite for both download speeds and data allowances is ever-increasing even without the NBN. It also ignores the NBN signup patterns, which show the strongest demand is on the 100/40 and 25/5 plans. NBNCo is still conservatively assuming most customers will use the slower 12/1 option, but that prediction is likely to err on the wrong side. A similar pattern is evident with even the slower satellite services, as Quigley noted: “We’re seeing takeup of the interim satellite is in fact exceeding what we expected at this point in time because the service is such an improvement over what we’ve seen beforehand.”

Myth #2: Consumers hate the NBN because they may not be able to make emergency phone calls

The question of whether ‘battery backup units’, which ensure you can make a call on your landline in a blackout, should be compulsory has been much debated in the press. Given the total saturation of mobile phones, it’s questionable whether this is a drama. More to the point, when NBNCo has asked current customers if they want a battery backup in their home, few say yes once they realise that their current cordless home phone will be dead in a blackout no matter what the network is doing. As Quigley said: “When people understand, they say ‘but I’ve got a phone over here, is it good for that?’ and it’s a cordless phone. There’s not much point backing up a cordless phone.”

Myth #3: Money spent on the NBN should be spent on roads, etc.

Because the NBN is an infrastructure investment which takes place over a decade, its total cost is an easy target. If you don’t like the NBN (or you don’t like the current government), suggesting that spending the money elsewhere would make more sense is an obvious ploy. But it’s not a logical ploy, because the NBN is treated as an investment, not a one-off expenditure. As Conroy pointed out, yet again: “To treat it as an expense would be breaching international accounting standards.” You can’t just shift the money from ‘NBN’ to ‘roads’ or ‘hospitals’, because the latter require a different accounting treatment.

Myth #4: NBN plans are overpriced compared to ADSL

The really short version? I compile and update Lifehacker’s Planhacker listings for the NBN, so I know this is total rubbish. There are NBN plans available at a wide range of price points. And that’s before you remember that comparisons of basic prices often ignore the fact ADSL prices require you to pay for a landline, and that the NBN, unlike ADSL, can offer a guaranteed speed.

That doesn’t stop the myth being perpetuated. As Conroy pointed out, Tony Abbott’s budget reply speech suggested a typical NBN plan would cost three times as much as current offerings. That’s not true even if you ignore the speed and performance difference. And when you consider that with recent price rises, basic line rental from Telstra can cost less than an NBN plan, it’s a lousy, deceptive and pointless line of argument.

Myth #5: You will be forced to use the NBN

Yes, your copper cable will eventually die (unless you live in a satellite-only area). But if you don’t want the NBN connected to your house, you can take your chances with 3G or a rival satellite service. Even when NBNCo is wiring up your street, you can decline the option to have a basic connection enabled for your house for future use. Annoyingly, if you live in a unit block, if enough of your neighbours are misinformed anti-NBN zealots, they can disconnect your block altogether. As Senator Conroy noted: “If the strata says no, we declare it ‘frustrated’ and we move on. We can’t storm the building. We still have property rights in Australia.” If my neighbours try this, I will move, and curse my lowered property values.

Myth #6: Mainstream NBN coverage is objective and balanced

If I ever doubted that much of the local media coverage of the NBN was predisposed to negative bias, five minutes in the room ahead of the announcement were enough to dispel that notion. One journalist from the alleged national paper might has well have been wearing an ‘NBN Sucks’ T-shirt. As soon as the press release was handed out, she complained: “This can’t be the plan, can it? Three pages?” (We got handed the full printed plan as well.) Another financial press journalist was phoning in the increase in the overall costs from the press release, ignoring the statements in the same document about how pricing had largely changed due to delays in the deal with Telstra and the addition of Optus cable customers.

It’s not that the cost isn’t important, but it’s boring and simplistic to say “This costs too much and therefore it sucks” without looking at the context. As Senator Conroy pointed out and we’ve already noted, the incessant mantra that money spent on the NBN could be easily redeployed to roads or health or education or your cause du jour ignores the realities of how different expenditures are accounted for, let alone ignoring the fact that not changing Telstra’s monopoly control on the existing copper network would leave large swathes of the population permanently screwed. Ultimately, we don’t have a fully-priced alternative to the NBN from the Opposition, and it was the Opposition in power that ‘privatised’ Telstra while giving it near-monopoly control over the copper network. Under those circumstances, giving random statements from Malcolm Turnbull or Tony Abbott equal weight with a fully-costed plan is not balanced journalism.

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