Our regular guest contributor James Glover (aka @zebra) returns today with a look at the numbers behind the National Broadband Network. He asks: do you think it would be value for money?
The Labor Government’s proposed National Broadband Network (NBN) has many things to recommend it, not least speeds of up to 1GB/s (currently I am on 10Mb/s for ADSL; theoretical speeds of 24MB/s on ADSL2+ and 100MB/s on VDSL are also soon to be widely available, though the reality is dependent on many variables such as distance from an exchange). It would revolutionise the way we communicate as the higher bandwidth would allow not just interactive entertainment and fast downloads, but genuinely accessible cloud applications that really felt like they sat on your computer…and of course dishwashers waking up at 3.00am to negotiate the best electricity price. I doubt whether anybody on either side of politics would disagree that, in a perfect world, this is all desirable. But like all utopias, it comes at a cost and that is where the real divergence between the Labor Party and the Coalition’s broadband policies exists. I hope to cast some light on this cost argument using the power of the Time Value of Money, in particular calculating the real cost to you on a monthly basis so you can compare it with your existing broadband cost.
Labor wants an all-connecting fibre optic network (with subsidised satellite to cover really remote areas) that will cost an estimated $46bn. The Coalition wants a more modest effort: a fibre optic “backbone” network that uses existing copper wiring in urban areas and relies on market competition to pay for further improvements. It is estimated to cost about $8bn plus later commercial costs. Both of these figures seem extraordinarily high. How to decide if it is really worth it? Well if I told you that Labor’s NBN would cost you $10 per month would that sound too high? After all that only includes the infrastructure cost, not the access cost via an ISP. But most of us don’t pay upfront for our broadband or mobile (cell) phone bills, we pay monthly. The Coalition’s figure of $8bn works out at less than $2/month each (for those so inclined, you can read the details behind these figures). But it doesn’t include any additional costs charged by commercial companies building additional infrastructure. It also only claims to provide “peak speeds” of 10Mb/s which I already get on my ADSL+.
Is $10/month a lot of money? Or $2/month for that matter? It obviously depends on what your income is and how much you are currently prepared to pay for broadband. My broadband plan costs $50 for 120GB/month. I also live in a one-person household. It doesn’t sound much to me, but all those $10/month costs add up to the thousands we pay in tax each year. There’s no point paying more for little for no benefit. Of course it’s not going to be charged directly, but through increased taxes (or decreased services). I estimate $10/month to represent an average increase in the tax rate of about 0.5%. This seems reasonable to me. After all, if in 2020 a businessperson (or BusinessBot2020) came to Australia and found our broadband to be the equivalent of dial-up today, they’d hardly be impressed enough to invest in a technology business. Of course, by 2020 with super-fast broadband we should really be able to do most business remotely, right? But we’ve been saying that since the invention of the telephone.
So I’m for the Government’s NBN plan…but what do you think?
Update: I have since writing this post changed my mind based on readers’ comments and some research. It appears that many of the benefits of the NBN are available already on ADSL2+, VDSL and 4G and the Coalition’s more modest plan to build a fibre-optic network backbone might be sufficient. There is also the question of whether a Government entity is best placed to oversee such a large scale project – it’s not like Peter Garrett is going to personally project manage the NBN but Governments in general are not (IMO) best placed to predict and respond to consumer demand. But I accept there are strong feelings on both sides. Sometimes that bright shiny thing in your vision is a light on a hill and sometimes it’s a white elephant blocking your view.
UPDATE: Let us know what you think by voting in this broadband poll.