Ideology Fuels the Digital Divide

I live in the bush.  Not out back of beyond, or beyond the black stump. I'm 20km from the nearest town, on a highway, and within 2km of the local telephone exchange.  Yet I'm in an internet backwater.  All because of ideology.  Let me explain.

Australia has this wonderful new toy called the NBN - National Broadband Network, which was touted as bridging the digital divide between city and country.  Yet it is fundamentally flawed, and is unlikely ever to provide the level of neutrality that its proponents crow about.

A bit of background first.  Most telephone exchanges in Australia are connected by fibre optic cable and use an IP backbone.  They have done for over a decade.  This means they are easy to retrofit new equipment into and have plenty of capacity. Most cities enjoy ADSL2 capabilities, and even the town I mentioned initially has ADSL.

The NBN decided that the best solution was fibre to the premises for larger population areas, fixed wireless (basically point-to-point 3G LTE) to areas surrounding these and a satellite service to the rest of the country. All great stuff. Lots of expensive, flashy, techy gadgets that politicians love so much.  Much talk of "infrastructure building" and "securing our future".  Yet where I am I cannot get any of this.  It is even uncertain that if the new satellites ever reach orbit that I'll be eligible.  Even if I am eligible, satellite is not the same as a terrestrial service. And it is totally unneccessary.

The satellite service relies on two satellites that are not yet in orbit.  There is also no guarantee that they will make it to orbit, as Mexico can attest to, or even the US.  If they get to orbit it will have cost tens of billions of dollars to get there.  Numbers being bandied around suggest at least 41 billion.  Once there they are supposed to provide 25 Megabit per second download speed.  What nobody tells you about is the latency that means that this doesn't directly translate into that amout of data being able to be transferred every second.  I won't go into the boring details but if you look into how TCP/IP works you will see that there are always going to be issues with achieving this with a satellite.  And it could have been avoided.  Let us assume there are 1 million telephone exchanges outside the metro areas (there are nothing like that number, but let me continue).  41 billion dollars would see $41,000.00 available for each exchange to upgrade to the latest ADSL2 or better.  Add to this the cost of the fixed wireless (somewhere around $13 billion), reduce the number of exchanges to something closer to the mark and you can see that what we are paying for the 2nd and 3rd tier of the NBN could have easily seen $100k per exchange for upgrades.  Considering that even at the most exhorbitant estimates that would mean an additional 100  ADSL/ADSL2 connections per exchange, and more realistically several thousand, and you start to see that this entire system has been designed to be impressive, but not necessarily to meet the current or future needs of the community.

What we have, then, is ideology driving technology.  There is nothing "future proof" about satellite, or about fixed wireless.  These technologies are limited by physics in a way that telephone exchanges aren't.  They have limited amount of radio frequency spectrum available, limited channels, longer latency and frankly will be obsolete before they are rolled out.

Ideology also plays into the limited options I currently have.  Because I get a 3G signal here I am not allowed to get onto the interim satellite service, which is so over-subscribed that it is not worth attempting. 3G is considered "metro equivalent", even though I pay between 12 and 15 times the price of someone on ADSL for anything like the equivalent amount of data.  Telstra say that this is because they don't charge different prices for regional vs city 3G - all very well, but they do charge different prices for 3G vs ADSL, and calling 3G equivalent to ADSL when there are caps on the data allocation that are way short of even the bottom end of the ADSL plans, and prices of data beyond that at up to 100 times that of even Telstra's ADSL plans, is disingenuous at the very least.  This is ideology that initially looks grand - charging the same for the same service. On closer view however it is window dressing the ugly reality - there is no "same service".  Just a short walk down the road and you cannot get 3g at all.  I cannot get 3g from any other provider here, but I can if I walk up the hill.

So when do we get to bridge the "digital divide"?  Or is that like most other political promises, just smoke and mirrors?

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