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Publishers Letter

High-speed broadband in Australia will be an expensive farce

Back in May 2009 I wrote about the federal government’s proposed fibre-optic broadband network and how it would probably be a white elephant. I also asked the question whether it was likely to use above-ground cable, like the present Optus cable network. Well, already my misgivings are being confirmed. The rollout of the new broadband network has begun in Tasmania, in a $700 million program under the auspices of Digital Tasmania. They informed a recent Senate select committee that 96% of the proposed network would be via overhead cable. Aurora Energy, the state-owned power retailer, will string the fibre optic cable along its network of overhead power lines.

Well, what an absolute joke. Is this what the rest of Australia will get for a $43 billion investment? Talk about a third-world solution! Haven’t we learnt anything from the rollout of the Optus cable TV network in the 1990s? Those eyesore cables are still there and no doubt they will still be there for decades to come!

At least, the trial BPL (broadband over power lines) experiment seems to have been discredited (or has it?).

You don’t have to be a genius to see the drawbacks of overhead cables. Apart from being an eyesore, they are subject to breakage and interruption of service every time a power pole is knocked over by a car or by trees in storms – this happens very frequently in Tasmania. The quoted reason, by Digital Tasmania, is that overhead cables can be rolled out much more quickly than if they were to be buried in trenches. Well, that may be true but it is a half-baked solution. If cable is to be run, it should be underground.

I suppose the next part of this farce is that we will find that the vaunted network speeds will not be nearly so fast as promised. Or maybe the upload speed will be crippled as it presently is by Telstra and all the other networks. Unless the speeds are a great deal faster than is presently available from ADSL2, there is little point in providing yet another cable network, whether or not it is based on optical fibres. By the way, does anyone know what speeds have been promised?

In any case, we have to ask why the rollout in Tasmania will be so incredibly expensive at $700 million. That’s $1400 for every inhabitant of this little island or about $3500 for every Tasmanian household. Just how expensive is this optical fibre cable anyway?

Thinking about it another way, this might be one of the reasons why the federal government wants to dismember Telstra. Do they want to get cheap access to Telstra’s underground ducts? Why not just give $10 billion or so to Telstra and they can put in the broadband network they originally proposed (at a somewhat cheaper price)? After all, the government will need access to the ducts in all those suburbs and towns where all cables are presently underground.

And where cables are above ground, why should we have yet another cable strung along the power poles? In my own suburb of Collaroy for example, we have Optus and Telstra cables, the phone cable and the power cables – it is pretty unsightly.

This is yet another bungle by the federal government. Don’t they have anyone in the Labor Party or in the bureaucracy who has any sort of understanding of finance or business who can perform a rigorous cost/benefit analysis? Apparently, they have very little technical expertise but this is tragic.

Leo Simpson

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