NBN 3.0? Lessons from an Arabian Broadband Experience

Broadbanding the Nation: The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan (Photo by Michael de Percy CC: BY-NC-SA)
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Is NBN 3.0 a feasible alternative?

Regardless of the politicking behind broadband policy, there has been little discussion about what is needed and why we need it in terms of broadband outcomes. Labor's NBN promises vast coverage of fibre-optic cable (effectively replacing the copper network currently owned by Telstra) and very high speed broadband (100 mbps) with a handful of hard-to-reach places served by satellite and wireless. The Coalition is promising to do what they did for more than a decade which got us into our broadband woes in the first place. But now there appears to be a third option: NBN 3.0.

Rather than repeat what has already been written, details on the Alliance for Affordable Broadband's NBN 3.0 provided by independent technology journalist Renai Lemay are available here.

There has been some speculation about using wireless technologies in lieu of a fibre-optic NBN. Here I draw on some experiences in a country with mostly Wimax services to argue that these technologies can provide an adequate user experience for household users.

An Arabian Wimax Experience

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is a small, non-oil producing, mostly land-locked country in the Middle East, bordering Israel in the west, Iraq and Saudi Arabia in the east, and Syria in the north. With a population of some 6 million people, Jordan is home to many ancient wonders and sites of significant historical and religious importance.

Comparing Australia to Jordan is inherently unfair: Australia's GDP per capita is some 13 times more than that of Jordan. But when it comes to access to broadband, my personal experience is that Jordanians - if they can afford it - have access to better services.

In Palmerston via Gungahlin, in full view of the flag atop Parliament House, it really doesn't matter how much money you have. Out of frustration with ADSL, I now have a Wimax connection (and a two-year contract) which at least gives me adequate speeds during peak times but it costs $110 per month. The trouble is I am limited to 10GB of downloads per month - regardless of how much I am willing to pay for additional data.

While in Jordan, I experienced an ADSL connection in Amman, the captial, which worked fine (once we upgraded the ageing modem). Just about every Western cafe and fast food joint had free wifi for customers - again no problems. In the south, I experienced blistering Wimax speeds while staying at a dive centre, and a similar service closer to the centre of Aqaba, Jordan's only port city on the Red Sea.

The dive centre's download limit was regularly blasted by a few guests who insisted on watching videos online. This created a bit of havoc when I tried to help out the crew with some web page changes and a workshop on using Facebook to market the business. But it was a simple phone call to the supplier and 1 Jordanian dinar (about AUD $2) per gigabyte of additional download - and that was it. Try doing that with your typical Aussie plan!

Implications for NBN 3.0

So what does this quick comparison mean for NBN 3.0?

First, it means that Australia's broadband services are poorer than those provided in less well-off developing nations.

Second, it means that Wimax technologies can deliver adequate broadband experiences to the typical household user.

Third, it means that there may be some merit to NBN 3.0.

But is wireless good enough?

Let me put it this way - if I was being operated on by a surgeon receiving instructions from a specialist via a Wimax connection, I'd be pretty worried. Satellite would be even scarier. And if I was in the middle of an online university test using my connection here in Palmerston via Gungahlin, I'd be quite worried about the connection dropping out (as it does regularly) and my complaints about my Net connection would get the "my dog ate my paper" treatment. Or worse, my light-weight download limit would be blasted by 2 weeks worth of online learning and then I would be stuck until the next month. Students in the UK simply don't have this problem because capped plans are the exception not the rule.

So while there is some merit in the less-fibre NBN 3.0 option, I think it will be a missed opportunity for Australia if we don't get the NBN promised by Labor. Having said that, I would rather have a Jordanian broadband experience than a Palmerston via Gungahlin fraudband experience any day, so NBN 3.0 sounds better than what we have now.