Australia's Broadband Situation in Perspective

My formal research project comparing communications technology outcomes in Canada and Australia ended in September 2012. A great deal has happened since. The Coalition came to power and the NBN changed from a predominately FTTH model to a mix of technologies utilising FTTN. For several years, broadband has been firmly fixed on Australia's policy radar. But what difference has it made?

Here I broaden the comparison to include Australia, Canada, United States, United Kingdom, Germany, South Korea, Japan, New Zealand, Switzerland, Hong Kong and Singapore. I wanted to provide a mix of countries that share several characteristics. While I have always argued that you cannot make judgements about Australia's broadband when compared with countries such as Korea and Switzerland, these countries are proving to be some of the most wired jurisdictions on the planet. However, Figure 1 below demonstrates the significant differences in population density that must be taken into account when making global comparisons. These simply cannot be ignored in any comparison of the effectiveness of broadband policies.
Figure 1: Population per square km

As you can see, Australia and Canada with 3 people per square km cannot possibly achieve the same return on capital investment in broadband infrastructure as Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea. Even New Zealand and the United States, with 17 and 32 people per square km respectively, are in a different league.

Next, we need to consider broadband penetration. Figure 2 shows the number of fixed-line broadband (classified as a minimum download speed of 256kbps - which is not really broadband anymore) connections per 100 people. A better measure is connections per household and while this figure is a more accurate measure of penetration, it is difficult to obtain and the information is not readily available for all countries.
Figure 2: Fixed-line broadband connections per 100 people
Of course, fixed-line broadband is only part of the story, although the usefulness of wireless devices for e-health and e-learning applications is somewhat limited. None of my students, for example, have ever managed to use their e-text successfully on their iPhone, but some broadband is better than no broadband. Figure 3 shows the number of wireless broadband connections per 100 people.
Figure 3: Wireless broadband connections per 100 people
Next, we need to consider broadband speeds. Measuring the highest speed or simply using advertised speeds is not enough: a friend of mine who is connected to NBN and pays for the 100mbps is lucky to get 25mbps, so relying on market information alone is insufficient. In my view, Akamai's use of servers to measure speeds across the globe seems to make a lot of sense. Two measures are useful for comparing cross-country outcomes: average speed and average highest (peak) speeds (based on highest speeds per individual IP address). Figures 4 and 5 below show these measures (respectively).
Figure 4: Average Broadband Speeds
Figure 5: Average Peak (highest) Speeds
Figures 6, 7 and 8 below show the increasingly sophisticated speed groupings based on >4mbps, >10mbps and >15mbps respectively. This tends to show a more robust picture of the speed of broadband services in a particular jurisdiction.
Figure 6: Broadband connections faster than 4mbps

Figure 7: Broadband connections faster than 10mbps
Figure 8: Broadband connections faster than 15mbps
As you can see from the above, Australia, despite some seven years of policy attention directed at broadband, is still at the wrong end of the league tables. Except in wireless broadband, which I believe is due to more competition and a lack of government interest (or perhaps less government intervention) in telecommunications where it is not hard-wired. Indeed, for many Australians who are unable to obtain fixed-line broadband services, wireless is in many cases the only alternative.

It is unfortunate that the tables above do not help to explain why Australia lags and continues to lag. In my PhD research, I compared Australia with Canada and I found that except for mobile telephony, in telegraph, telephone, radio, television, satellite, broadband - you name it - Canada was ahead of Australia in communications technology outcomes in every instance. So the problem is not just a matter of a broadband problem, it is much deeper. Look out for my book on this issue coming soon.

In the meantime, I have blogged about the comparative statistics of communications technologies in Canada and Australia before. As you can see from the comparisons above, despite NBN, Australia's broadband situation has not changed much at all.

Links to data used to develop the above graphs:
     Akamai State of the Internet Report Q1 2014
     Broadband Commission State of Broadband 2013
     OECD Broadband Portal
     World Bank Data 2013
     World Economic Forum Network Readiness Index 2014