After yesterday’s big announcement, you could be forgiven for not being all that confident that anyone in this government has any idea what they’re actually talking about when it comes to broadband. You could be forgiven for asking if the $1bn Australia Connected plan was written up on the back of the same envelope as the $10bn water initiative.

Communications Minister Helen Coonan, writing in The Australian this morning, promised a “remarkable revolution” where “people across our vast continent will be able to access broadband speeds at a minimum of 12 megabytes a second”. Well Senator that sure would be remarkable! Speeds like that have never been reached using similar technology anywhere in the world.

I am pretty sure the Minister meant to say 12 MegaBITS per second and not 12 MegaBYTES per second.

Yes, computer and communications terminology is designed to confuse anyone without a pocket protector but it’s not unreasonable to expect that the Minister’s office would have a grasp on it when making a billion dollar investment of taxpayers’ money. Politically, it’s also vital to get the terms right when trying not to appear like you are playing catch up and making policy on the run.

For the uninitiated, there are 8 bits in a byte so 12 Megabytes is actually 96 Megabits. There’s a geeky explanation of it here but the key point is that it’s an eight fold difference. Confusing your megabits with your megabytes is roughly the equivalent of confusing kilograms with milligrams or metres with kilometres.

If you take the article in today’s Australian at face value, Senator Coonan appears to be over-promising unheard of speeds up-front while warning us that things are going to get a lot worse if the government is re-elected. Beyond 2009 the government is promising speeds of “at least 50Mbps” – that’s just over half of the 12 Megabytes that she says will be rolled out now.

It’s not an isolated incident either. The Prime Minister, according to a caller, “sounded rattled” as he referred to ADSL (the technology that most Australians currently use to receive their broadband) as ADLS on ABC radio in Adelaide yesterday.

If the government is going to turn broadband into a political bonus, they’ll need to do a lot better than this. Otherwise the increasing attention to the issue will just make it easier for the opposition to paint the PM as a man still struggling with metric.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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