Cue PM. “The Australian government will move ahead to establish a company in partnership with the private sector which will build and operate a fibre-to-the-home National Broadband Network … [splatter]”

Sorry, I didn’t catch the rest. Kevin Rudd was drowned out by the sound of 10,000 pairs of jeans being creamed at the thought of such massive internet bandwidth. The kind of bandwidth which … well, which they already have at street-corner news stands in Seoul.

Yes, this is a massive and much-needed catch-up. As Crikey reported in November, during the Howard years Australia dropped from the world’s third-best Internet infrastructure after the US and Finland to somewhere completely out of the Top 10. And yes, we needed something better than the original NBN target of 12Mbits/second. Today’s announced target speed of 100Mbit/s is more like it — but as Mark Pesce writes elsewhere in today’s Crikey, it’s only average for a developed nation.

It’s also what the industry is starting to do anyway.

Only three weeks ago, ISP Internode announced it was signing on to a joint venture between OptiComm (half-owned by Hills Industries) and NEC to provide fibre-to-the-home to 50,000 new homes and businesses on greenfield sites. As Business Spectator reported, the network taps into fibre laid by Telstra’s rivals including PipeNetworks, NextGen, Uecomm and PowerTel. Property developers like Mirvac, Lend Lease, Sunland, Villawood, LandCom, Land Management Corporation in South Australia and Canberra Investment Corp are already signing up.

Telstra has also announced 100Mbit/s connectivity in Melbourne and then Sydney. And there’s nothing stopping local communities laying their own fibre, and then approaching the backbone operators to connect their suburban networks to the grid. Apart from local government bureaucratic brain death, that is.

Internode’s CEO Simon Hackett is “gobsmacked”.

“If they do what they promise, they’ve actually got it right, and we might just turn into a broadband front-runner country 10 years from now … after all,” he wrote at Whirlpool.

So why create a government network that duplicates industry efforts?

Apart from boosting Kevin “Mr Popularity” Rudd — and NBN was an election promise, after all — it means the government can now determine who gets the fast fibre first. Marginal elector … sorry, I mean communities hit hardest by the economic downturn. And if the government makes good on is promise to roll out fibre to towns as small as 1000 population, it’ll help reduce population pressure on the cities, especially those with creaking transport systems.

And there’s a hidden benefit … By building the network from scratch, the government can make sure it has censorship-friendly choke points.

As a participant in the UNSW internet censorship forums told Crikey this morning:

Suddenly having an initially government-owned/controlled monopoly backbone operator removes all those pesky independent ISPs and backhaul businesses with contractual and ethical obligations to their customers from the discussion about if and where to install the big censor/filter boxes, who pays, performance hits, monitoring, security etc. And thus neatly bypasses the discussion which was finally starting to emerge about the suitability of the current plan to meet real needs, especially of those s-xting young ones.

With a hat-tip to Neil Walker (@MediaMook), “We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical. We can roll the image, make it flutter.” Cue The Outer Limits.

Peter Fray

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