There are two reasons the opposition is such a fan of wireless broadband. One is political: fibre equals National Broadband Network equals Labor equals something to destroy. The other is that the Liberals are being sucked in by the wireless vendors’ glossy brochures.

A core part of the opposition’s anti-NBN propaganda continues to be that a fibre-to-the-premises network is somehow both risky new technology and old-fashioned. Wireless broadband, especially the stupidly-named “next generation” technologies like LTE, is the safe bet that will soon surpass NBN capabilities. Their media cheer squad is only too eager to parrot this line. It even sounds like it makes sense — provided you ignore the technical subtleties.

“Tied to cable yet future is wireless,” was the headline in The Australian yesterday on a typical anti-NBN rhetorical piece by analyst Ian Martin.

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There’s an appeal to authority. Barack Obama announced a National Wireless Initiative. If America is doing wireless it must be right … right?

There’s an argument from incredulity. Martin discounts a government-supported US fibre network because it would have cost up to $US100 billion. “It’s unthinkable that Congress would have supported that kind of budget spending,” he asserts. Yet in 1956 Congress approved $25 billion for the Interstate Highway System. That’s $195 billion in today’s money. Even given the woeful US economy today, is $100 billion really that unthinkable?

Martin even lards it up with an emotive yet utterly irrelevant image: “Obama’s firefighter is downloading the design of a burning building on to a handheld device, not knocking on a neighbour’s door to plug a laptop into the local fibre network. In fact, they would probably download it in the fire truck on the way to the building.”

Compelling? Sure. Providing you forget that this scenario is about a mobile wireless broadband, not the fixed wireless — bolted to the side of your house — that’d be used for a reliable broadband customer access network.

And, while I’m no firefighter, I reckon I’d download those building plans to my laptop well in advance, rather than hope I’d get a good data link from a moving truck.

Martin acknowledges that “Broadband Minister Stephen Conroy and other NBN supporters argue mobile service isn’t comparable to the service potential of NBN because mobile capacity is shared among users in each cell site”. True. So why does he then ignores this, and laud the potential speeds of new wireless technologies without mentioning that these speeds are only achievable if you’re right next to the tower and no-one else is using it?

As Crikey has reported before, if you’re building a wireless network that’s used by everyone, and you want it to perform as well as fixed broadband, you need a wireless tower in every street.

In any event, as Martin says, LTE won’t be rolled out until “mid-decade”. All we’ve seen so far is demonstrations. And it’s not as if the NBN’s speed won’t increase over time as well.

In short, Martin is arguing what the opposition is arguing. We shouldn’t build the nation’s telecommunications network using known-good fibre technology that we can buy off the shelf today to deliver a consistent, reliable experience. We should instead wait a few more years and then use wireless technology that we already know will suffer from interference and load-sharing problems.

I think part of the problem is that the opposition has been seduced by all the talk of “growth” in wireless.

Growth there certainly is. In June 2010, the number of mobile wireless broadband connections in Australia rose to 3.5 million, a 21.7% increase in six months. They now represent 36% of all internet connections, compared with 32% in December 2009. As Crikey has reported before, though, fixed broadband still does the real work. That’s not likely to change, given the different characteristics of fixed and mobile connections.

Growth is where investment opportunities lie, particularly those that might deliver major short-term returns. That’s why vendors and investment bankers talk up wireless. The language of growth sounds good to a business-attuned Liberal Party ear. It’s far more exciting that the pedestrian incremental growth and maintenance of core infrastructure, replacing 20th-century copper with 21st-century fibre.

But should the nation’s broadband policy be about taxpayer subsidies for profitable short-term business investments? Or should it be about delivering a consistent, reliable communications network?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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