So, an independent report compliments NBN Co’s Corporate Plan, finds its key assumptions to be “in line with a range of available domestic and international benchmarks” and tells the government the plan is a reasonable basis for making decisions about NBN Co.

How do you think it was reported?

Well, I don’t need to tell you how the taxpayer-subsidised Australian covered it. “Wireless threat to NBN plan” was the headline for coverage by that redoubtable duo of Annabel Hepworth and Mitchell Bingemann — they of such outstanding journalism as the ever-changing cost of NBN wiring and looming “blow-out” in NBN labour costs.

But for once, Mitchell and Bingemann weren’t the worst offenders. In fact, by their standards, the NBN almost got within sight of a fair shake. At Fairfax, Clancy Yeates obsessed over how wireless could “threaten the government’s high-speed internet plan”. Ben Grubb — who last year had Stephen Conroy “forcing NBN on everyone” — referred to a “government-commissioned report warning uptake to its $36 billion network could be stifled by wireless technologies”.

Like The Australian, the Financial Review has been running an op-ed campaign against the NBN, but unlike the News Ltd trolls, the Fin doesn’t let that affect its straight reporting. Dominic White’s front-page piece was much more accurate.

What did the report by Greenhill Caliburn say? Well to best find that out, you can read it and judge for yourself — the executive summary isn’t very long.  But in short it says:

  • Cost projections are lower risk than revenue projections.
  • The key risk to revenue projections are uptake and average revenue per user (which is kind of a statement of the obvious).
  • It’s hard to judge take-up projections because super-fast broadband is relatively new internationally but the deal with Telstra and lack of other fibre services means there is “strong support for NBN Co’s ability  to achieve its targeted uptake. Overseas experience also generally supports NBN Co’s assumptions in this regard”.
  • As a comment on uptake, the report noted “Trends towards ‘mobile centric’ broadband networks  could also have significant long-term implications for NBN Co’s fibre offerings, to the extent that some consumers may be willing to sacrifice higher speed fibre transmissions for the convenience of mobile platforms”, but NBN received guidance from independent experts on the issue. It should be “carefully monitored”.

Despite what you might read in The Australian and the Fairfax broadsheets, the executive summary spends much more time on the issues around average revenue per user than wireless. In their rush to laud wireless, most of the journalists covering the report failed to spot this, but Dominic White did, and gave it due attention (in fact even the Fin’s subbies spotted it, titling the piece “Pricing, wireless risks to NBN riches”). The report spends some time considering risks around NBN’s pricing model — which was intended to reduce prices overtime but make more money from users upgrading to faster services. This was the main “key risk” identified in the report, not wireless.

Telstra’s 4G announcement today (for CBDs only i.e. good luck getting it for residential use) has continued to feed the “wireless will do” myth. Telstra, of course, desperately needs a 4G upgrade. Last year broadband comparison site Broadband Expert ranked Telstra second-last in its comparison of mobile broadband speeds, though the survey found all mobile broadband speeds were well below fixed-line broadband speeds.

As Stilgherrian has patiently explained in Crikey time and again in demolishing the myths peddled by wireless cheerleaders such as the Coalition, if you want a wireless network that will actually do the job of the NBN, you need a wireless tower on every street to overcome those pesky laws of physics that mean the more people using wireless, the slower it gets.

Oh and, by the way, if you want a wireless network you need an awful lot of fibre to support it.

The wireless obsession is a subset of the claim that something “faster” will come along to make the NBN redundant (that data travels along fibre at the speed of light is a mere detail — presumably there’ll be some sort of warp speed technology). It also reflects the mindset, still prevalent among many journalists, economists and politicians, that the only purpose of the NBN is for households to download movies and p-rn faster, when the industrial applications of superfast broadband — livestreaming of HD audio-visual content from local and overseas providers, cloud computing services, heavy data movers such as filmmakers and diagnostic imaging companies, education and health services — will drive the economics of the NBN.

In 20 years time these arguments over the NBN will look hilarious.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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