Dec 13, 2012

Sisyphus and the boulder of Chinese broadband bullshit

China isn't getting an NBN, and it doesn't cost a third of ours, regardless of what The Australian claims.

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

I want to say something that will shock you: a story in The Australian about the NBN is rubbish. I know. I know. I'll just wait a few minutes while you pick yourselves up off the floor, dust yourselves off and get over the shock. While you recover, allow me to reflect more broadly. At various points I wonder about the amount of time I spend pointing out the idiocy, malice, ignorance or laziness that is routinely dressed up as journalism. It's a Sisyphean task, but unlike Camus' Sisyphus, I gain no happiness from eternally rolling a giant boulder of bullshit back and forth. Still, someone has to do it. And, occasionally, one can have a laugh. We learnt today that the Minerals Council of Australia had hired Henry Ergas to write an independent report on the need for the government to return to WorkChoices and slash red tape if Australia is going to have a last chance at benefiting from the mining boom. And the MCA then dropped the report on Annabel Hepworth, The Australian's go-to journalist for dodgy industry reports. It was almost as if the MCA, as a kind of personal Christmas present for me, was self-parodically trying to tick every single box in the template for dodgy reports. Anyway, back to the NBN. "A billion Chinese to get an NBN for a third of the cost of ours" was the headline of Scott Murdoch's story today, apparently an "exclusive":
"During the next three years, Beijing plans to replace the existing copper wire network that serves the nation's 150 million households with internet access with a fibre-to-the-home broadband network - the same technology used by Labor's National Broadband Network. The plan shares striking similarities with the NBN but is so far costing China's state-owned telcos only $10 billion."
Now, I'm convinced someone has changed the meaning of "exclusive" while I wasn't looking. Didn't it used to mean that you were reporting something no one else had? The Chinese broadband story has been widely reported elsewhere -- mainly because it's nearly a year old. It was in December 2011 that China announced its plan to increase broadband speeds. It has periodically been reported again -- in September, for example. But what appears to have prompted Murdoch's "exclusive" story is a Powerpoint presentation by the ministry responsible for the initiative, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, nearly a month ago, which describes the progress of the "Broadband China" strategy in some detail. The detail includes that, so far, the first two stages of the strategy to bring telephony and internet access to administrative villages and townships has cost "in excess of 50 billion". On current exchange rates, 50 billion yuan is around $8 billion, although the yuan has for a long period been significantly undervalued.
"Now, it barely needs pointing out that rolling out a broadband network is considerably cheaper in China than Australia."
Now, Murdoch actually admits that the cost of the Chinese rollout is only "so far". The problem is, the most expensive stage of the Chinese rollout is yet to come. The third stage, which is currently underway but not due to be completed until 2015, is to extend internet services to "natural villages" from administrative villages and townships, right across China. Nor does it mean every household in China will have broadband access, whether by fibre to the home (the first choice) or other means such as satellite. In fact, the MIIT plan specifically says that the goal by 2015 will be urban broadband penetration of 65% and rural penetration of 35%. That's plainly a long way short of the 93% FTTH coverage goal of NBN, and means the headline about "a billion Chinese" is manifestly wrong. Now, it barely needs pointing out that rolling out a broadband network is considerably cheaper in China than Australia. The average annual private sector salary in China in 2011 was just below US$3,900, according to The Wall Street Journal, or about 1/17th of average private sector salaries in Australia. China has a population density of over 140 people per square kilometre, compared to ours of around 3. In any event, we'll only be able to judge the final cost of the Chinese rollout to its 65%/35% target once it's complete, and then work out how it compares to the cost of the NBN. So, China isn't getting an equivalent to the NBN, the cost comparison is meaningless, the story is a year old and the headline is point blank wrong. Apart from that, the story is bang on. Oh, of course, except for this: China has embraced fibre-to-the-home. Malcolm Turnbull is advocating -- we think, because we're still in the dark about the Coalition's broadband policy -- fibre-to-the-node, with Australia's ancient, expensive-to-maintain copper wiring carrying to 21st century the last metres into homes. Which makes an article on the Chinese broadband rollout, on a conference website featuring Malcolm Turnbull, a tad ironic. Perhaps the reason why The Oz waited so long to run the story was because they were desperately trying to find a way of avoiding reporting that China had embraced the same reviled broadband strategy as our hated Labor government? Onward we roll.

Free Trial

You've hit members-only content.

Sign up for a FREE 21-day trial to keep reading and get the best of Crikey straight to your inbox

By starting a free trial, you agree to accept Crikey’s terms and conditions


Leave a comment

21 thoughts on “Sisyphus and the boulder of Chinese broadband bullshit

  1. klewso

    It’s not their fault, it’s the fluoride in their water.

  2. Andybob

    Apparantly each pile of steaming dung emanating from a bull is ‘exclusive’ to that animal in that it does not include faeces from other animals. Claims by ‘The Australian’ to exclusivity should be viewed as an assertion of originality for a delicately spun filigree of truthishness, truly a work of artistic craftsmanship.

  3. JackAubrey

    Thanks Bernard. I actually thought of you this morning as I read the Oz front page, particularly when I read the basis for the “rebooting the mining boom” story – I was bit surprised there wasn’t an op-ed by Henry telling us how sensible and balanced the report was.

  4. Holden Back

    Speaking as one who lives surrounded by cattle, it’s a curious fact that the only way you can even begin to tell that a particular piece of bovine excrement comes from the male of the species is its size.

    Just giving the metaphor some detail.

  5. mikeb

    So have I missed it – but shouldn’t the Oz be lambasting the Chinese for taking up a technology similar to our NBN when Tony & Mal assure us that their wireless (meybe one-day) solution will make it obsolete? Maybe Tony should get over there & point out why they are wrong, and then maybe hand them a copy of the Lib plan. They will fall over with gratitude (or would that be mirth).

  6. Matthew of Canberra

    Those foolish chinese people. Don’t they know that wireless is the go?

  7. David Allen

    Surely, when referring to Murdoch’s rags, you mean, ‘Onward we troll’?

  8. MJPC

    Thank you Bernard, I have never read “The Australian” and this article confirmed I have made the right decision. On another point, the Mineral Council report on a return to Work Choices; and the LNP do not harbour such goals? Mr Abbott and co have a lot to answer and explain when they finally release their IR policy.

  9. Mike Smith

    Bernard, when you can report that a story in the Australian about *anything* is not rubbish, then will I be shocked.

  10. michael r james

    Matthew of Canberra at 3:20 pm wrote:
    “Those foolish chinese people. Don’t they know that wireless is the go?”

    Actually the Oz article said: “Another 388 million Chinese access the internet using mobile devices … and plans to spend about $75bn in the next five years to satisfy the nation’s sharp rise in users.”

    That was seventy-five billion dollars. I don’t know if Malcolm T will be advocating a similar expenditure for wireless internet that he has sometimes championed as an alternative to FTTH.

    At any rate, in the developing world it is common to find wireless networks because there is little landline infrastructure or it is so antiquated and poorly maintained that it is totally inadequate to modern needs. (Hmm, sounds familiar …). And cellular is faster and cheaper to roll out.
    FWIW, my interpretation of The Oz’s use of “exclusive” is that the piece is written by a journo from the Oz and not from another limb of the vast Murdoch empire or syndicated from somewhere else. Yes, an abuse of the common meaning of the word but in Murdochland you make up you own facts.

Share this article with a friend

Just fill out the fields below and we'll send your friend a link to this article along with a message from you.

Your details

Your friend's details