My involvement with How Fast is the NBN, a website which compares the speed of everyday internet usage such as uploading Facebook albums and downloading Game of Thrones using either Labor’s National Broadband Network or the Coalition’s broadband policy, has been a wild ride.

I felt that the ALP was doing a poor job of selling the benefits of their enormously more capable and future-proof Fibre to the Premises (FTTP) National Broadband Network. Neither party, nor the media, had been able to succinctly demonstrate, to the non tech-savy audience, the difference between Labor and the Coalition’s NBN policies.

The average person has never experienced speeds greater than a few tens of megabits. When connected to my university’s network, my downloads will regularly hit 800-900 megabits per second and uploads 300-400Mbit to severs around Australia. Going home to my poorly syncing 4Mbit down 0.5Mbit up ADSL2+ is always depressing. I wanted people to be able to “feel” the speed and appreciate the wide performance differential between FTTP and FTTN (Fibre to the Node).

The site launched at 3pm on Tuesday May 7 and just exploded on social networks. The website has since been liked by over 50,000 people on Facebook and tweeted over 6000 times on Twitter.

Personally, I was perplexed by the Coalition’s response to the site. It’s clear on the website bio that I had always been a Liberal supporter — I simply happen to disagree with the Coalition’s broadband policy. I expected the Coalition’s response to be gentlemanly: an email, a phone call … some correspondence! Instead I was labelled Conroy’s “new online BFF” by shadow communications minister Malcolm Turnbull.

I expect such banter between politicians. Directed towards a member of the public who votes for your party on the other hand; I didn’t think politics had reached that level.

Yesterday in Crikey, Stilgherrian raised questions about the speeds used on How Fast is the NBN. The rationale is that the NBN FTTP, as envisaged by Labor, can well handle 1000/400 (which will be available from December). It’s unlikely that you’d be able to pull the full 1000 down or 400 at the present time due to a multitude of factors (perhaps you’d achieve 80-90% of the speed). However, my goal was to present a simple, mathematically ideal-case scenario of what will be possible such that the average person could understand.

I chose the 25 Mbps download on the Coalition’s side because:

  1. By 2016 that’s their guaranteed minimum down speed as found in their policy document; and
  2. Tony Abbott expressed that 25 megs would be “more than enough for the average household”.

After someone has gone onto the website and experienced the “more than enough, for the average household”, will they agree with this statement, given the FTTP alternative?

I chose the 5Mbps upload on the Coalition’s site because xDSL technology tends to have an upload speed varying between 1-3 Mbps when a download of 25 Mbps is achievable. I was optimistic and chose 5 Mbps, making the Coalition’s technology seem more capable that it really is.

Three out of the four examples I presented on the site involve file uploads, rather than downloads. The Coalition has refused to provide any guarantee on upload speeds. Speak to anybody that’s currently working from home and has to handle big files (engineers, graphic designers, software developers) and you’ll hear curses of frustration at their slow-as-molasses xDSL and HFC upload speeds. I feel the discussion to date has overlooked upload speed; they should be the primary line of questioning until we get a statement from the Coalition regarding an upload speed guarantee.

One final point: the biggest misconception I’ve seen broadcast by the mainstream media and the Coalition is cost. I explicitly didn’t want to get into the financial aspects of the plans on the site; I wanted to purely focus on the competing technologies. People need to realise that that NBN Corporation is set up as a government-owned corporation. The government holds an equity stake with the remainder of costs being financed using privately placed debt.

The money isn’t being “spent”, it’s being invested. It’s the distinction between buying a carton of beer and consuming it versus buying a share in a brewing company. Over the life of the project, NBN Co is expected to generate a return of investment of 6-7%. The NBN will be valuable asset, generating steady, stable, cash flows into the future.