NBN chief executive officer Bill Morrow. Picture: Supplied
NBN chief executive officer Bill Morrow. Picture: Supplied

NBN Co CEO is right, Aussies don't want super-fast broadband

NBN Co chief executive Bill Morrow should not be copping a bucketing for saying Australians do not want super-fast broadband, he's right.

For anyone who missed, it last night when Morrow announced the half yearly results for NBN Co, he commented on why the government owned behemoth had witnessed such low rates of uptake for its premium super-fast broadband service.

"Even if we offered it for free, we see the evidence around the world that they wouldn't use it anyway," he said of NBN's fastest broadband internet offering.  

"We know there are things on the horizon that are going to increase the need for further demand.

"Whether you think about (augmented reality) or (artificial intelligence) or any of these other elements with media streaming at 4K and 8K and immersive sound; all of these things could drive up consumer need but we haven't seen that as of yet."

The comments have sparked outrage and a savage social media bucketing.

However in my opinion Morrow is right.

There is no denying the uptake of the NBN has been critically low in many of the areas it has been rolled out.

And the reason for that became abundantly clear to me during a midday presser with then Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull in Caboolture, in 2015.

Those were heady days for the now PM, during a time when his reasonableness and his apparent ability to explain or sell anything, were yet to be savaged by the scrutiny we apply to those in the top job.

This was the about to knife Tony Abbott Malcolm in full flight and at peak confidence - not the severely humbled man we see today.

And he was remarkably generous with his time - going to incredible pains to explain why it was both necessary and worthwhile to spend billions of dollars ensuring everyone got their fibre to the node.

The area the NBN had been rolled out to on that day is one of the most disadvantaged in south east Queensland.

Before the PM arrived in a ComCar with the then member for Longman Wyatt Roy, I had time to do a quick door knock of the area and ask local residents if they were excited to be getting the much talked about internet upgrade, which, we are so often told is essential to our nation's future development.

I spoke to four locals that morning.

One, an elderly lady was not aware the NBN was coming, did not have the internet and had no use for it - although she didn't want to be quoted in the local paper.

The next person, a middle-aged woman, was not presently connected to the internet but thought it may come in handy when her young children reached high school.

At the next house the residents told me to go away - although not in such polite terms.

And at the fourth and final home on the street about to get the NBN a youngish lady in her late twenties said she was glad as she'd now be able to stream movies.

All of this begged the question - if the most pressing use of NBN in a residential area is people being able to watch Netflix or for teenagers to play games online - then why are we spending megabucks giving everyone an internet upgrade?

And it was a question Turnbull too was unable to answer.

The ever confident Malcolm was stumped when I told him the result of my little straw poll - he grabbed my note pad and launched into a lengthy speech about how fibre to the node was price point nirvana.

We were not parting with too much coin for speeds we do not need but we were not delivering a technology that was too slow to be of benefit, he enthused.

He lost patience when I said that doesn't answer the question - why do we need this at all?

Why do the people in this street who apparently have minimal desire for this technology need it?

Wouldn't they rather get a better highway into Brisbane? A new hospital? A better school for their kids?

And that question becomes starker when you look at the uptake rate for the service - although it is apparently irrelevant to the political class who are stuck in a debate between fibre to the home and fibre to the node.  

According to NBN Co's own figures, which were released yesterday along with the half-yearly report, there are 3.8 million homes and business that can presently access the service.

And of those 1.6 million have done so. That's not too bad - just over one in three but it ain't great either. 

Added to this is the fact the uptake for the top-of-the-line speeds have been remarkably slow.

In May 2016 The Australian reported that NBN Co had been unable to find a service provider willing to sell its top speed package and had only been able to flog it on a trial package.

Additionally at that point in time 33 per cent of consumers were on the slowest­ service, offering download speeds of 12Mbps, 47 per cent were on the second-slowest of 25Mbps and just 15 per cent were using the 100Mbps service.

As journalist Annabel Hepworth quoted former Telstra chief economist John de Ridder as saying when those figures were made public: "Netflix needs only 25Mbps to stream ultra-HD quality video."

The fact is there aren't that many data heavy uses for the internet at the moment.

For example in my role as a Digital Producer I occasionally work from home and I'm able to download, edit and upload video to our websites - and we only have ADSL.

I'm sure there are other jobs that require more data than I use there - although few spring to mind.

All of this begs the question why are we frantically trying to roll out a series of cables Australians show at best a lackadaisical to use?

Personally I think it is because many have swallowed the political rhetoric around the issue - that this infrastructure is essential and necessary for the future - or that they are just Labor voters who think it is clever to say fibre to the node is sub-standard.

We are constantly told that we can't possibly foresee the possible applications of this technology - doesn't it also stand to reason that we probably can't presently see the best way to make it accessible?

Why is it that the way we use the internet is going to be subject to rapid innovation but the age-old process of laying cables in the ground is something that will not be improved upon in the next five to ten years?

The fact is we have already seen advancements in mobile technology.

And while these options are not presently capable of delivering fibre-optic cable type speeds to the volume of people an NBN style rollout can, they may well be able to by the time there is an actual demand for this service.

Morrow is right Australians have no need for super-fast broadband but what he's not seeing is we also have no need for him or his multi-billion dollar state owned corporation. 

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