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Broadband’s Concorde problem

Ultrafast broadband may be a little like Concorde. Concorde, you may remember, is the plane that was supposed to be the next generation of faster transport. Into the 1960s, the speed of commercial flight had been on a dizzying upward curve that started on the dunes of Kitty Hawk and just kept going to 1,000kph.

Concorde could do double that, and it seemed like the inevitable future. But it wasn’t. Travel at 2,000kph simply costs too much for most people to care. So Concorde ended up with just a few planes flying investment bankers back and forth across the Atlantic – and when those planes stopped flying, nothing took their place. Today’s jets actually fly a little slower than their 1960s counterparts.

The lesson of Concorde is that at some points in history, new technology just costs too much for the benefit it brings. In 2017, ultrafast broadband – capable of 100 megabits per second (Mbps) or more – may be another such technology.

Here’s why.

The nbn is supposed to make 100Mbps broadband available to large numbers of people. But the official nbn numbers suggest most people who can get it don’t want it right now.

The latest figures say that in 2016–17, 82% of nbn users opted for 12 or 25Mbps connectivity. Broadband retailers selling 100Mbps connections to the nbn are struggling to get people to pay for it.

This is not the way things were supposed to be – at least according to some of the people pushing hardest to give most Australians a 100Mbps connection regardless of cost. For more than a decade, this group of 100Mpbs boosters has argued that such a fat broadband pipe will enable a raft of new broadband-enabled technologies.

These technologies, they’ve argued, will boost the economy’s productivity, fuel the growth of next-generation digital businesses, generate e-health solutions, help deployment of ‘smart grid’ power technologies and provide other, currently unforeseen benefits.

It’s now 10 years since the Rudd government announced its plans for a 100Mbps national broadband network, and the trouble is that the future is arriving a lot more slowly than the 100Mbps faction originally suggested.

Smart grids don’t require that much bandwidth, connectivity-hungry e-health applications haven’t emerged, and most business are getting by just fine with the available broadband. Yes, there are games developers who’ve had to move offices to get better connectivity – but these are pretty extreme cases.

There are also regional and rural businesses who still have poor connectivity – but few of those are expressing a need for more connectivity than is being rolled out to them under the current, revised nbn plans. Very few are asking for 100Mbps.

The thing about the future is that it doesn’t arrive all at once. If 100Mbps broadband is about to deliver amazing gains, they should already be showing up in Seoul and Tokyo, with their city-wide broadband networks, and also in the broadband-riddled CBDs of cities like New York and London and Sydney. And they’re not.

So unmet demand for ultrafast connectivity is not that high right now. Australia has got itself, for the moment, a cheaper single monolithic broadband network with speeds mostly below 100Mbps, and it looks like it may mostly do the job.

To the extent people want more bandwidth, they want it not for productivity-boosting applications but for entertainment video – HD movies and TV. As far as enabling mind-bending new applications, 100Mbps is looking a little like Concorde.

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