Breaking our NBN speed obsession

The Coalition's NBN plan may have reignited the NBN debate, but by fixating on internet speeds we may be glossing over other important factors that underpin the need for the network.

Much of the debate about National Broadband Network and the relative merits of the various schemes has centred on speed, however there’s some important other factors being overlooked when discussing the best way of delivering a 21st Century communications network to Australian homes and businesses.

Last week’s kerfuffle over the How Fast Is The NBN site illustrated the obsession with speed with the measure of the relative merits of the Liberal and Labor policies reduced to measures of how quickly one can download an episode of Game of Thrones or upload AutoCAD files.

Speed is an important factor when discussing internet policies and technology, but it’s not the only element businesses need to consider when discussing the need for improved telecommunications services.

A question of reliability

While connection speeds grab the headlines, reliability is even more critical. Driving the current debate about the need for a National Broadband Network is that vast parts of Australia, including some of our capital cities’ inner suburbs, lack reliable internet access.

Over the last two decades, telecommunications networks have been allowed to run down as Telstra was prepared for privatisation by both political parties and the definition of a Universal Service Obligation was narrowly interpreted as only applying to little more than basic voice services.

As a consequence many businesses found their data services weren’t sufficient to operate, let alone compete, in a fast moving globalised economy. Resolving this problem has to be the aim of both parties’ broadband policies.

Waiting for a reply

Having a reliable and fast network is great, but the time it takes servers to respond is also important. Latency is the delay in receiving and replying to signals. Regardless of how impressive an internet connection’s speed is, it all counts for little if response times are slow.

The most obvious limitation is the speed of light which in a perfect vacuum takes three microseconds for every kilometre travelled. That’s not a great deal when you’re two kilometres from a telephone exchange or server but it’s clearly noticeable when using a satellite service.

Other limitations which can affect latency can be network bottlenecks like long undersea cables, slow servers or infrastructure problems that can slow response times or send data packets the long way around the world.

A good example of latency issues is NASA’s Mars Rover, with the red planet on average of twenty light minutes away, scientists controlling the vehicle have to deal with a forty minute turn around on signals from their robot.

On Earth, financial institutions are prepared to pay dearly to gain an advantage with ultra-low latency networks to support their high frequency trading operations. Shaving six milliseconds off a transaction can make millions.

While most internet users haven’t the same money at stake as high frequency traders, that latency is an issue when you’re downloading Games Of Thrones episodes or sending puppy pictures to Facebook.

Tackling network latencies is something beyond either the Liberal or Labor broadband policies, requiring business investment in data centres, undersea cables and computer systems.

Probably the biggest challenge facing the Australian economy is the reluctance of business leaders to invest in IT and communications systems as we see with retail and advertising tycoons being more concerned about squabbling over racehorses rather than bringing their organisations into the 21st Century.

Paying the Bills

While our business leaders show their priorities about investing in technology, as a nation we have to make our decision on the best choices for our future.

One of technology’s truisms is there are three factors to almost anything – speed, reliability and affordability – and you can choose any two. If you choose cheap then you have to be prepared to sacrifice either speed or reliability.

With the Coalition’s latest broadband policy we at least now have a basis for a proper debate on the costs and benefits of different ways of upgrading our telecommunications network.

However, just fixating on the advertised speeds of both network proposals misses essential aspects of the debate and its uses in a connected economy and online society.

We need to choose carefully and make some informed decisions that accurately reflect the needs of todays and tomorrow’s internet users.