NBN Buzz: The rural rebellion

NBN Co finds a new foe to the rollout in rural Victorian residents and Alcatel-Lucent subtly defends Huawei over manufacturing its equipment in China.

NBN Co chief executive Mike Quigley is finding that his most tenacious opponents are starting to come not from federal members of the opposition, but rural councils.

NBN Co has worn another rejection for a planned wireless tower, this time from the Moorabool Shire council in central Victoria.

Similar protests have popped up from the neighbouring Ballarat and Golden Plains councils. Opponents lobbying the Moorabool council were elated with a win they didn’t expect.

It’s likely that objections like this will continue for some time. The question is whether they reflect a real feeling is community discontent with the NBN’s structure, or just the unsurprising communication issues that a government institution will always run into when building a national project.

The balance that local citizens – who aren’t part of NBN Co’s 93 per cent fibre footprint – face is where to put the imposing towers that NBN Co will install.

Quigley foreshadowed the Moorabool council’s objection late last week during an address to the Australian Communications and Media Authority’s (ACMA) RadComms conference in Melbourne.

“These days, it is much more difficult than it was 15 or so years ago to put a tower up,” Quigley said. “That's an issue you always have to deal with in the 10 per cent. People are worried either being irradiated by the tower, or worried about the visual impact.”

Separately, he said that securing and utilising adequate spectrum is another problem that NBN Co will have to deal with.

The council objections might seem confusing given the pleas from rural Australians for better telecommunications during the Telstra years. But rural Australia is not homogenous and NBN Co has to communicate with every district – an understandably difficult task.

Moorabool locals object to the proposed location of the tower because it was too close to property. NBN Co countered that an alternative location had been offered and similarly rejected.

This to-and-fro will by rekindled with other councils, no doubt. But NBN Co subtely revealed the ultimate endgame in its response. A spokesperson reportedly reminded Moorabool residents that they will face a delay in the supply of their higher quality internet from taxpayer subsidised infrastructure.

They have adequate incentive to find NBN Co a suitable location.

Alcatel Lucent’s subtle defence of Huawei

Alcatel Lucent chief executive Ben Verwaayen has potentially come to the defence of ousted rival telco equipment maker Huawei, while defending his own products.

Verwaayan slammed claims that equipment from his company, headquartered in Paris, that’s been manufactured in China is unreliable.

This story stems from the decision by the federal government to heed advice from US security officials and effectively ban China’s Huawei from the NBN tender process.

In the Australian Financial Review, Verwaayen wouldn’t be drawn directly on Huawei’s situation. He would only state that while some components and instruments in Alcatel products are made in China, the software component vulnerable to tampering isn’t.

Is that distinction convincing? Not to some. IBRS security expert James Turner said manufacturing in China gives Alcatel Lucent little control over the final product, which could easily be tampered with.

Data deluge?

A study from Cisco has given fresh legs to the ongoing debate about whether the NBN’s likely usage can justify the cost – a debate that’s likely to go on well after the last fibre cable is laid.

According to Cisco, Australian internet traffic is set to increase seven-fold by 2016, largely as a result of video. That’s 708 petabytes a month, truly unfathomable numbers.

NBN Co used the study to emphasise the necessity of a swift rollout of the NBN.

However, the study has also copped some criticism because it’s effectively forecasting the usage of a utility without any consideration for price.

According to ComputerWorld, Intelligent Business Research Services (IBRS) analyst Guy Cranswick says the Cisco data is a useful guide, but hardly fool-proof.

“NBN Co would have to demonstrate that data volume/usage is unaffected by price and they cannot,” says Cranswick.

In response to his comments, an NBN spokesperson said the network company will endeavour to provide consumers with the cheapest prices possible.

Wrap up

The debate about broadband cost is an international one, as demonstrated by ZDNET’s David Braue. The writer explains how the good people of Palo Alto, a rich community in the middle of Silicon Valley, have rejected a FttH proposal because it would be too expensive.

Closer to home Vico-Chancellor of the University of Southern Queensland, Jan Thomas, has raised the issue of NBN access for students from poorer backgrounds, rural areas and those with disabilities. Thomas suggests that unless the government offers subsidies for some students in these situations, they might miss out on the benefits 

The benefits of the network are expected to be significant, especially for small business and rural areas. NBN Co general manager for external affairs Trent Williams reports that up to 90 per cent of small businesses in some rollout areas in rural Australia are signing up for the service.

Viocorp chief operating office Rachel Dixon similarly sold the benefits for rural Australia, arguing that it could prevent the brain drain that’s eroding many services in the bush.

Both these developments give some context to the wireless tower debate mentioned earlier.

The government’s challenge is to instil these benefits in community attitudes, particularly before its likely removal at the next election. The department of broadband, communications and the digital economy held broadcast a live panel discussion over the web to do exactly that. 

According to The Telegraph, federal MPs have been sent cardboard cut-outs to help them understand how the NBN works. It’s reassuring to see how engaged our elected members are with such top-shelf education materials being rolled out to them.

And finally, NBN Co chief executive Mike Quigley has refused to accept a $400,000 annual bonus because of certain objections he has for short-term remuneration. For all the criticisms the opposition has had for the financing of the NBN and its attacks on Quigley’s reputation, it’d be nice to see some recognition of such self-sacrifice.

Quigley’s entire first year’s salary of $2 million was donated to medical research.