The need for NBN speed

Ten years ago many people thought 50kbps was 'enough'. So why are today's digital leaders being forced to justify their support of the NBN?

The outlook for broadband speeds and connection quality in Australia is bleak wrote Paul Budde this week. Ageing copper networks and add-on services aren’t helping, he says, and you can expect the situation to get worse before it gets better.

It’s frustrating for anyone looking for answers from their telco, but new data from Google shows speed is an issue for the broader business community as well.

Google says if search results are slowed by even a fraction of a second, people search less - a 400 millisecond delay leads to a 0.44 per cent drop in search volume.

Four out of five internet users will click away if a video stalls while loading. That’s a serious problem for media companies with advertisers looking to capitalise on our growing desire for video.

Google and other search companies stand to gain significantly from faster internet, which is probably why Google chairman Eric Schmidt has praised the Australian government for what he calls its leadership on understanding the importance of fibre.

Malcolm Turnbull unsurprisingly disagrees, calling Google a “conspirator against the taxpayer” for praising the NBN.

In Google’s latest Think Quarterly newsletter, the company’s special vice president of infrastructure Urs Hoelzle argues the web has become a critical hub for politics, schools, and entertainment, and that every business is now a digital business; large or small, local or multinational.

“So why is it okay for a web page to take five seconds to load?” he asks.

Aside from doing all it can on its side to make its pages load quickly, Google has also developed Page Speed, an open-source project that helps webmasters speed up their sites, and can re-write pages to boost performance.

Hoelzle says Google is also experimenting with a Page Speed service that automatically accelerates page loads without any code changes required.

But it doesn’t matter how much work Google does to speed up things on the part of websites if a site’s users are lumped with slow internet.

Detractors of the NBN argue demand for speeds of 100 megabits per second does not exist, and it’s clear this type of speed is not needed for basic web search, but we’ll never know what content will be built, how much productivity will be boosted, and what devices will be invented to plug into a faster network if broadband speeds plod along at current rates.

Last week Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey made the interesting claim that the NBN detracts from productivity. Wayne Swan fired back, arguing that if Hockey had his way we’d still be using two cans and a ball of string.

Looking at this chart it’s hard to disagree.

As Neerav Bhatt points out 10 years ago many people thought 50kbps was “enough”.

And in 1981 Bill Gates thought 640k was all the memory a PC would ever need. Linear thinking remains a problem for those trying to imagine how we could possibly use 100 Mbps.

Bill Gates also said we always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.

It’s time we stopped projecting today’s reality into the future.

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