COMMENTARY: What came first, the NBN or the egg?

Is a failure of the imagination fuelling critics of the national broadband network?

High-speed broadband is like motherhood and apple pie: few can mount a convincing argument against either!*

But while no-one can argue against broadband, it’s odd that no-one can really make a convincing argument for it either.

The first application mentioned for the future National Broadband Network (NBN) is, almost always, electronic delivery of health services. Yet last month’s speech by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd about the government’s plans to reform health contained no mention of telemedicine. The speech did mention that plans to create an e-health records system has the potential to yield a productivity dividend “of between $2.8 billion and $5.7 billion in recurrent costs per year.”

If that can be achieved, the NBN will pay for itself in a decade or so – decent return on investment.

But beyond this outcome, statements about how the NBN will achieve its stated aim of productivity improvements seem thin.

South Korea’s myriad online gamers are hardly a revolution. Distance education is already well-established and it is hard to imagine how more bandwidth to remote students will improve the experience or increase uptake.

Another oft-mentioned application, IP TV, is a nice-to-have addition to the media landscape but scarcely a nation-changer. Nor, we imagine, will IP TV become available quickly given the current free-to-air networks’ almost certain use of delaying tactics to defend their current business models.

Other bandwidth intensive applications seem stalled. Videoconferencing has been available in various guises for more than a decade, but is still far from mainstream. It’s hard to see how more bandwidth will make it more interesting; at least while the telepresence equipment that makes it a compelling experience remains expensive.

Easier e-commerce is another hoped-for outcome, yet surely current technologies represent no barrier to e-commerce adoption. Web Services, after all, make it possible for willing organisations to exchange information across almost any platform.

But Web Services also illustrate the reason it is hard to imagine a vital role for the NBN, as the technology evolved in an age when transfer of small pieces of plaintext was a desirable way to conduct electronic communications. Such technologies are also sensible because they impose modest processing and storage loads on other pieces of e-commerce infrastructure.

The mere availability of more bandwidth will surely not be a catalyst for the devolution of technologies like Web Services into new, bandwidth-intensive, iterations.

So where does this leave the NBN?

In SearchNetworking ANZ’s opinion, in need of an injection of imagination because at present it’s hard to argue that the network will be a bad thing, but beyond e-health records it is also hard to argue that the network will have other ROI for the nation.

This is, in many ways, a chicken-and-egg dilemma, because it is hard to get excited about a network until one can imagine how it will be used, but it is hard to imagine how it will be used until the network is operating and entrepreneurs can start to play with it.

It is not hard, however, to feel that with e-health constantly being shoved to the fore as the reason the NBN is important that we are experiencing a failure of the imagination because there are few concrete examples of just what the NBN will mean to Australia. Comparing the network to railways is all very well, but in the age of steam it was plain just what a railway meant: fast transport of goods and people.

Until we know just what will be transported on the NBN and why we should care about its ability to move faster, we expect critics will continue to find many reasons to question the NBN’s value.

*Assuming the pie is home-baked, not some nasty supermarket concoction filled with trans-fat

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