Offering: Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull spruik the Coalition's broadband plan.

Offering: Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull spruik the Coalition's broadband plan. Photo: Angus Mordant

Just two decades ago, with a dial-up internet connection, it would have taken more than a lifetime to download a single movie.

The problem with designing a network to meet the needs of today is that it denies you the ability to meet the needs of tomorrow. It's like the M5 tunnel – by the time it was completed it was already jamming up 

Brad Howarth

Today's 24 megabits per second (Mbps) ADSL2+ broadband connections can pull down multiple HD movie streams simultaneously.

Rollout: The NBN is installed in Hobart.

Rollout: The NBN is installed in Hobart. Photo: Peter Mathew

The debate raging over whether the Coalition's 25Mbps minimum broadband plan is adequate compared with Labor's 100Mbps to 1 gigabit per second (Gbps) offering raises the question: how much speed do we actually need?

Geoff Heydon, business development manager for CSIRO's Digital Productivity and Services Flagship, has spent decades looking at this question. In 2002, he predicted that, by 2020, high-end home users would require 1Gbps connections.

Ultra high-definition streaming television, or 4K TV, which offers four times the resolution of current HD TV, will require about 28Mbps for a single stream, he said. Products supporting this are already on the market, and 8KTV, requiring four times more bandwidth again, is in development.

"If you start to introduce the idea of holographic or 3D image projection - and I expect within five years we'll see early low-quality holographic entertainment systems - they will require even more bandwidth," said Heydon.

Bandwidth requirements are rapidly multiplying. Many households now have multiple large screens connected to the web as well as several portable devices such as smartphones and tablets. Fibre-to-the-home, which is Labor's proposal, is technically infinitely upgradeable.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in the quarter ending December 2010, Australians downloaded 174,665 terabytes (TB) of data over fixed-line broadband connections. This jumped to 254,947 TB in the quarter ending June 2011, to 322,290 TB in the December 2011 quarter and again to 389,130 TB by June 2012. The December 2012 figure, released this week, is over 500,000 TB.

Futurist Mark Pesce, honorary associate in digital cultures at the University of Sydney, said in 10 years time the average household would have "north of 100 devices" connected.

"The car's going to be talking to the dealership, the dishwasher's going to be talking to Sydney Water, the lights and the airconditioner are going to be talking to Energy Australia ... your toilet's going to be analysing your urine for you and talking to your doctor," he said.

"When you have all these devices trying to talk, you have to make sure they can talk in an uncluttered fashion."

From June 2010 to June 2012, the number of Australians streaming video increased from 2.3 million to almost 4.4 million, according to market research firm Roy Morgan.

"Twenty-five years ago it was literally impossible in somebody's lifetime to download a movie, and yet 25 years later, families are doing it every single day - and they're doing it without much delay," said Heydon. "The next 25 years will translate into just as many mind-blowing changes."

Networking company Cisco predicted that by 2016, global internet traffic would reach 1.3 zettabytes per year (1 trillion gigabytes), which is 10 times the number for 2008.

As Australia tosses up these two broadband plans, Google has announced it will bring its gigabit internet service Google Fibre to a second US city: Austin, Texas.

Supporters of the National Broadband Network argue that the things we will be using the extra bandwidth for haven't even been invented yet, because the pipes need to be there to encourage companies such as Google to innovate.

"The problem with designing a network to meet the needs of today is that it denies you the ability to meet the needs of tomorrow," said technology commentator Brad Howarth, author of A Faster Future.

"It's like the M5 tunnel – by the time it was completed, it was already jamming up."

Ian Teague, senior manager for Australasia at Akamai, which delivers 15-30 per cent of the world's internet traffic, confirmed that 4K TV would require at least 25Mbps for each connected television.

"The ultra HD rent/download model becoming popular will face significant adoption issues in the case of long download times," he said.

In the business world and fields such as medicine there is a need to transfer files that are up to several terabytes in size, said Teague.

"All this, combined with the 'work from home' revolution ... make very high speed internet essential."