Techspert? :Tony Abbott outlines the Coalition's national broadband network.

Techspert? Tony Abbott outlines the Coalition's national broadband network. Photo: Angus Mordant

"We are absolutely confident 25 megs is going to be enough - more than enough - for the average household.'' Opposition Leader Tony Abbott appears to have become quite the tech expert.

It will be obsolete by the time it is completed. 

In 2010 on ABC-TV's 7:30 Report, he struggled to explain his broadband policy or what megabits per second (Mbps) even meant, declaring himself ''no Bill Gates'' and no ''tech head''. But announcing the Coalition's alternative national broadband network on Tuesday, Abbott was confident enough to proclaim 25Mbps was all the speed we'd need, while Labor's 100Mbps plan was an expensive white elephant.

Jon Oxer

Lights, water, action: Jon Oxer. Photo: Simon Schluter

But he could have more in common with Gates than he thinks. The Microsoft founder reportedly told a trade show in 1981 that 640 kilobytes of memory in computers ''ought to be enough for anybody''.

Years later Gates denied making the statement, but the phrase continues to haunt him.

Similarly, to the tech geek twitterati, Abbott's remarks have already been notched alongside memorable short-sighted technology predictions, such as Digital Equipment Corporation founder Ken Olsen's quip in 1977 that ''there is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home''.

Downloads climbing exponentially

Downloads climbing exponentially.

Technology has a habit of moving quicker than even the experts expect, and while Abbott is correct to say that 25Mbps is enough to stream multiple high-definition movies (in some cases), tech commentators such as Brad Howarth say ''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''.

Australia's peak science body, the CSIRO, says essentially the more bandwidth the better, and smart geeks will always find innovative ways to make use of the capacity. The firm is already using the NBN to test a non-invasive monitoring and support system for elderly people, whose homes are fitted with sensors that can alert doctors and family to minute changes in behaviour or movement that may indicate a problem.

Geoff Heydon, business development manager for CSIRO's Australian Centre for Broadband Innovation, said in the future people would have screens as big as a wall in their homes running multiple high-bandwidth apps. Sports fans could opt to stream five different angles of an event at super high resolution.

Cisco's forecast 2011-2016

Cisco's forecast 2011-2016.

Ultra high-definition, also known as 4K TV, has already arrived, and while far from mainstream, it is only a matter of time before it replaces HD. A single 4K TV stream will require at least 25Mbps of capacity, several experts said, and this ignores future advances in video resolution.

This week the Australian Bureau of Statistics revealed that Australians downloaded 526,472 terabytes (TB) of data on fixed lines in the quarter to December last year, up from 174,665 TB in the quarter ending December 2010.

Akamai, which delivers 15 to 30 per cent of the world's internet traffic, said it expected its network to grow fivefold over the next three years, with 90 per cent of traffic being video.

Akamai's senior manager for Australasia, Ian Teague, predicted that ''in the next couple of years … a single household would need streaming rates greater than 50Mbps''.

But is this just a way for geeks to download movies faster? Rod Tucker, director of the Institute for a Broadband-Enabled Society, said industries such as medicine and small businesses such as graphic designers, architects and consultants were dealing with an increasing quantity of data. Universities already had high bandwidth connections, he said, but with the move to more online learning, students would need high-speed connections at home.

''It is not the single killer application that justifies 100Mbps or more, it is all of the applications that run simultaneously,'' Tucker said.

Futurist Mark Pesce believes in 10 years households will have ''north of 100 devices'' - from our lights and airconditioners to our toilets - all connected, and all sucking up bandwidth. The early stages of this vision is already being realised in the homes of some pioneering Australians such as Jon Oxer (see below).

Mark Gregory, senior lecturer in electrical and computer engineering at RMIT University, says ''in 20 years, households will be highly automated and be permanently connected to the family members, pets and vehicles''.

Labor's $37.4 billion fibre-to-the-home plan is to connect 93 per cent of households directly to optical fibre. For 71 per cent of homes, the Coalition plans to spend $20.4 billion connecting fibre only up to street cabinets (known as fibre-to-the-node), with the existing ageing copper network used for the last mile to the premises.

For the households that cannot be serviced by fibre, both sides of politics now support using fixed wireless and satellite technologies.

Many applications, such as two-way high resolution video chats and sending huge files to colleagues, require not only strong download speeds but fast upload speeds. Copper severely limits upload rates, but fibre has no such limitations.

Labor's argument is do it once, do it right, and its plan will be capable of up to 100Mbps, with easy upgrades to 10 times that speed in the offing. However, the upfront labour costs are large.

The Coalition argues it is uneconomical to build such a high-capacity network before there is clear demand for it. It offers a minimum 25Mbps.

Technology experts such as Geoff Huston, chief scientist at the Asia Pacific Network Information Centre, claim the Coalition's plan would see internet capacity frozen, and require the network be rebuilt down the track in order to connect fibre to the home.

The Coalition claims that even over existing copper it could deliver up to 100Mbps in a second term, and the network could be upgraded to fibre-to-the-home in future.

But is this feasible, and who will pay? Networking experts derided the suggestion that Australia's ageing and corroded copper could deliver anywhere near 100Mbps in practice. Telco engineer Mark Newton calls it ''faith-based network engineering''. In 2003 Telstra said its copper lines were ''five minutes to midnight''.

Tucker says the Coalition may be able to get 50Mbps out of the copper, and this was assuming it was not degraded, whereas Labor's network would be upgradeable to 1Gbps and beyond.

''The Coalition is offering 5 per cent of Labor's speed. But the cost of the Coalition's network will be two-thirds of the cost of Labor's network,'' he says. ''It will be obsolete by the time it is completed.''

CSIRO's Heydon says fibre-to-the-node requires much more electronics in more places than fibre-to-the-home, and therefore ''the cost of maintaining and operating those cabinets out in the street is very high''.

While he does not want to comment on the politics, he says upgrading from node to home down the track may be prohibitively expensive, as ''in many cases those nodes [cabinets] will become irrelevant when the copper's not there any more''. The final cost of both plans remains up in the air, but you don't have to be a ''tech head'' to see that the high maintenance and upgrade costs in the Coalition plan would bridge some of the expense gap between the two policies.

 

How to keep the future at arm's length.

While it's fun to talk about the home of the future, in many ways Jon Oxer, who opens his front door using a chip that he implanted in his arm, is already there.

The 42-year-old computer programmer from Croydon South in Melbourne has almost his entire house connected to his home network, and everything can be monitored and controlled via the internet.

This includes lights, curtains, door locks, fans, irrigation system, window winders, security cameras, motion detectors, letterbox, doorbell, water tank level sensors, smoke detectors, wall-mounted Android tablets, light switches, garden gate sensors, home entertainment system and more.

Oxer has even repurposed Microsoft's Xbox Kinect motion-sensing accessory to allow him to open and close his curtains using hand gestures.

"Individual items connected to a home automation system don't seem particularly interesting or ground-breaking, but the benefit comes from … the combination of devices and the interaction between them," he says.

"For example, triggering a smoke detector can cause all the lights to be turned on and the doors unlocked. Leaving the house and touching a control on your smartphone can cause the house to turn off every light, lock all the doors, close the windows, and close the curtains."

As for the NBN he said "it's a case of build it, and ideas will come". Oxer said he could immediately benefit from a 100Mbps connection.

"I work from home on a wide range of projects, so every day I have to share large files including CAD files, high-res images, and video with customers and suppliers all over the world via the internet," he says.

Oxer also produces an online show called SuperHouseTV and it often takes eight hours or more to upload an episode as a high definition video file to YouTube.

"If I could upload video more quickly it would be much easier to publish episodes frequently, and perhaps to experiment with unusual show formats such as having interactive episodes involving viewers, like talkback TV."