Sinking feeling: NBN is another submarine

In my first job in journalism in the 1970s, the newsroom had six or seven desks arranged like a primary school classroom. Only one desk – the editor’s – had a phone on it and even then, it was hooked up through the newspaper’s switchboard.

Down the back of the newsroom, there were two plywood booths with a phone in each. Other than that, the only other notable “communication technology” was that each desk had an old Remington or Olivetti typewriter which had to be tipped on its back when you needed desk space. It was very exciting for a kid who grew up on a dairy farm 16 miles (about 25km) out of town.

Now, I have tried to keep up with technology throughout the past 45 years, especially when it comes to journalism and communication, but today my head very nearly exploded. There’s a big phone technology conference going on in Barcelona and Telstra has announced to the world that it’s almost ready to launch a 5G network in Australia. Perhaps by next year.

I don’t know what Gs are. All I know is that I can seldom get more than one bar on 4G and it often drops back to the old 3G network. Again, the details behind this are fuzzy, but I get the general drift of it.

What I do understand about 5G is that it proves I was correct about a very important thing in Australia.

Here’s Telstra’s chief operating officer Robyn Denholm: “In our mmWave tests we are already achieving speeds in excess of 3 Gbps and latency of 6 milliseconds between Gold Coast and Brisbane, so we expect there to be great demand for this unparalleled combination of high speeds and low latency.”

The ideas I took out of that tech-laden sentence were this. The new system has data transfer speed of three gigabytes per second, and a lag in transmission over great distances of almost zero seconds. Three Gbps is very roughly 100 times faster than even a good connection on the National Broadband Network. Yes, 100 times faster than the NBN, which some estimates say will finish up costing Australian taxpayers $60 billion.

So, what was I so correct about? In 1990, Australia started building six Collins-class submarines. They had to be expensively modified when the first ones were duds because they had hard-wired them with the absolute latest computers. They were equivalent to the old 386 computers and had only a fraction of the computing power of your mobile phone today. 

It makes no sense to hard wire computer and communication technology. It is redundant within weeks. If I had hard-wired my house with what I was using in 1990, I’d still be trying to get the Amiga 500 to work. It had just a half a megabyte of memory, not enough to even open an email today.

The Apollo 11’s trip to the moon in 1969 was achieved using a guidance system which had two kilobytes of computing capacity. I just tested how much that is. I typed the letter “A” and saved it as a Word document. I then checked how much memory that one letter had consumed. Exactly 11.5 kilobytes – almost six times as much as Apollo’s guidance system.

The NBN is a virtual Collins-class submarine on a national scale. It is already redundant, thanks to 5G and associated developments. Hard-wiring an entire continent always seemed a very silly idea to me.

In hindsight, I think if you told that kid sitting at a bare wooden desk in the ’70s that within his lifetime he’d have access to a mobile phone/computer that could pass on three thousand million bits of information every second, I think his head would have exploded there and then.