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The Power of fibre

By Andrew Leigh - posted Tuesday, 21 May 2013

When construction on the Sydney Harbour Bridge began in 1923, the city was home to fewer than 40,000 cars– not enough to cause a traffic jam. It may have seemed like a bold move, then, to build a bridge capable of carrying six lanes of road traffic, flanked by a further two lanes for trains. Upon completion, it would have cost you six pence to drive your car across the bridge, but only three if you were upon your horse.

Today the Sydney Harbour Bridge is an indispensable artery to the city's transport system, with over 160,000 cars crossing it every day. Beyond its iconic aesthetics, the beauty of the bridge lies in the fact that it was never designed for a Sydney of the 1920s. It was designed for a Sydney of the future.

It was with this same view to the future that Labor first proposed the National Broadband Network. Without a doubt, the internet has been the biggest technological game changer of the past half-century. And its capacity for growth is still expanding: just think about how much your own use of the internet has changed in the past 10 years, and then imagine the same change over the next decade.


Like water or electricity, fast broadband is now essential infrastructure. Accessing it shouldn't depend on where you happen to live or how much money you happen to have.

It is clear that having superfast internet provision will be vital to Australia's communication systems and our economic development. This is why we need Labor's National Broadband Network, the biggest infrastructure project in our country's history. Upon its completion, every home and every business will have access to superfast internet connection via optic fibre, fixed wireless and satellite technologies.

For 93 per cent of all homes and businesses, this will be a national fibre network. Unlike copper, which transmits electrical current, fibre uses pulses of light to transmit information.

Over recent years, engineers have been steadily achieving more rapid fibre transmission speeds – up from 100 megabits per second a few years ago to over 1000 megabits per second today. That's the difference between being able to download a CD full of information every 5 secondsrather than every 50 seconds. And the boffins don't think they've yet found fibre's maximum speed, with some tests suggesting it might be up to 1000 times faster again. Unlike copper, fibre direct to your home or business is an information superhighway without a speed limit. NBN Co will start offering 1000 megabits per second services from the end of the year.

At the moment Australia is mostly relying on an ageing copper network, so our broadband capacity already lags behind many countries. Dr Karl Kruszelnicki recently told me that he regularly talks to school classes using Skype.With Australian classes, he says the copper connection is unreliable and typically has to be reset once or twice in a one hour session. But with Korean or Japanese students, where fibre has been rolled out, he can expect an uninterrupted high-resolution videoconference.

The support that fast and reliable internet will provide our teachers (particularly in rural areas) will be of huge benefit to our schools. Health is another area where we will see big improvements flowing from the NBN. Families who are living outside capital cities will be able to consult with medical specialists from their homes or from their local GP's surgery.


The NBN will transform how Australians communicate and share information with each other and the rest of the world. This will impact upon our businesses, our education and health systems, and also our community. I hope to see applications such as high-definition video-conferencing develop further to complement stronger community life. We're already seeing this happen, from developing online mental health support groupstohaving year 10 students on the NBN in South Australia, Tasmania, and my hometown of Canberra, taking an astrophysics class with a teacher in Melbourne.

What about the Coalition alternative to the NBN? Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull recently announced that they would spend over $20 billion to build a broadband network that still relies on copper. The Coalition would stop the fibre at suburban 'nodes' or street cabinets, leaving the copper in the ground to connect to your home (unless you want to pay up to $5000 for the equivalent of Labor's NBN). Not only is this 'get your water at the village well' system inequitable; it will also result in connections that are 25 megabits per second at best (1/40th of what the NBN can provide).

Tony Abbott's brash statement that he is 'confident 25 megs is enough for the average household' reminds me how easy it is to underestimate the changes that technology can bring. When I bought my first computer in 1984, it had 3½ kilobytes of memory. That sounds tiny now, but it was about that time that Gareth Powell, the Sydney Morning Herald computer editor, wrote that he thought no program would ever need more than 16 kilobytes.

Those sorts of statements about technology are a warning to anyone who forgets that the things we can do with new technology often far outpace our imagination. Those that think that superfast broadband will just mean faster Facebook and YouTube do not get the power of technology.

Sydneysiders today are fortunate that the planners of the 1920s had the foresight to build for the future. Let's hope we can do the same with by connecting all Australian premises to Labor's National Broadband Network.

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About the Author

Andrew Leigh is the member for Fraser (ACT). Prior to his election in 2010, he was a professor in the Research School of Economics at the Australian National University, and has previously worked as associate to Justice Michael Kirby of the High Court of Australia, a lawyer for Clifford Chance (London), and a researcher for the Progressive Policy Institute (Washington DC). He holds a PhD from Harvard University and has published three books and over 50 journal articles. His books include Disconnected (2010), Battlers and Billionaires (2013) and The Economics of Just About Everything (2014).

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