Elizabeth Warren sends smoke signals about broadband


It’s just somebody else’s money, so who cares, right?

Democratic presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren unveiled a proposal to guarantee universal high-speed internet access on Wednesday as part of a new plan to invest in rural communities.

“I will make sure every home in America has a fiber broadband connection at a price families can afford,” the senator from Massachusetts wrote in a post on the blogging platform Medium. “That means publicly-owned and operated networks — and no giant [internet service providers] running away with taxpayer dollars.”

Warren said she would create a federal Office of Broadband Access to manage an $85 billion grant program. The grants would be awarded to electricity and telephone cooperatives, nonprofits, tribes and municipalities that pledge to bring high-speed internet to underserved areas…

Warren’s proposal cites low rates of internet access in rural communities.

About 1 in 4 people living in rural areas, and 1 in 3 living on tribal lands, did not have access to minimum speed broadband, the proposal says, citing an FCC report released earlier this year. And in urban areas, Warren wrote, many low-income residents cannot afford to connect to the internet despite technically having access.

Maybe Senator Warren should have a pow-wow first with IT experts from Australia, who could enlighten her about our country’s 12-years-and-counting saga of the National Broadband Network, a Labor government initiative that the -then leader of the opposition, Tony Abbott, described as “a white elephant on a massive scale” but later adopted and continued while in government.

It started in 2007 as a policy for a government-rolled out broadband network, in most areas duplicating internet services already provided by private sector providers (mainly through the existing copper wire telephony network), which would be available as an option to all Australian households. In most cases it would be achieved through wired technology (fibre to the premises, later downgraded to a cheaper fibre to the node) with a satellite connection available to the most remote areas where cabling was impractical.

I remember thinking then that the project was an absurd waste of taxpayers’ money for a service of the type that telecommunication companies would be able and willing to provide in any case. At most, there was an argument that the government could step in and provide the infrastructure in some country areas  where there was no commercial case for the private providers to proceed. Call me a clairvoyant but it was pretty clear to me that “broadband for all” would take a lot longer to roll out that planned, would cost significantly more than initially budgeted, and would very likely be technologically obsolete by the time it was finished.

The initial 2007 Labor policy envisaged the total cost of $15 billion, with the government’s share of $4.7 billion (all sums in Australian dollars). Two years later, in 2009, the cost was revised up to $37 billion, with $30 billion from the government. The current estimate (as of 2018) is around $51 billion. Some argue that when finished, the total cost will be $90 billion, including the fall in the value of Australia’s telecommunication companies as a result of state competition.

The NBN, in many if not most cases, can provide for faster connections than before, but relative to the rest of the world Australia keeps struggling. Next year will likely see the start of the roll-out of the 5G network in Australia, with speeds ten times faster than the top NBN ones. While some argue that 5G won’t supersede wired networks due to capacity constraints, others believe that the NBN will actually have to further upgrade its existing network (at what cost?) to incorporate the next generation of wireless technology. Continuing my clairvoyant streak, I see major problems with technological obsolescence over the next few years.

Governments are Indian givers; don’t trust them to solve them these sorts of high-tech problems better than the private sector. America beware.