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With this week's announcement that the National Broadband Network will set up a test site in Adelaide, JOHN HARRIS asks about the value of the $43 billion network. 

This week’s announcement that Willunga will be a testbed for the Federal Government’s National Broadband Network (NBN) marks the $43 billion initiative’s first beachhead on the mainland.

Willunga, dubbed “a rural town” by the announcement, is one of five mainland sites that will receive high-speed broadband to test network's design and construction methods. First steps toward the NBN started in Tasmania last year.

The other 3000-premise locations are Brunswick in Melbourne; the Townsville suburbs of Aitkenvale and Mundingburra; the coastal communities of Minnamurra and Kiama Downs south of Wollongong; and part of west Armidale in NSW.

In case you’ve been in a cave for the past year or so, the National Broadband Network is the Rudd Government “vision splendid” to build a super-fast communication network that connects all Australian homes and businesses.

Never daunted by hyperbole, the PM has likened the eight-year project to building the Snowy River scheme, the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the national highway network – though hopefully not all at once.

The NBN aims to use fibre-optic cables to provide homes, schools and businesses with broadband speeds of 100 megabits per second - 50 times faster than what most people use now. If your place can’t get fibre, then fast broadband will come via next generation wireless and satellite technologies.

However, what the PM calls an “historic act of nation building” will cost a serious chunk of coin.
Although $43 billion rolls off the tongue with the ease of “another beer please”, it’s a big budget by any measure.

Compared to other big ticket items, it would buy 25 brand new Royal Adelaide Hospitals on the ALP’s railyards site – or 61 RAH redevelopments, if you believe the Liberal Party’s costings.

Based on Australia’s estimated population of 22,171,824 people on Tuesday this week, the NBN will cost an average of $1939.40 for every man, woman and child in the country.

Putting a more personal spin on it, if I was to pay for the NBN with my home broadband bill of $49.95 per month, it will take me more than 71 million years.

So what is the Federal Government hoping to achieve with this expensive exercise?

The driving notion is that fast broadband will re-write the rulebook for the Australian economy.
For example, it will enable videoconferencing technologies to revolutionise education and healthcare by plugging remote locations into centralised resources while Australian businesses will link with the global economy.

And, of course, the Government claims fast broadband will reduce our climatic impact by taking work to the workers (fewer cars on the road; less city congestion; flexible employment of ageing Aussies).

They’re big promises for a big project.

So what will Willunga get as SA’s first taste of this brave new world?

Mostly questions and shovelwork until the other side of the Federal election.

After community consultation and design work, construction at the test sites will begin in the second half of the year, with high-speed broadband services not available until next year.

While the network’s Bob the Builder, NBN Co, wants these test sites to answer design questions relating to demographics, climate, existing infrastructure and terrain, it does not mention the most intriguing question – how much will NBN broadband services cost?

It’s a bit of a poser if most customers choose broadband services based on price rather than speed.

That’s a big question hanging over the Federal Government’s “Field of Dreams” faith in the NBN.

ohn Harris is managing director Impress Media Australia. Email jharris@impress.com.au

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