The slow strangulation of telework in Australia

We need uploads if we're not just watching TV


From the day I arrived in Australia, I’ve had a high-speed broadband connection. The owner of the ISP came over to my flat to set it up, attaching a point-to-point wireless link to my terrace, then aiming it at his offices.

Within a few minutes I had the very same 5 Mbps symmetric connection that I’ve enjoyed ever since - even though I’ve moved house a few times over the last twelve years.

That speedy connection makes it possible for me to work from home, building my consulting, broadcasting and speaking careers. For example, when I’m working with audio engineer Felix Warmth on the TWISTA podcast, we regularly pass around near-gigabyte raw sound recordings of interviews with guests. With my connectivity it takes about half an hour to transfer something like that.

Most Australians don’t enjoy the same luxury.

Almost every home broadband connection in this country uses some variation on DSL. ADSL download speeds can range up to 18 Mbps - on a good day when there hasn’t been rain lately and the copper is reasonably new and its sheathing hasn’t been nibbled on by rats.

We’ve all seen the photos of Telstra’s utility nodes wrapped in plastic baggies and soaked in water, so we know why the copper network rarely performs as advertised. One friend in North Sydney - who needs home bandwidth to work - saw speeds collapse from 10 Mbps to 100 Kbps after a recent series of rainstorms.

Even where ADSL delivers the kind of downstream bandwidth it promises, the upstream speed is always an order of magnitude slower.

The A in ADSL stands for ‘asymmetric’. You send at a much slower rate than you receive. The upper end of the range is somewhere around 1 Mbps, but line quality and distance play into that, so it’s more common for people at home to max out at an outbound bandwidth of around 500 Kbps, or roughly one-tenth the upload speed I’ve blithely enjoyed for well over a decade.

That doesn’t sound too bad until you consider the typical use cases for 21st century professionals: retouching RAW images, podcasting CD-quality audio files, editing HD movies, and so forth.

Almost all professional-quality media quickly runs into the gigabytes. Where a gigabyte upload takes less than an hour on my link, you’re looking at an entire day to upload the same file on an ADSL link. If you need to use that uplink for anything else, forget about it. It’s busy.

For that reason, it’s not possible to work from home in Australia.

Sure, you can open a terminal window and bang out a few commands - there’s your devops sorted - but for most creative work in a creative economy in a creative century we have nothing suited to the task. We have to crowd people into cars and trains and buses and deliver them to the network points of presence because we have no network coverage adequate enough to distribute the workload across Australia.

This is beyond ridiculous, transcending farce. This is a crime against the nation.

For all that Australia’s politicians have given lip-service to the digital economy, both major parties have done everything in their power to kneecap the connectivity of the nation.

First, Labor runs roughshod over the free market - which arguably could have delivered higher bandwidth services to the nation’s homes by now - with their poorly-thought-out, poorly-sold, and even-more-poorly-implemented NBNCo.

Then the Coalition, those friends of economic liberalism, come along to ‘rationalise’ the rollout with a set of penny-wise-pound-foolish design decisions that would make an idiot blush.

Working in the slow lane

Australia has suffered under a full decade of broadband policy so inconsistent and ill-guided it has only succeeded in tying Telstra into so many (copper) loops that it no longer knows whether its wire network is coming or going. Nor, in large part, does Telstra care, having realised its ambitions as a wireless carrier.

The end result of all of this argy-bargy is a network that is no longer fit for purpose. A network that is literally not usable for much more than the streaming of video into the home - and then only if the weather is good.

The nation wants to get to work, but the nation can’t. All of the pent-up productivity in Australian homes and Australian minds has no place to express itself, except in the few zones - mostly universities and big companies - that can afford the kinds of connectivity necessary to compete in a connected economy.

This slow strangulation of the nation has been carrying on for years, but now we can see our lips turning blue. We’re running out of oxygen, and just as we start to understand how badly we’ve been screwed, consciousness begins to slip away. Australia is heading into a digital darkness. ®

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