I wrote a column for the Chronicle newspaper recently on the rollout of the National Broadband Network.
I was 11 years old when I bought my first computer. It was 1984, and the machine was an Aquarius. It had rubber keys, a cassette tape drive, and 3.5 kilobytes of memory. I used it to write simple programs in the BASIC language. Later that year, I upgraded to a VIC-20, with a whopping 5 kilobytes of memory. At about this time, Sydney Morning Herald computer editor Gareth Powell said that there was no advantage to any program in going beyond 16 kilobytes of memory.
The fact is, we’re not particularly good at forecasting where technology will take us. When I sent my first emails in 1996, they were text-only. In fact, most of us thought that email would be like the telegrams that previous generations had used, just faster and cheaper. Today, photos and video comprise most of the traffic flowing around the globe. Emails of 16 kilobytes or larger arrive in my inbox every few minutes.
So it’s little wonder that some critics of the National Broadband Network can’t imagine it as being anything more than a way getting faster access to YouTube and Facebook. Unfortunately, this just repeats the same mistake as previous decades: failing to imagine how a new technology will transform life and work.
The government’s current plan is to provide 93 percent of households with speeds of 100 megabytes per second. But in a recent trial of the network at Broken Hill, we saw speeds of 100 gigabytes per second: one-thousand times faster than hoped for.
But even at 100 megabytes per second, it will be possible to use the internet in fundamentally new ways. As anyone who has used Skype on a current connection will know, the jerky picture is better than nothing, but hardly ideal. The NBN will enable high-definition video-conferencing: letting patients speak with a medical specialist from home, allowing students to participate in distance learning from afar, and permitting teleworkers to participate in team meetings while working from home.
Starting in Gungahlin, the NBN will be progressively rolled out across the ACT over the next few years. We can’t predict all the ways it will transform our society for the better, but I expect that within a few decades, I’ll look back on today’s internet with the same wry amusement that I look at my old Aquarius.
Andrew Leigh is the federal member for Fraser. For more information on the timing of the NBN rollout, see www.nbnco.com.au.
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