NBN seeks verdict on ‘wall warts’
BRUNSWICK in Victoria is no Silicon Valley. Couches and bikes nestle on cobweb-covered verandahs, a bearded twentysomething ambles over the fracturing concrete with his laundry basket, and the tram hums along Sydney Road.
But one year after the national broadband network went live in this hipster hamlet, some locals are starting to upgrade their internet connection, and with it their income.
”We are looking at new cars,” said David Kofoed, 32, who works from an office at an old hat factory in Victoria Street with business partner Sam Dawe, 32. They call themselves NBN consultants, guiding business and local government through new applications made possible by download speeds of up to 100 megabits a second.
”A year and half ago we were looking at making wages. Now in this financial year it’s possible we could see a tenfold increase in revenue,” said Mr Kofoed. ”It’s a very, very exciting time for us. We are on the verge of expanding exponentially.”
They moved in just before the square of 2600 households wedged between Lygon Street and Sydney Road went live last August. It was one of five first-release sites in Australia for the $35.7 billion project (plus about $14 billion going to Telstra) to connect 93 per cent of premises with high-speed fibre-optic cable over the next 10 years. The other 7 per cent will be reached by fixed wireless and satellite.
Mr Dawe and Mr Kofoed began by backing up companies’ data in 24 hours that would have taken 150 days on the old copper network. Then they sold video conferencing technology to doctors as the government provided funding for more consultations to be done remotely.
”There are over 20,000 GPs in Australia and each one of those GPs can receive funding from the government for their first Telehealth consultation,” Mr Kofoed said. ”So there’s a huge market.”
The pair heard reports of doctors conducting one-off consultations to receive the $4800 incentive, but Mr Dawe said the government now requires doctors to conduct at least 10 consultations before receiving the full payment.
Mr Dawe and Mr Kofoed now consult on other NBN aspects, such as how people can work from home, saving transport and childcare costs.
This whirlwind year has left them NBN evangelicals. ”It reminds me of when the postmaster-general had the crazy idea of getting everybody’s house connected to the copper network,” Mr Kofoed said. ”I mean, how decadent is that, to have a phone in your house?”
The duo’s vim has drawn others to the area. Downstairs, Australia’s first NBN internet cafe, Hungry Birds, hosts geeks doing speed tests on their laptops. Art dealer Nick Kreisler live-streams gallery openings next door to promote his web-based business.
So far, so great – just don’t mention the hours of illegal film, TV and music being downloaded each evening in these quiet suburban streets.
Caitlin, 26, lives nearby with her boyfriend, Rob, 31. Since getting the NBN they only have to wait 15 minutes rather than an hour to download a film.
”Freaks and Geeks and Game of Thrones, we just downloaded the whole thing and watched it,” Caitlin said. ”We went through The Sopranos a few months ago. I don’t know how I feel about it. It’s just so common and so acceptable now that your conscience is removed. Everyone is doing it.”
The NBN is also essential for Rob’s business, writing music with a friend outside the NBN area. “We’ve had clients and they’ve said, ‘OK, you’ve got an hour’, and we’ve had to fix this track up and then upload it to them. We’ve had to drive over here to do it, because it’s going to take half an hour, an hour at his place because he’s got the slowest internet ever.”
NBN Co will sell service providers network access at a wholesale price of $24 a month for five years, after which the price will rise at no more than half the inflation rate. How internet companies package their service is up to them.
Rob and Caitlin settled on an $80 monthly plan with a 200-gigabyte quota for downloads, which they have only exceeded once.
They could have got a better deal with a smaller operator (500 gigabytes for $60 a month) but said this offered less flexibility and customer service.
NBN Co’s chief technology officer, Gary McLaren, said this was evidence the competitive model for service providers was working. ”That is part of what we expected to happen with some innovating more than others, some probably coming through and being more cost-effective than others,” he said.
Take-up in the area has been modest, but Mr McLaren said it was early days. ”It is over 15 per cent take-up and this is before we’ve done any work migrating customers from the copper network,” he said. ”So these are really good numbers for what we see as an initial stage of a rollout.”
One reason given for the slow take-up rate is the high number of rental properties in the area.
Art dealer Mr Kreisler has another theory: ”It’s traditionally a working area, so the older people could be less educated,” he said. ”There are a lot of junkies around here. Even the educated people I talk to are not that interested. They are older intellectual people rather than older tech-boffin people.”
Seeing is believing, however, for Methiye Nuka, 71. She helped translate when four members of her Turkish women’s group visited Brunswick Neighbourhood House for a computer training course as part of the federally funded Digital Hubs program.
One woman watched a doctor explain her back condition on Turkish TV, others hunted for their home towns on Google Earth, and Ms Nuka headed for YouTube.
“I’m watching Justin Bieber,” she said. “He’s a handsome boy. The girls are crazy about him. He has a nice voice, he is young, clever, a millionaire.”
It was difficult to tell how much of the group’s enthusiasm was thanks to the NBN and how much was the inevitable thrill of discovering the internet. But according to assistant manager Anoop Nair, speed matters. ”If it was slow internet, they would look at it and say, ‘I give up,’ ” Mr Nair said. ”As people get older their patience levels go down.”
Another deterrent is cost. None of the Turkish women had a computer at home.
In response Mr Dawe and Mr Kofoed are working on computers costing less than $50 where processing is done on servers based back at their office. Users will only need a palm-sized device to connect their mouse, keyboard and monitor to the NBN.
And the network is still capable of going 10 times faster with the flick of a switch from NBN Co.
”We are just not releasing it until we’ve got enough capacity in the back of our network to make sure we don’t overload it,” Mr McLaren said.
Meanwhile, back at computer class Galsen Gencen, 73, had her hands full. The headset mouthpiece poked her eye, each click of the mouse caused the cursor to splay upwards, and finding the cross to close a browser window resembled threading a needle.
Then her screen went white save for a paragraph of jargon. Ms Gencen leaned back in her chair, and threw up her hands.
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