Broadband Projects An Embarrassing, Expensive Failure

Perhaps John Howard is right – State Governments are stupid. When NSW Premier Morris Iemma announced its ambitious program to blanket Sydney with WiFi coverage, providing it for free to consumers, he explicitly referred to a San Franciscan project as one to emulate.

But it is becoming increasingly apparent that the Californian project is imploding. US internet provider EarthLink may pull out of San Francisco’s municipal WiFi project. Australian governments should take note – local politicians are not always the best investors in communications technology.

After the ACCC had torpedoed Telstra’s proposal to build a Fibre-to-the-node network late last year — but before the major federal parties had announced their intentions to simply pay for the high-speed networks themselves — State governments one by one proposed their own solutions to the broadband controversy.

Leading the charge, Peter Beattie proposed that a private firm finance, build and operate a fibre-to-the-home network in Brisbane, but this was little more than a wishful press release.

Other states drew on overseas broadband proposals. Western Australia’s $1 billion fibre proposal was modelled on Alberta’s SuperNet. By all accounts, the Canadian network has been a relative success, but both SuperNet and the WA plan focus on building network backbone to essential services rather than piping internet direct to consumers.

Certainly, there are a wide range of international comparisons to call upon. Particularly in the United States, local governments are taking it upon themselves to get into the broadband business, with or without private support. But the experience has been rocky.

Local WiFi projects are often underutilised, underperforming, and expensive. Local councils may assume that free broadband would be popular, but one citywide project in Orlando, Florida was shut down in 2005 when the city realised that only 27 people were using the service per day.

Uptake rates have been more positive in other cities, but are in the range of one to two percent of the population, comparing poorly with the forecasted demand of between 15 and 30 percent.

The most high-profile network – and one which Iemma praised when announcing the Sydney plan – has also been the biggest debacle. San Francisco’s joint venture with EarthLink and Google is no closer to deployment than when it was announced in 2005. Indeed, the project’s failure was abundantly clear at the time when the NSW government was examining it.

The Google-EarthLink plan has been derailed by political theatre and contractual disputes. And even if EarthLink doesn’t pull out, the network speeds offered will be a paltry 300kbps – a speed which has been widely derided in Australia as ‘fraudband’. Contrast this with the 60 mbps nationwide fibre-to-the-home network that Verizon is investing in at a cost of US$18 billion.

It is tempting for politicians to offer things to their constituents for free, especially something as popular as broadband. But local government broadband projects are proving to be an embarrassing, expensive failure.