In recent weeks, thousands of people all over Australia have experienced slow and unreliable internet connections. Telecommunications companies report an 80% increase in internet use during daytime hours. This is largely a result of the COVID-19 restrictions that have forced people to isolate in their homes.
During this difficult time, people have significantly increased their online activity in order to stay in contact with friends and family. Millions of people are also working and studying from home which has added to the load on the network.
Lots of articles have been published advising people about how to improve their connection. Many conclude with a patronising list of troubleshooting tips, such as turning their modem off and on, or moving their device closer to the WiFi router.
Very few, if any, address the underlying issues with Australia’s internet infrastructure. The problems with the network have been there for years, the Coronavirus pandemic has merely exposed them for more people to see.
Internet access, like water, power and telephone access, are a necessity in a country like Australia. It should be seen as an essential public service but instead it is run for profit, and this is where all the problems stem from.
The current National Broadband Network (NBN) infrastructure has been in construction since 2013. The then telecommunications minister Malcolm Turnbull announced a plan that included the continued use of near century old copper networks alongside fibre optic cable, called fibre to the node (FTTN).
This plan was inadequate even ten years ago, and this is part of the reason why Australia has amongst the slowest and least reliable internet in the developed world. From the beginning, the goal was not to provide Australians with world-class internet for the future, but to make the construction and the running of the network profitable for the private sector.
In 2013 the Abbott government appointed former Vodaphone CEO, Bill Morrow, to serve as the head of NBN Co. Around the same time the Murdoch press sort to undermine the more substantive, but still inadequate, plan put forward by Labor – fibre to the point (FTTP).
While Labor’s more expensive plan would have provided for a better quality network, they, like the Coalition, designed it to suit for-profit telecommunications and internet providers. Both plans included the use of dodgy private contractors and leased out once-nationalised exchanges.
Big private companies like Telstra and Optus were set to make mega-profits no matter which plan was implemented.
The alternative was for telecommunications to remain in public hands, and for the NBN to be built by a fully-owned government enterprise. On that basis it could have been run in a planned and democratic way.
If the profit motive was removed, along with the slew of middle-men seeking a cut, the construction costs could have been reduced immensely. As an essential public service it could have also been made available for free to all ordinary people. The government could charge big business for its use, therefore covering the running costs.
The problems we face with internet connections and costs today points to the inherent flaws with the profit-driven capitalist system.
If we want to win fast and reliable internet in the future we are going to need to break with the plans of the major parties and fight for a socialist model that puts society’s needs first.
By Ben McIntyre