The website howfastisthenbn.com appeared this week, demonstrating the differences between the ALP and LNP broadband plans – or, the differences as they relate to upload or download speeds of relatively mundane everyday tasks. On the website you can try uploading wedding photos, downloading Game of Thrones, and syncing engineering files to a Dropbox under the different speeds of each NBN proposal.
The site was developed by 28 year-old James Brotchie, who has been prominently identified as a Liberal voter in most of media coverage, a fact presumably included because the comparison clearly favours the ALP and thus adds weight to its conclusions (although it should be fairly obvious that the ALP would fair better in such a comparison since it costs more and thus provides more). The fact has since gained relevance after Malcom Turnbull claimed that the Brotchie was a covert agent of the ALP.
Aside from accusations of deception and propaganda, more interesting questions have been raised by economist Joshua Gans on the website economics.com.au. Gans points out that the examples on the site are basically private goods consumed for entertainment. In other words, there is no evidence of public benefit on show in this website. Gans does concede that the example of syncing engineering designs with Dropbox is, arguably, of benefit to the economy, but that the lesser (cheaper) comes at a cost of only 8 extra minutes in the case of the LNP’s.
But there are a number of flaws in this argument.
Firstly, and quite simply, it costs a business 8 minutes this time. It will also cost the business 8 minutes next time. It will also cost the businesses up- and downstairs 8 minutes each to upload similar file sizes this time. And that’s just for file sizes of 30MB. Looking at a single instance of slower uploading completely understates the costs of slower broadband.
And secondly, the goal of the site isn’t to demonstrate the purpose of the NBN; it’s to make the differences between the two policies salient. Comprehending the difference between the numbers associates with each of the NBN policies would be difficult enough, but it’s made all the more difficult considering many of these future benefits aren’t yet in place or even entirely known.
Gans agrees that we need an NBN. His problem with this site is that it reduces the debate down to a question about speed and thus distorts the issue. We need to look beyond speed at issues such as effectiveness and value and suitability.
And he’s right. It’s reductive to judge our investment in a large infrastructure project on how fast we can upload wedding photos. But what other choice is there?
Communicating complex policies is, at the best of time, an exercise in careful (or, occasionally, less-than careful) reductionism; from speeches to the magnets you get in the mail.