The NBN Message

A new survey by ISP iiNet has found that fully two-thirds of Australians remain unaware that switching to the NBN is compulsory. With the first areas being forced to switch in the last week, this matter has taken on a practical urgency.

The good news is that 100% of Australians will by aware eventually, right around the time their existing phone and internet services stop working. The bad news is that their existing phone and internet connections will stop working. I imagine more than 33% of residents of Brunswick VIC, where copper connections were switched off, are now aware that it's the NBN or nothing.

To those of us whose job it is to know about all things tech - and the NBN is the biggest tech story in the country, whatever the ABC might insist - it's hard to believe the number is really that high. Apparently 8% of people have never heard of the NBN at all. How is this possible? How has this simple message not gotten through, especially since this particular message has been explicit from the start?

Senator Conroy, the Communications Minister who oversaw the conception and initial implementation of the National Broadband Network, always claimed that arguments over take-up rates were largely irrelevant. Quibbling over the significance of initial Tasmanian connections mattered little, as did the debate as to whether the model should be opt-in or opt-out. Sooner or later - later as it transpires - everyone who wants a fixed phone or internet connection will have to use an NBN service of some kind. Everyone.

It was, as I say, a simple message, though one the Murdoch press proved unable to process, as they continued to try and demonstrate something or other using take-up rates as evidence. Now it turns out the message was too complicated for the majority of Australians. 67% of those surveyed still believe they can retain their existing connections in perpetuity. How can this be possible?

The media is at least partly to blame. There has been some kerfuffle lately over the ABC's spotty commitment to reporting on the NBN, especially on its websites and flagship television news programs 7:30Lateline and Q&A. Some believe that their main dedicated print / online tech journalist (Nick Ross) has been muzzled following a bruising run-in with Malcolm Turnbull at the beginning of 2013. I broadly agree with the sentiment: the ABC's coverage has been inadequate, the Minister has not been properly held to account, the ABC's response to criticism was churlish, and Nick Ross has been conspicuously muted.

More problematic, however, are the commercial networks. Their apathy towards NBN coverage far outstrips the ABC's, although they are not (and cannot be) held to the same standard since they have no responsibility towards the national interest. Their interests are commercial, and abstruse discussions full of confusing acronyms sell rather less airtime than demonising refugees.

Of course, it could be a simple case that the NBN is too complicated and 'techy' for the average person to understand. There's certainly something to this argument, and the new MTM version of the NBN - it's frankly a misnomer even to call it a 'national network' anymore - doesn't help. There might have been a golden era in which an engaged public would make a real effort to grasp important news that affected them, but if it ever existed that era has long passed. Nowadays the usual response when presented with difficult issues is to switch off and focus on something else. Who has time for Australia's largest ever infrastructure project when we can instead watch a group of strangers cook food we'll never taste?

This argument, however, glosses over the fact that even exceptionally complicated subjects can be broken down into and discussed coherently. Seemingly esoteric issues can be made relevant. Stephen Hawking produced a bestseller by making complicated astrophysical research accessible to the general reader. The NBN is rather simpler than string theory.

What I see missing is a bridge between the perpetually outraged Australian tech press, and the largely uninterested mainstream press, which will steer clear of any issue that cannot be reduced to a punning by-line, and will only touch infrastructure when something goes spectacularly wrong. What is required is a commitment by news organisations to bridge that gap, to deliver useful NBN news that will generate headlines. Otherwise we'll continue down the current path, at the end of which two thirds of Australians will be shocked to discover their phones don't work.

Other 'highlights' from the iiNet report (Familiarity & Understanding of the NBN):

  • 38% of respondents did not know that the NBN provides both fixed line phone and internet services (it does);
  • 29% thought they would automatically be cut over to the NBN (they won't);
  • 20% believed that NBN Co would be their ISP when they switch over (NBN Co is merely the wholesaler).