Six years ago, Malcolm Alder was a senior member of the KPMG-McKinsey team that wrote the original NBN Implementation Study. Cloud was mentioned only three times. Big data, IOT, blockchain and the sharing economy not at all. Here he visits the use cases with a contemporary perspective.

With the recent anniversary of the report’s release and the NBN receiving some fleeting attention in the election debate (with the notable exception of regional areas where it remains a very hot topic), it is timely to revisit the report to remind ourselves what we thought about the future services that would drive bandwidth demand back then.

Our reference to the “new iPad” looks very quaint now. Unfortunately, when politicians refer to the NBN, they invariably still quote “x” number of HDTV movies that can be watched simultaneously in the home. And there are the usual generic references to e-health and technology for education. Some things don’t change much in six years.

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The more important point that remains true. Australia needs for the best NBN we can build for the future of our country in the 21st century. We are a global, information-dependent economy as the world’s largest island with a highly dispersed, well-educated population who are employed in ever greater numbers in service sectors. As such the NBN is not only the largest but the most important, infrastructure investment we will make. Nonetheless, I’ve sometimes struggled to crisply articulate exactly why we’re going to need >25 Mbps. Until now.

Here is a list of services, applications and other developments to consider. They are either here or are clearly visible in the near to mid-term. And they individually and certainly in aggregate are logarithmically changing the data flow landscape.

  • Cloud – in 2010, the cloud was around but it was early days and many businesses and certainly governments were suspicious of it. Today, it’s almost unthinkable that you would invest in your own servers and not run on an XaaS charging model that you can dial up and down at will. Importantly, not only does cloud demand high capacity, low latency bandwidth; it also demands synchronous service.
  • Big data – may be a nebulous and imprecise term but along with data analytics. But it’s pretty clear that we’re nearing a tsunami of data being used in ever more complex and sophisticated ways to generate truly customer-centric services, products and experiences that benefit us all.
  • Distributed ledger technology – also known as blockchain, has the potential to totally change the face not just of banking, but almost all legally binding transactions including simple contracts. When it has true scale, whilst the packet size of each communication may be small, there will be billions of them simultaneously requiring speed, reliability and absolute security.
  • The Internet of Things – has a number of other descriptors (including Internet 4.0) and has been viewed as the next big thing for some years. However, when a company of the size, scale, history and track record of GE reinvents itself as “the world’s leading digital company”, it’s time to take notice. Most projections of the number of connected devices around the world in the next decade or so are astronomical. Yes people, we’re talking connected fridges, smart clothing, toilets, sensors, air conditioning, power systems, pools, traffic lights etc.
  • MOOCs – were on the cusp in 2010. Now they’re commonplace and whilst not the most important item on this list, they’re indicative of how a major industry sector is being reshaped by digital technology with borderless scale and reach that we need to be part of.
  • The sharing economy – is another strongly growing trend. The oft quoted examples of Uber and AirBnB are rapidly being joined by assets such as office space, tools and perhaps most importantly, spare labour capacity through the likes of AirTasker and TaskRabbit.
  • 3D printing – whilst still in its infancy, many people have now experienced this phenomenon. As 3D printing expands, with Moore’s Law bringing down prices, it’s now easy to envisage widespread use in the home. When this occurs, the bandwidth required for design and execution will be a further addition to the home payload.
  • The nature of work – is also undergoing a profound transition. Everyone from large consultancies to research houses have been providing their own, often quite alarming projections on how many jobs will “disappear” from the economy in the next decade.

On that last point while much of the commentary is quite alarmist, there’s no doubt the structure of the workforce overall is in for profound change. Many more people will be effectively a solo business earning a living from a portfolio of part-time, casual and entirely project-centric work often referred to as “the gig economy”. As this change occurs, the home becomes the central workplace from where people source and increasingly undertake, work. Not only does that make high quality, reliable connectivity imperative, for many types of work, it will also dramatically increase bandwidth needs and with ever greater need for near synchronous capacity.

Most of the examples above are significant in their own right. However, when you consider them as inter-connected activities and data flows, as well as their interactions with the world of wireless and next step change in capacity that 5G will bring, the impact on bandwidth demand is jaw dropping.

And this is without a single nod to entertainment – not a 3D HDTV movie or game in site.

So as we look to the future, reflect on this. In the 500+ pages of the NBN Implementation Study of 2010, the word “cloud” appeared three times. The terms; big data, data analytics, MOOCs, Internet of Things, 3D printing, blockchain, sharing economy, industry 4.0, Uber and AirBnB to name a few, are entirely absent. This is not because we were negligent in our work, they just weren’t on the horizon back then.

That was six years ago. Six years from now is 2022. The NBN is scheduled for completion in 2020 under the Coalition’s MTM configuration and under Labor’s plan slightly later. So for the sake of symmetry (if not realism), let’s assume 2022 is the year of NBN completion. How many terabits, nay petabits, of data will those applications be fizzing around Australia by then? And more relevantly, in 2022 looking back six years to today, what further, astounding bandwidth hungry services will have been added to this list?

No one can really know what those services will be but we can all have certainty that they’ll be there. Which is all the more compelling reasons why – six years on we still need the best, highest capacity NBN we can deliver if we’re to take full advantage and thrive as a truly digital economy.

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