The NBN Strategic Review: its dodgy accounting, and omissions (Guest Post)

By James Chisholm (james at chisholm dot id dot au)

Vindication is a bitter-sweet pill to swallow. We, the Australian taxpayers, have finally taken delivery of the Strategic Review into the National Broadband Network, which has shown what many of us have been saying since the Coalition announced their Fibre-to-the-Node alternative back in March 2013 – that there is no way that the Coalition can possibly provide 25mbps connections to all households by 2016. I’ve previously written about why I believe FTTN to be a completely inappropriate network architecture for this country, and many of the issues I raised in that post aren’t addressed in the Strategic Review. It did take me a while to get through, but I made it through the whole document. What stunned me was the way so much critical information was redacted from the document, and how much vital information was left out to make FTTP look like an inferior solution.

My provisional analysis is this – that the “multi-technology-mix” we are going to get now from NBNCo is a dogs breakfast of outdated technology for 76% of the country, with a lucky 24% who will get to get the next generation of Fibre-to-the-Premises connections, which we know are already capable of 1000mbps throughput (and were scheduled to have this capability made available this month). I call this MTM a dogs breakfast for several reasons, the primary one being that upload speeds are not addressed at all by this mix. Neither are fundamental details about the FTTN network, such as how many nodes are going to be implemented. Additional reasons are that the HFC networks are demonstrably congested in many locations already with only a small number of subscribers, that FTTN at 25mbps is (as I’ve pointed out with my other blog post) a totally inappropriate solution for this country, and that this technology mix puts control of the network firmly back into the hands of Telstra.

It comes as no surprise that, given the sheer volume of ex-Telstra employees that Malcolm Turnbull has appointed to NBN Co, that they are hell-bent on sending as much of the public funds back into the hands of Telstra, but to do it in such an overt manner is quite frankly disgusting. I, like many of my contemporaries, have a rather low opinion of Telstra – having previously worked for them, I’ve never before, or since, encountered a company with such incredible contempt for their own customers, nor worked with a company with such incredible incompetence. To get 6 phone lines installed for a former employers new SHDSL connection, took 13 visits by Telstra technicians in 2011. Personally I would like it to be placed on record the level of Telstra shareholdings of all senior NBN Co staff.

Anecdotal evidence of demonstrated small business needs for higher upload speeds, which will not be provided by either HFC or FTTN, is all well and good (and I wrote 6 paragraphs about personal tales of former employers and customers of mine, I’ve redacted this to keep this shorter) it’s straying further away from the analysis I’ve been meaning to do. So let’s get to that, shall we?

“The national broadband network policy was released many months ago by myself and Malcolm [Turnbull]. No-one has been able to question the costings. It is absolutely bulletproof.” Tony Abbott, 6 September, 2013

First of all, there is the cost blowout to the LNP bulletproof, 100% costed policy. After crying for months about Labor party waste, we now have a strategic review which revises the figure upward by 25% on the cost of a Multi-Technology-Mix network. The review also claims a cost blowout for a full FTTP network to be $72bn, whilst redacting the associated costs to date for the FTTP rollout.

Assuming that we believe these figures (and we really can’t, due to the fact the review has already been outed for fudging the figures; see this) one has to accept certain caveats to them – the actual rollout is now only going to occur to 70% of the population (24% FTTP, 46% FTTN), versus to 100% with the labor plan. So that’s really an unfair comparison – $41bn for a 70% rollout versus $72bn for a 100% rollout.

A more appropriate comparison is to scale the cost of the FTTP rollout down to 70% and then we can crunch the numbers slightly better – $41bn vs $50.4bn is more of an “apples vs apples” comparison of the figures.

Additionally, the strategic review also doesn’t mention how much it’s going to pay for:
a) the Telstra Copper network
b) the Telstra HFC network
c) the Optus HFC network

These networks aren’t going to be given to them for free. Telstra CEO David Thodey has stated Telstra expects to be paid the $11bn it was already contractually going to get for decomissioning the copper, as well as additional fees to access the copper they were supposed to decomission and there will be an additional cost to acquire or lease the HFC network for the remaining 30%. I’ve seen estimates that the two Telstra networks will cost $30-50bn on top of the $41bn for the FTTN – which would mean that the MTM network will far exceed the cost of rolling out FTTP to the whole country!!

By its own admission on page 19 of the strategic review, the MTM network is going to be outdated within 5 years of completion. Once it is outdated, it will need to be replaced with FTTP. Simon Hackett’s explanatory blog post about why he feels HFC is the right way to progress the rollout faster even admits that FTTP is the ultimate endgame. And this is the crux of the stupidity of this MTM – why bother rolling out last millennium’s technology when the limitations of it’s shared bandwidth potential are well and truly known, and cannot take us through the majority of the 21st century?

A big issue for me is the sheer number of nodes and footprint that each node will service – will it be 70,000 nodes for the country? 80,000? If the goal is to get everyone on 100mbps by 2019, it’s probably going to need to be more like 100,000 nodes. The Strategic Review does not specify how many nodes they think will be required, nor the maximum copper loop length. It also doesn’t factor in possible objections (in the form of lawsuits) by councils, replacement costs of equipment, specifications of these nodes and how well they are going to cope with the 47 degree days we’ve had in recent summers, or what is going to happen in Queensland when it floods and thousands of powered nodes end up underwater!

From a personal perspective, as most of you probably can guess, my household is a high-tech household. Judging by my routers IP address table, there are 22 devices on my home network at the moment. I’m lucky that when we moved a few months ago, we’re really quite close to the exchange – approximately 400m, as the crow flies – and hence my naked ADSL2+ syncs at 21mbps and I get about 17mbps throughput. However, when I’m playing online games on my PC, my eldest daughter is uploading a youtube video on her laptop, and my wife’s xbox-one decides it’s going to download a 2.2gb update for a new game (which is something that you get no choice in, and can’t be stopped without turning off the power), all of us suffer. So much of our entertainment these days comes from the internet – even our phone line is VoIP based so as to reduce our costs – and bandwidth needs are going to increase, not decrease. My daughter hopes to pursue a career in animation – she has already won an award at school for it – however I’ve had to explain to her that the reason her youtube uploads take several hours is as a direct result of this countries poor communications infrastructure. The NBN was supposed to alleviate these issus and drive this country forward providing a 21st century capable network – sadly, at this rate, it won’t happen.

I also do wonder if, when Tony Abbott said earlier this year “We are absolutely confident 25 megs is going to be enough – more than enough – for the average household.” if he actually understands the difference between megs and gigs? When referring to megs in the speed context, we are talking megabits per second of connectivity – and when talking about gigs, we are talking about gigabytes of data. To download a 1 gig patch for a new Xbox One game, on a 21 meg connection, takes 25 minutes. Put that connection speed up to 100megs and the download takes 5 minutes. Similarly, if we are wanting to download an entire game for the new generation of consoles, that’s currently around 40 gigs of download. On the 21meg connection I have, it would take approximately 30hrs. On a 25meg connection, about 24hrs. 100meg would reduce that to 6hrs – a speed which is approaching acceptable – but nowhere near the amazing speed of FTTP – which, once upgraded to 1000mbps (also known as a gigabit connection) would have that whole 40gb game downloaded in the time it took the 1gb patch to download on the 21 meg connection! It is a truly massive difference – and FTTP is so close to being able to do 1000mbps already!

In light of this, it seems completely and utterly stupid to spend $41bn to provide an outdated technology which must be replaced with FTTP in 2025. We cannot afford to waste this opportunity to do this network properly now, in 2013. If the cost-benefit analysis being commissioned looks at only the short term costs of this network over 10 years, then it will show that the MTM mix is correct – but if it truly is being done with Australia’s best interests in mind, then the terms of reference will look at the cost of the NBN over 20 years, including the cost and time to upgrade everything to FTTP.

Knowing that FTTP is the ultimate goal, to spend $41bn between 2013 and 2021 rolling out a network that will need to be replaced in 2025 with a full FTTP network is not cost effective. As the saying goes, measure twice, cut once – if the cost of rolling out a full FTTP solution by 2024 is $72bn, do it properly, and don’t waste this opportunity by rollling out an outdated technology that needs to be replaced fully 5 years after it’s completed.

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Awesome is genetically modified

I’ve long promised friends to write up my views on genetic engineering. This is the CliffsNotes version. I’ll write something more detailed over summer.

I support the shit out of genetic engineering, and the consumption of genetically modified foods. I dabble in it and I love it where it’s going. I love that today, genetic engineering techniques are orders of magnitude more precise than accepted plant breeding and various mutagenesis techniques.

It’s obviously quite safe. Most food isn’t tested in clinical trials, but genetically modified organisms are tested extensively before being released into the market. Even industry testing is a huge leap from no testing at all. According to various respected independent scientific organisations: in 20 years of testing, by over 500 independent groups, not fucking once in well designed studies has genetically modified food currently on the market been associated with human illness.

I don’t love Monsanto. I don’t love the regulatory environment that ensures that only rich multinationals like Monsanto get to dominate the biotechnology sector. The draconian bureaucracy that chokes biotechnology, largely influenced by manufactured public opposition courtesy of scientifically illiterate moonbat cults like Greenpeace, sets a financially insurmountable hurdle that prevents small, low budget startups (like what I’d love to do to fund my neuroscience education), humanitarian efforts and open source-friendly independent researchers from competing with Big Biotech.

Another obvious problem is the broken patent system. I’m in two minds about it: first, there clearly needs to be restrictions on patenting open source genomes minimally altered with open access sequences available from websites like the Standard Registry of Biological Parts (henceforth just “Parts Registry”); and second, in the case of novel or sophisticated genomes, patenting is probably OK. But patenting should not restrict independent testing. Perhaps firms should be required to donate batches of seeds to registered labs for analysis.

That said, I’m not sure if I believe in compulsory large-scale testing. Very few “synthetic” foods not derived from GMOs are tested at all if they contain no known toxic or illegal compounds. I don’t see much difference between worrying about any unknown chemical reactions between various compounds and those of various sequences of genes. The mere existence of Parts Registry speaks to the precision offered by genetic engineering.

Even the gene gun, criticised for its relative inaccuracy, has been consigned to near-obsolescence due to various high-precision competing technologies (at least, in agricultural biotechnology, it’s still used in human gene therapy with great success).

Such precision for inserting sequences isn’t always necessary to achieve predictable outcomes: recombinant methods offered by viral vectors for gene therapy and even “cruder” methods such as electroporation get the job done.

What people often fail to realise when they go after Monsanto by parroting made up bullshit about genetically modified organisms is that a more open market (though, not totally “free”) conducive to open source and small companies is profoundly anti-corporate. Forget Monsanto, DIY biohacking even has the power to take on Big Pharma, and, by extension, Big Quacka.

It’s taken for granted that conventional agriculture isn’t going to feed 9 billion people. The organic vs. GMO debate, perpetuated by Big Quacka, is fucking stupid. Organic food, generally, offers lower yields for obscene land use. Economical land use is very important, because any land used by humans encroaches on fragile ecosystems. This is why it makes no sense to inadvertently expand farming and explicitly decry cities as taking us away from nature. We need to take up less space if we want to allow ecosystems to thrive.

Organic food may very well play a role in feeding the world, but the ever-advancing field of genetic engineering offers a much better shot. Crops can be tailored for climates, even to withstand levels of city pollution (though I expect that to drop dramatically, if we survive) and to thrive and usher in a revolution of indoor vertical farming. This will combat projected rising food prices (due to global warming and other factors) and make it possible to grow crops where it’s not feasible to do so using other methods. Such efforts are being spearheaded by not-for-profit organisations such as the Mexican International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre.

I hope it’s clear why I frequently call out so-called environmentalists who oppose genetic engineering. Not only do they slow progress in a field that offers novel, powerful solutions to climate change, land use, and so on, but they also work against humanitarian efforts aimed at ameliorating poverty. The most stark, recent example of this is the backlash against golden rice, a theoretically sound and repeatedly proven solution to rampant vitamin A deficiency in third world and developing countries. One can’t help but wonder how many children have died from malnutrition while golden rice, nutrient-enriched cassava and other publicly developed crops remain under lock and key, thanks again to elitist middle class Westerners who really have no excuse for such scientific illiteracy.

Those who have been taken in by denialist literature such as the non-peer-reviewed report/Gish Gallop by EarthOpenSource (Google it, you’ll find it) are invited to read this better document by the European Commission. People concerned with data from long-term animal feeding studies should read this paper (without shooting the messenger, which is too often a convenient excuse for intellectual laziness). And people who thought that Gilles-Eric Séralini found evidence that GMOs cause enormous tumours in rats should look at this (heavy lifting) and/or this. Spoiler alert: his study looks an awful lot like scientific fraud.

(Originally posted as “On genetically engineered food” on my tumblr blog Just Defiance.)

Fukushima’s global fallout

Yoshihiko Noda last week replaced Naoto Kan as Japan’s prime minister due to a widespread backlash against what the public perceived as Kan’s mismanagement of the nation’s recovery following the devastation of the Tohoku quake. Noda is the country’s sixth prime minister in five years. He has barely been on the job for a week and he’s already pledged to do something ill-considered with dangerous international ramifications.

On March 11 this year, the Japanese people suffered what is locally known as the Great East Japan Earthquake. Despite this relatively simple fact ‘Fukushima’, the name of a prefecture within the affected Tohoku region, is the proper noun practically everybody associates with the disaster. Maybe I’m weird, but I think a catastrophic natural disaster that killed thousands of people and left countless more injured is just a mite more important than a comparatively benign peripheral industrial accident. Reports fuelling widespread nuclear phobia have eclipsed coverage of the real tragedy, and this is rapidly generating a series of much larger problems.

Last Friday Noda promised to continue with the previous administration’s plan to slowly phase out the nation’s dependence on nuclear energy. Wait a second, the power plants didn’t cause the earthquake, so what’s going on here? This is where those other problems creep in; the largest being the global issue of anthropogenic climate change and the growing threat of a runaway greenhouse effect, which could potentially kill billions and displace any survivors.

According to Japan’s National Police Agency, the Tohoku quake killed 15,760 people, injured 5,927 and left 4,282 missing. You can find this with references on Wikipedia. The Fukushima Daiichi meltdowns caused by the quake left two workers dead from blood loss. Another 45 people died while or after being evacuated from Futaba hospital in the Fukushima prefecture, many of them from dehydration.

Comparisons were quickly made to that other nuclear accident, the 1986 one in Ukraine, which killed significantly more people but nonetheless scored the same on the IAEA’s international nuclear and radiological event scale. Naturally, politicians around the world promptly reacted by pledging aid for Japan and shitting bricks over the ‘dangers’ of nuclear power. That was when a well-managed industrial accident became a global disaster. It was exasperating to hear not only Australia’s own odd couple Bob Brown and Julia Gillard brainlessly bleating, but also of Germany’s plan to cripple its nuclear energy facilities; a move which analysts predict will cause eight million tonnes of carbon to be released into the atmosphere within three months due to the re-commissioning of coal-fired power plants.

This has happened before on a much larger scale, and it wasn’t pretty: the cancellation of dozens of planned nuclear plants from 1979 onwards in response to pressure from the anti-nuclear movement, in the wake of the Three Mile Island partial meltdown, led to the construction of numerous coal-fired plants through the 1980s. These new plants dumped tens of billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Now, in the 21st century, we really should know better. Environmentalist author Mark Lynas wrote in his recent book The God Species that “[anyone] who marches against nuclear today, as many thousands of people did in Germany following the Fukushima accident, is in my view just as bad for the climate as textbook eco-villains like the big oil companies.”

News outlets played a huge part in catastrophizing public fears. The appearance of the ‘mutant’ bunnies of Fukushima on international television raised the media’s scare campaign to the scale of the Kuwaiti propaganda that arguably lead to the United Nations Security Council intervention in the first Gulf War. Their unspoken aim appears to be to inculcate the public with a blatantly false impression of the risks of nuclear power. By relishing this, the ‘environmental’ factions of the anti-nuclear movement are unwittingly playing right into the hands of their powerful big oil and big coal comrades. For Australia’s union-run Labor Party, this embrace of pollution over facts seems inevitable; but for the Australian Greens, who love to claim the ‘scientific’ high-ground, this is just insane.

Nuclear power is far less dangerous than other forms of power generation. Nuclear fission reactor technology efficiently and reliably meets national requirements for baseload power in ways that current renewable energy technologies cannot. It emits no greenhouse gases and when correctly deployed is otherwise safe for the environment. I would have thought those misanthropic scienticians at Greenpeace would have been quite taken with learning that the ecologies of human-purged nuclear accident sites recover rapidly. Moreover, nuclear waste is less radioactive than coal ash and unlike coal ash, nuclear waste can be consumed using existing technologies to generate more clean electricity. Nuclear power could be better, but I will discuss possible meltdown-proof and waste-consuming reactor technologies in another post. The fact is that the so-called ‘green’ arguments against nuclear energy are unscientific, reactionary and facile.

Which brings me back to Chernobyl. Yes, as I said, it is true that the Fukushima Daiichi incident was ranked by the IAEA as disastrous a nuclear event as Chernobyl. But how bad really was the Chernobyl accident? According to the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation report, the corroborated death toll from the accident stands at around 50. Over the long term, about 4,000 children suffered cases of thyroid cancer due to exposure to radioactive iodine following the accident (which could have been prevented had the Soviets handed out iodine pills to evacuees), but thankfully only 17 of these cases proved fatal. The claim that leukaemia rates were elevated amongst evacuees and their children has all but been been refuted scientifically (the exception is a doubling of leukaemia risk amongst Chernobyl liquidators), and there is no scientific evidence to support claims of an increased incidences of deformities or illnesses in children as a result of radiation exposure. To quote the World Health Organization report: “reviews by the WHO Expert Group revealed no evidence of increased cancer risks, apart from thyroid cancer, that can clearly be attributed to radiation from Chernobyl.”

Try weighing this against the hazards of coal power. Last year alone, for example, coal mining accidents killed 2,433 people in China. This point bears repeating: for every one person who dies per terawatt of electricity generated by nuclear power facilities, pollution and accidents associated with the operation of coal-fired plants kills 4,000 times that number of people for the same amount of electricity.

Even so, radiation exposure can lead to horrible consequences, and we need not look further than the survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings or the more recent victims of poisoning from ‘depleted uranium’ weaponry. But looking at the data, the biggest impact of the Chernobyl accident appears to be the psychological harm suffered by the survivors which has lead to higher rates of depression, somatoform disorders, alcohol abuse and suicide. There was even higher rates of abortion among the population of Eastern European women who believed they had been exposed. Mark Lynas writes in The God Species: “The unfortunate truth is that the general post-Chernobyl anti-nuclear hysteria, reinforced by exaggerated death tolls and impacts published over subsequent years by environmental groups, has probably worsened the victim status trauma suffered by the people who lived in the area.”

Perhaps the real humanitarian disaster of the Fukushima Daiichi accident is that this toxic scaremongering is happening all over again, despite the fact that the Japanese government handed out iodine pills to affected children. The situation in Japan is worse in some respects than Chernobyl. Due to caesium-137 contamination, there is likely to be an increased risk of cancer for those whose homes were located in the most contaminated regions of the disaster exclusion zone; and that area may need to remain evacuated for about 30 years, which obviously makes permanent relocation a real possibility for a number of people. Even so, these statistics indicate that the potential mortality rate from the increased risk of cancer pales in comparison to the almost 16,000 deaths that occurred directly because of the Tohoku quake. These nuances have been largely overlooked by the media, which seems quite content to contribute to the psychological suffering of those marked as victims. Of course, this won’t be helped by those aforementioned bricks shat and still being shitted by our world leaders.

Following the Tohoku disaster, Julia Gillard has again expostulated that we simply don’t need nuclear energy. This is despite our nation’s horrendous pollution profile, and the well-known fact that Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions on a per-person basis are the highest in the world. Not one to be left behind, what with this being his shtick and all, Greens senator Bob Brown entered the fray with the ridiculous claim that nuclear energy generation is outside “the limits of human safeguards.” Yeah, not cool. Also, totally false. In fact, only the Coalition’s scientifically literate (how’s that for an oxymoron) former leader Malcolm Turnbull has offered meaningful commentary on the issue by sticking to his assertion that Australia needs nuclear power to cut our carbon emissions. Yeah, I’m still (grudgingly) voting Green, but I must admit, Turnbull gives me pause here.

Since the tasteless hysteria surrounding Japan’s nuclear accident began, Australia’s ‘Greenhouse Mafia‘ must have found themselves cackling on the inside with the current government’s reactionary regression into anti-nuclear sheepdom. In the past, Australia has succumbed to economic enticements and misinformation from the carbon lobbies to resist going nuclear. But now, what do we have to lose? The carbon tax? What about nationalized nuclear energy instead of carbon taxes? With more sensible and socially responsible taxation measures and initiative, it could be done. Australia hosts some of the world’s richest uranium deposits and therefore we have a very strong uranium mining industry. Our four mines supply 20% of the total uranium consumed by the world’s nuclear plants. Our uranium exports reduce global greenhouse emissions by about 400 million tonnes each year. (This is now likely to be reduced if more countries follow the anti-nuclear fad.) That’s a pretty commendable carbon emissions offset effort, and it’s something we should be proud of. Why not go that way locally?

If Julia Gillard and Bob Brown want to take home a lesson on the risks posed by earthquakes and tidal waves on electricity generation, why not focus on the 1,800 homes that were washed away when a Fukushima district dam used for hydroelectric power generation collapsed during the disaster? Perhaps the dreaded invocation ‘Fukushima’ more appropriately refers to the risks posed by dams built in earthquake-prone regions.

I am not the first Green to embrace nuclear energy. I’ve referenced the recent work of Mark Lynas extensively here. Soon after the Fukushima Daiichi meltdowns, environmentally-inclined Guardian columnist George Monbiot made the switch. Even James Lovelock, de facto Pope of religious Greenism and originator of the batshit crazy Gaia hypothesis, has said “I am a Green and I entreat my friends in the movement to drop their wrongheaded objection to nuclear energy.” Honestly, the switch doesn’t hurt, and it gets better.

On the upside, the decision of the current Japanese administration could give rise to better renewable energy technologies for the rest of the world. The most high-tech nation on the planet may very well end up pioneering solar energy collection satellites and refining geothermal power generation to the point where it could be deployed globally (or maybe not, because the Japanese islands are much more volcanically active than most other countries). But that doesn’t justify Yoshihiko Noda’s reactionary nuclear power policies; and it certainly doesn’t justify the collective puling of the world’s politicians. Thankfully China, home of the world’s second largest and fastest growing economy, has remained grown-up and unfazed by the anti-nuclear panic.

Too many people miss the fact that all life on earth is fuelled by the really big nuclear reactor at the centre of the solar system. We in the Green movement love to play Socrates and ask our opponents to back up their claims with solid proof. This is a really good thing, but we also need to learn to accept the proof we’re given. We shouldn’t cling to beliefs that are no longer supported by the best available evidence. We have a serious climate change problem on our hands, and one of the most important tools we have to address it is nuclear power.