I have a large caché of articles to go through this month, mostly because my flow from brain to “web” was interrupted. Unfortunately, moving interstate without a properly-researched plan can do this. I will go over the specifics of what happened upon arrival in Sydney at another point. Suffice to say for now that this is a sort of introduction to the future of this journal.
Moving once, especially when you have so much crap you do not need and explicitly stated should just be put away, is difficult enough. Moving twice within a matter of weeks is really a lot more than most people can take. As I have written elsewhere, there is a common misconception that one could fit substantial portions of Europe into Australia. But much like the case with different nations within Europe, each state in Australia seems to have a different language, a different culture, a different expectation in terms of service quality, and a different understanding of various issues. I really shudder to imagine what the expected quality of infrastructure and service is in what they call the Northern Territory.
This morning, December the third of 2012, a gentleman came to the granny flat I live in and inspected the telephone sockets in it. He told me, quite simply, that the connection from the street into the house was not there, and that this would need to be fixed before I could get back online. I suppose that is preferable to the nightmare scenario I had built in my head where they ended up connecting the wrong place, but it is still one of those moments that make one think “what the hell?”. Or to quote one of the satiristic song titles I dreamed up when I was about twelve years old, this is a thing that makes you go… shiiiiiit.
Unfortunately, this is just the state that our world is in. In the absence of the money to pay for new communication technologies to be developed, we continue stacking new extensions on top of old systems. The copper wire was obsolete the day that the modem could transmit data at a faster rate than 2400 bits per second. Whilst copper cabling and copper wiring itself is still useful for electricity and similar applications, it has left quite a lot to be desired in terms of transmitting data.
In the 1980s, when 2400 bit per second modems were first being released, electronics companies were saying this is it, this is as fast as they will ever get and so forth. Now, I know what a lot of people around my age are going to say in response to this, but to some extent, that happens to be true. You see, in order to achieve speeds above 2400 bits per second, all the way up to 57.6 kilobits per second as was the case for the last dial-up modem, workarounds had to be implemented. The higher speeds were not merely achieved by going faster, they also compressed data on the fly and shot packets of it through the copper wire. I do not pretend for a second to fully understand how it all works, but the thing is, whilst the two connected computers would indeed send data to each other at up to 57.6 kilobits a second, very frequently this would stretch the copper wire’s capability that little bit too far, resulting in a lost connection.
All of this is academic nowadays, since pretty much every connection is in some form “broadband”, with speeds that make those 57.6 kilobit per second modems look much as a Model T looks to a Statesman. But the thing is, the majority of so-called broadband connections available in Australia nowadays use ADSL, or Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line, technology. The idea being that by utilising frequencies that a voice telephone call never bothers with, the ADSL modems can speak to one another a good deal more rapidly than the conventional dial-up modems, which used the voice telephone line and frequencies.
All well and good, but the same problem remains. It is still using the same copper wire and cabling that the old dial-up modems used. When I first dipped my toes into broadband Internet, I did so with a cable modem. ADSL, whilst available, had been handled so poorly in roll-out terms that it was one of the great techie jokes of the time. Cable modems have their own problems, of course, but being able to connect and stay connected at a time when the dial-up service provider was hanging up in mid-download at least once an hour was nice.
I will be brief about the time I spent in Melbourne. Both costs and issues in terms of getting balls rolling meant I ended up using dial-up Internet the entire time I was there. Dial-up was still an acceptable option for most, if not all, Internet applications at the time, so I just stuck with it.
However, with people expecting to be able to download an entire compact disc in less time than it would take to record, produce, and mix the music for themselves, and games like World Of Warcraft in the sphere, dial-up is no longer a viable option. Which brings some interesting questions to bear. Presently, the system by which consumers get Internet access in their home is, to put it kindly, a fukking mess. Regardless of which provider one chooses, the so-called backbone, a telephone company in most cases, has to be sweet-talked into providing the cabling and port by which the connection is made. Then the connection itself has to be converted into a form suitable for use as broadband Internet. This simplistic description belies the fact that there are multiple sub-steps in each step of the process, and thus a number of points of failure that would get a beginning engineering student some well-earned bad marks is entailed.
This, I believe, is the rationale that governments like Australia’s have in trying to get the ball rolling on what Australia’s calls a National Broadband Network, or NBN. Since the technology by which ordinary ‘phone calls are made is growing more and more obsolete, the thinking goes something like why not just rip it all out and put something more forward-thinking in its place. Unfortunately, there are a number of problems with this proposal, too. In the 1980s, when dial-up modems began to show the first signs of not being up for the job asked of them, technology moved at a relatively sedate pace compared to today. That Amiga 500 someone bought in 1986 would still run Commodore Amiga programs written in 1992, and so on. Unfortunately, the endless upgrade treadmill that we are expected to walk on also targets governments and infrastructures, so every time the government and its myriad of heads can agree on what kind of cable should be used to connect households to the Internet proper, a newer, ostensibly better method comes out of the woodwork.
This, of course, prompts whinging and moaning from citizens about how the government is always behind and the NBN will never work and blah blah blah. This reminds me of the days when ADSL was first rolled out. Even today, in terms of speed relative to money paid, cable modem is still the better option so far as I know. (Availability is, of course, another matter.) Secondly, look at that roll-out, all the jokes made about how well it went, and then look directly at me and tell me you think that private enterprise could do any better. This vanity that private enterprises promote that they do this and that and the other without any government involvement whatsoever is just that – a vanity. Even today, without the telephone infrastructure that the government laid out or paid most of the money to have laid out, ADSL-based service providers could not do a singular transaction of business.
But I digress. The simple fact is that in the years from 1980 to 1996, it was a constant wet dream of speculators that one day, the old copper wire telephone network would be replaced with a whole new network that could transmit anything the user wanted into their home. It is now rapidly approaching the year 2013, and that still has not happened yet. If that is not a slap in the face to conservative economists everywhere and everywhen, well, they are idiots. How many generations have to go through a significant part of their lives in an economy that suppresses innovation by destroying most of its competitors before these tossers finally admit to thenselves that deregulation does not work?
So, after all of this ranting, what can I say in summation? Sydney is by far the most civilised, least stupidity-tolerant, and most advanced part of Australia. There are no two ways about that. But after experiencing what Sydney has to offer in terms of communicative infrastructure, I would have to say that the most advanced part of Australia needs to go forward another century to catch up with where Japan would be at today. And I suspect a big part of the reason has to do with there being less smug, self-aggrandising bullshit about how good they are, and more getting on with making themselves good enough to justify the self-aggrandising bullshit in the first place.