What I would do with $43B

The Australian Government has kicked off a $43B National Broadband Network (NBN) to give everyone in a Australia a 100Mbit/s fibre connection. It’s the biggest infrastructure project in our history, and represents about $2100 per person of unfunded government debt. The theory is that it will make us more productive, help education, health and business.

Funny thing is I am quite content with my 1Mbit/s DSL, in fact I could live with 128kbit/s for my web surfing, email, and occasional tarball download. I find email to be the most useful thing on the Internet, and that works fine over dial up. My kids soak up the extra bandwidth for movies, but that is hardly making the country more productive (probably the opposite). The best thing about DSL is that it’s always on, rather than the speed. Maybe I am atypical, but I have never said, “I wish I had faster Internet” while using DSL.

Reminds me a bit of Windows and MS Office. Once a certain level of performance/GUI was reached (Windows 95 and MS Office 97) everything that came afterwards was (expensive) fluff. Well once I obtained always on connectivity via DSL, I reached that “good enough” point.

I think we can do better. Here are some ideas I have for spending AUD$43B over 8 years:

  1. EV conversions: Lets convert every small car in Australia to be a 100km range EV. Now there are 20M people here, so maybe 5M small cars. That gives us $8,600 per car. A current 100km conversion in quantity 1 costs about $25,000, but in quantity 5M we can expect some big discounts for volume, so $8,600 should do it. Actually for $8,600 each we could probably build new EVs, however recycling a petrol car saves a lot of energy embodied in the manufacturing process. A 100km range EV would cover 90% of the populations driving needs (it does for our family). Pleasant side effects would be the creation of a new (export) industry, lower greenhouse emissions (if charged from green electricity), and radically reduced dependence on foreign oil.
  2. PV solar or Wind: Lets put PV solar on every house in Australia. I am guessing there are about 8M houses (2-ish people per residence), this means $5,400 per residence. A 1kW PV system costs about $12,000 today (although we currently get an $8,000 rebate). However it’s reasonable to assume at least 50% plus quantity discount for 5M so $5,400 should do it easily. That’s a total of 5GW of PV solar. That’s about twice the current peak electricity generation capacity of the state of South Australia where I live. Actually that’s probably pessimistic, industry standards are drifting down to USD$2/watt, so $43B would give us 15GW of PV solar (at 1AUD = 0.7USD). With wind power we could do even better, $43B would buy us perhaps 30GW at such a high level of investment. Now 30GW ($1USD/watt) at a wind power activity factor of 30% is 30E9(0.3)(24 hours/day)(365 day/year)/(1E3 W/kW) = 78BkWh/year. In 2005 Australia consumed 220BkWh, so thats a big chunk of our power. With some reasonable electricity consumption measures we could probably live on one third of our current consumption.
  3. Mesh Potato: The Mesh Potato is a Wifi mesh router with VOIP. You place one on your roof, and it self-forms a telephone network by talking to other Mesh Potatoes on nearby houses. It doesn’t need cell phone towers of land lines. Or phone companies. Lets say in very high volume we can install a Mesh Potato with a solar panel and battery to power it for $100 per house. With $43B we could install 430M mesh potatoes. That’s too many for Australia (only 8M houses), so we could put one on every house in Australia and North America. Or globally its one for every 28 people on the planet. Even better – distribute Mesh Potato networks to the poorest 1B of the world, which makes in 1 phone for every three people. This would build a global telephone network so we could all make free phone calls to each other. As a side effect it would build a free Internet backbone that is independent of land lines, governments, cell phone towers (it uses unlicensed spectrum), and telephone companies. Obviously some scaling and number of mesh hop problems but for $43B I am sure they can be solved!

7 thoughts on “What I would do with $43B”

  1. Is that $43 x 10^9 or $43 x 10^12 AUD? I can never remember who is still using long scale billions. Either way, it’s a lot of money.

    Here in the US, we have tremendous disparity in internet service between urban and rural areas. In many urban and suburban areas, 20M or even 50M asymmetric internet service is available, and 6-8M in/.5-1M out is pretty common. In the rural areas, users are stuck with dialup or relatively expensive satellite service that is not particularly fast. So our government is making noise about a national “broadband” rollout.

    I personally believe that the opportunities to deliver education (mostly to children) makes this a good idea. I see how much my kid uses the internet for schoolwork — no student in her high school could get by without reasonable internet access. The textbooks and supplemental materials are online. Audio for her foreign language class and music theory class are all online.

    What makes me nervous is the government — which cannot seem to do anything efficiently — being in charge of this. I would much prefer to see private contractors bidding for this work.

    I’d be happy to trade you our stupid bailout (USA) for yours. Let me know.

  2. Hi Jeff,

    1B = 1E9 in AU. Nah I’ll keep our economy over the US one thanks :-) Our bailout is a funny one – the Government has sent me (and everyone else) cheques for a total $6,000 over the past few months, the ideas is to stimulate the economy. Our banks are in pretty good shape, but real estate is (IMHO) massively over priced at an average of around 8 times average earnings (the US peaked at less than that).

    Re rural Internet we had a universal service obligation that meant anyone under a gum tree in the outback got satellite Internet subsidised by the government, this is reasonably fast but with fairly high latency. Quite usable for most things you mentioned for you children’s school work, though.

    Interesting factoid: Despite the rumours AU is actually one of the most urbanised countries in the world, only a tiny proportion of our population lives outside of the major cities and towns.

    I am a bit of an old socialist so actually think the Government should act to provide stuff like basic telecoms (which these days includes Internet), plus even basic fee-free banking services and health care (we have socialised medicine here which is creaking but functional).

  3. That’s interesting. You have creaking but functional socialised medicine and you think there should be more socialised services, like banking, telecoms, etc. Hmmm.

  4. Yes Hans I sure would. I have sampled the U.S. health system ($1200 for 4 stitches and an ECG) and visited a few 3rd world countries.

    A health system “creaking” by Australian standards is much better than many other countries! I just had a graphic example: my 91 year old Aunty has a (not too urgent) heart problem. There is a new operation that can fix it via keyhole surgery, at a cost $30,000. This is covered for free and can be performed immediately, as her late husband was a WW2 veteran. For others there would be a waiting list as they ration the budget to so many operations a year.

  5. I guess the TV people had the right political clout. :-) Is anything other than video seen as a meaningful use of such huge domestic bandwidth? I know there’s a potential chicken and egg thing here, but should a country spend $2k per person without some clue why? ADSL2+ gets 20M or more at very low cost. To date most domestic fibre rollouts have been justified on the basis of eliminating competition.

  6. hi david,

    Simon Hackett identifies the real broadband priorities in this order: (1) coverage (2) price (3) competition (4) innovation (5) speed

    ie. speed as the last of five not the first

    He recommends building the new fibre to the home network outside in fixing the blackspots first and installing where ADSL2+ is already present later

    Retain the existing copper in parallel to the new system so people have the option to retain the slower ADSL2+ if they want

    There is a pdf and video on this page explaining his plan in more detail:

    Of course it’s possible the government will find a way to get it wrong but if they stick with the Hackett plan then I’m in favour

  7. Regarding of solar and wind power I have noticed the site home-made-energy.org which claims to be able to present me with plans to be able to build solar panels from easily obtainable and cheap materials for a fraction of the cost of we a used to. Wind as well.
    I can see how home built wind power might be possible but cheap solar panels seems to me to be in the too good to be true catagory.

    Therefore I have not forked out the $200 or whatever to obtain the plans. Has anyone any information on this?
    Be great if it were possible, imagine being able to recharge my EV with solar.

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