The latest news in the Australian IT industry is the new National Broadband Network (NBN) plan . It will involve rolling out Fiber To The Home for 90% of the population, the plan is that it will cost the government $43,000,000,000 making it the biggest government project. Kevin Rudd used Twitter to say “Just announced biggest ever investment in Australian broadband – really exciting, infrastructure for the future” .
Now whenever someone says that a certain quantity of a resource is enough you can expect someone to try and refute that claim by mentioning that Bill Gates supposedly stated that “640K is enough” when referring to the RAM limits of the original IBM PC. As an aside, it’s generally believed that Bill Gates actually didn’t claim that 640K would be enough RAM, Wikiquote has him claiming to have never said any such thing . He did however say that he had hoped that it would be enough for 10 years. I think that I needed that disclaimer before stating that I think that broadband speeds in Australia are high enough at the moment.
In any computer system you will have one or more resources that will be limited and will be bottlenecks that limit the overall performance. Adding more of other resources will often make no difference to performance that a user might notice.
On the machine I’m using right now to browse the web the bottleneck is RAM. A combination of bloated web pages and memory inefficient web browsers uses lots of memory, I have 1.5G of RAM and currently there is 1.3G of swap in use and performance suffers because of it. It’s not uncommon for the machine to page enough that the mouse cursor is not responsive while browsing the web.
My options for getting faster net access on this machine are to add more RAM (it can’t take more than 2G – so that doesn’t gain much), to use more memory efficient web browsers and X server, and to simply buy a new machine. Dell is currently selling desktop machines with 2G of RAM, as they are 64bit systems and will therefore use more memory than 32bit systems for the same tasks they will probably give less performance than my 32bit machine with 1.5G of RAM for my usage patterns.
Also the latest EeePC  ships with 1G of RAM as standard and is limited to a maximum of 2G, I think that this is typical of Netbook class systems. I don’t use my EeePC for any serious work, but I know some people who do.
Does anyone have suggestions on memory efficient web browsers for Linux? I’m currently using Konqueror and Iceweasel (Firefox). Maybe the government could get a better return on their investment by spending a small amount of money sponsoring the development of free web browsers. A million dollars spent on optimising Firefox seems likely to provide good performance benefits for everyone.
My wife’s web browsing experience is bottlenecked by the speed of the video hardware in her machine (built-in video on a Dell PowerEdge T105 which is an ATI ES1000). The recent dramatic price reductions of large TFT monitors seem likely to make video performance more of an issue, and also increases the RAM used by the X server.
Someone who has reasonably good net access at the moment will have an ADSL2+ connection and a computer that is equivalent to a low-end new Dell machine (which is more powerful than the majority of systems in use). In that case the bottleneck will be in the PC used for web browsing if you are doing anything serious (EG having dozens of windows open, including PDFs and other files that are commonly loaded from the web). If however a machine was used for simply downloading web pages with large pictures in a single session then FTTH would provide a real benefit. Downloading movies over the net would also benefit a lot from FTTH. So it seems to me that browsing the web for research and education (which involves cross-referencing many sites) would gain more of a benefit from new hardware (which will become cheap in a few years) while porn surfing and downloading movies would gain significantly from FTTH.
The NBN will have the potential to offer great bi-directional speeds. The ADSL technology imposes a limit on the combination of upload and download speeds, and due to interference it’s apparently technically easier to get a high download speed. But the upload speeds could be improved a lot by using different DSLAMS. Being able to send out data at a reasonable speed (20Mbit/s or more) has the potential to significantly improve the use of the net in Australia. But if the major ISPs continue to have terms of service prohibiting the running of servers then that won’t make much difference to most users.
Finally there’s the issue of International data transfer which is slow and expensive. This is going to keep all affordable net access plans limited to a small quota (20G of downloads per month or less).
It seems to me that the best way of spending taxpayer money to improve net access would be to provide better connectivity to the rest of the world through subsidised International links.