Click to Start – A Tourniquet on Cultural Endeavour

Do you broadband? I know I do. If you do, can you imagine
going back to dialup? I know I can’t. Data makes the world go round, literally
these days. Which is why it’s a pity that a new research report has found Australia remains the broadband backwater of the world.

Back in August 2003 I wrote a Click to Start column entitled ‘Twenty
Years of Shooting Ourselves in the Foot’ [i]. The article was sparked by Telstra relaunching
BigPond, with sassy advertisements, and deals so you could buy ADSL broadband internet from Harvey Norman. It was all about Telstra attempting to re-gain
momentum in the broadband internet access marketplace.

It all went so swimmingly well – except it seemed to have
no effect.

In that article I also gave some of the research which
had found Australia ranked pretty much last in the OECD countries for broadband users
per 100 people. I also noted that the price-gouging fee schedules were
going to be a problem. And I was right – earlier this year Telstra re-launched
all over again, even sassier advertisements, and broadband priced from
$29.95 – the average cost of a dialup internet connection. Bringing down
the wrath of the ACCC in the process, because this was less than the wholesale
price Telstra was charging its ADSL resellers, consequently dramatically
undercutting them.

But, as with everything to do with Telstra, there’s always
a catch. $29.95 only gets you 256k/64k speeds – which barely qualifies
as broadband, and a cap of 200 meg of data a month – which is nothing.
I’d go through that in a few days. Telstra almost owns up, they describe
it as ‘Light use, or exploring ADSL’. If you want faster speeds, or bigger
downloads, then you’ll pay – big time.

I thought it might be interesting to revisit the issue,
and I’m prompted by research just released which says Australia is still in a ‘broadband backwater’. Research company IDC says [ii]:

Australia will
have a broadband penetration of 13% by 2008. The study reveals that
Australia remains
in the broadband backwater when benchmarked against other developed countries,
and alarmingly IDC predicts the situation will remain the same over the

next 5 years.”

It’s not just the actual number of connections, it’s the

speed as well:

“IDC found that most Australia broadband subscribers
have an access download speed of 256 or 512Kbps, which significantly
limits the delivery of content and hinders potential initiatives for
high-content value proposition such as TVoVDSL [TV
over the internet] and VoIP services. [voice services over the internet]”

IDC offers contrasts with other countries:

“For example, France‘s
second largest broadband service providers, Iliad, offers free national
phone calls, 2Mpbs ADSL and 100+ TV channels for about the third of the
price for what you would get in
There is still a long way to go for Australian consumers to get a decent

It’s interesting that Telstra is all of a sudden offering 100 free local calls to customers who bundle telephone, mobile and internet
on the one bill – clearly they’ve been watching countries like France. But they can’t bring themselves to match the offers available overseas. We all know price is a key driver – Telstra’s reported a huge surge in
the number of people signing up for the new el-cheapo broadband.

But it’s a false success. It’s also clear that once those people have signed on and used the service for a month or two, Telstra
is hoping they will upgrade to higher plans, once the customers realise they’ve got a kind of claytons broadband – the lowest possible speed, and
the minimum amount of data. Restrictions which will inevitably become frustrating, forcing them to stump up for the higher access plans – which start at $49.95
a month, and still with speed caps. Low speeds and low caps are like squeezing the bandwidth pipe – it’s capable of much more, but for commercial reasons
Telstra clamps it down, restricting the data flow.

We’ve got Telstra ADSL at home, we pay $90 a month for
a 512k connection and no usage cap. No cap is great, but the speed is still
at the low end of what is technically termed broadband. I’d far rather
be in the USA for example. ATT, one of their big telecommunications companies will
give me a 1.5meg/128k ADSL plan for $US39.95 a month – that’s about $AUD59.
The equivalent plan with Telstra costs $AUD119.95 a month. I remember my first online experience. It was around 1991, while working for a theatre in Sydney. I discovered a modem tucked away, and discovered I could connect it to one of the PCs in the office. I dialled up and connected to the Dick
Smith Electronics Bulletin Board. Bulletin Boards were a kind of precursor
to the internet for many people. They were private communities, accessed
via a dialup connection. In the case of the DSE Board, it gave you the
chance to download files and send messages to each other. It was slow,
oh so slow – using a 2,400 baud modem (that’s about 10 times slower than
the present day 56k dial up modems, and 100 times slower than my current
512k home broadband internet connection (and 200 times slower than my office
internet connection).

But I didn’t notice the speed – for two reasons. First
I had nothing to benchmark it against, I just thought this was normal. Secondly,
I was only working with text – no pictures, no sound, no web pages, no
movies, just lines of text on a monochrome computer screen.

I can’t really remember much of what I used the DSE Board
for, but as a certified geek, I probably just revelled in the warm feeling
of making it work, irrespective of the practical application.

Over the years I sped up. In 1992 or so I encountered the
internet for the first time – just before the world wide web arrived. I
used Gopher and Archie and a number of other online tools – all text based – to
search library catalogues and to participate in discussion groups. Back
then the literary arts were online – books, essays, stories, poetry. Text
based art was the only art which was possible (other than ASCII art – making
pictures with keyboard characters). I went from my trusty 2,400 baud modem
to a 9,600 baud version, and then, with the advent of the world wide web
in all its graphic glory, what I thought was luxury – a 28,000 baud modem.
It could even send faxes as well.

In the mid-1990s I moved to a 56k modem – and I thought
all my Christmases had come at once. And in the late 1990s I moved to
ISDN (an old technology Telstra continued to try and flog as a high speed
internet alternative as a way of avoiding rolling out ADSL, and maximising
profits – ISDN was very expensive and Telstra made a bundle from it).

Then finally I moved to a broadband ADSL connection, when
we installed one at the office – and all my Christmases, birthdays, anniversaries
and public holidays had arrived – a 1 megabyte broadband internet connection.
Fast enough to watch movies, listen to music, transfer large files etc.

It changed our business. With our ISDN connection it used
to take an hour and a half to email an Arts Hub Jobs Bulletin. Now it clears
in 10 minutes.

So what’s the point of this little history lesson? My speed
of access kept pace – generally – with my use of the Internet. Broadband
for me in 1991 wouldn’t have been such a big boon.

But that was 13 years ago. The world has changed. What
seems unfortunate to me is that certain elements in our community don’t
understand the degree to which the world has changed, or harbour other
more selfish reasons for not keeping pace.

Try searching Google for ‘importance of broadband’ and
you’ll quickly get the picture of why broadband is so completely critical.
For example, you’ll find a report by US internet equipment giant Cisco [iii], which discusses a study named ‘Net Impact
in 2002’, conducted by a group of researchers, which concluded that:

“Results indicate that adopting IBSs [internet
business solutions] in both the
and Europe would
generate substantial productivity gains. Consider the
United States first: The
study forecasts that Internet business solutions alone could account
for 48 percent of the projected
U.S. productivity
growth rate by 2010.

Europe paints a similar picture. When all current and planned IBSs are complete by 2010, the Net Impact study concludes that these

solutions could account for 30 percent of the projected European productivity growth rate.”

I think this quote sets the context well, it’s from a report
entitled ‘Developing Broadband Infrastructure and Services in Western Australia’ released in September
2003 [iv]:

“The economic case for broadband and its significance can be put into context by looking at similar capacity changes in national

infrastructure such as rail, roads, electricity and telecommunications.
Each of these significantly changed the way that economic activity was
undertaken by firms and citizens, enabling new activities to develop,
providing economies with competitive and comparative advantages. Importantly,
many of these benefits were unforeseen when the original infrastructure
investments were made, yet today it is difficult to conceive how our
daily lives and economic activity would function in their absence.”

It’s the final sentence which is possibly the most important.
It’s about the latent demand, the activities and use which only become
possible once the broadband infrastructure becomes available – but which
might not be specifically identifiable now.

Writing in the M/C Journal Gerard Goggin rounds off the subject nicely [v]:

“The story of broadband so far underscores the predicament for Australian access to bandwidth, when we lack any comprehensive, integrated, effective, and fair policy in communications and information technology.
We have only begun to experiment with broadband technologies and understand
their evolving uses, cultural forms, and the sense in which they rework
us as subjects.”

The government keeps telling us Australia is a film-making capital of the world. The government keeps banging
on how Melbourne is a hot computer gaming software centre. The government keeps promoting Australia’s unique capacity for cultural creation.

But gee, we were doing those things before broadband came

In an article entitled ‘The Future of Work in The Creative
Age’, the Executive Director of The California Institute for Smart Communities, John
M. Eger, writing on the Cultural
web site in May this year, talks about the advance of the ‘Creative
Age’ – highlighted by Richard Florida’s now seminal book ‘The Rise of the Creative Class’.

Eger suggests there are three things hindering the rise of the creatives [vi]:

“We also need to begin the process of nurturing “the Creative Community”, one that that fully recognizes the basic shift

in the structure of the global economy from one based on the production
of goods and services to one based on the production, storage, transfer
and use of knowledge or information; and, as such, promotes: 1) connectivity
to ensure we have the new–broadband, 24/7, wired and wireless–information
infrastructures for the 21st century; 2) collaboration and civic engagement
to provide the kind of leadership the digital age requires; and 3) creativity
in all its forms–in the schools, in the workplace, and throughout the

In his book, Richard Florida calculates the value to the US economy of the ‘creative class’ as “nearly half all wage and salary income in the United States, $1.7 trillion dollars, as much as the manufacturing and service
sectors combined”.

Now, if we could resolve the issues Eger raises, and
if Florida’s numbers are right, that’s a mighty powerful argument for taking
the lead and resolving the data and information infrastructures servicing Australia’s population.

Memo to the Australian Government, CC to Telstra: Lack
of affordable bandwidth is like a tourniquet on cultural endeavour. It
slows communication; it impedes commercial enterprise; it restricts discourse;
it adds costs to the creators of cultural content; and it prevents audiences
consuming the content. And it ensures Australia will remain at the bottom of the global ladder. So much for the Clever
Country – more like the slow country.