At the heart of the arts is communication – telling stories,
sharing experiences, exposing culture, exchanging ideas. And at the heart of
communication is the technological infrastructure which enables us to interact
when we’re separated by more than a city block. What a pity Australia has spent
twenty years deliberately inhibiting our ability to communicate – and create.
Last month Telstra relaunched its Internet business, BigPond. You can’t help but be swamped with
a multitude of multi-media advertisements, from trams to trains to buses and
the television. BigPond has a sexy new image, and a supermarket-like
distribution with major retail chains such as Harvey Normal stocking easy to
install home ADSL broadband internet starter kits. It all looks fabulous, is a
triumph of marketing and branding, and conveniently ignores the $100 million
Telstra ploughed into its disastrous ‘telstra.com’ all-singing, all-dancing,
one-stop, where-else-would-you-possibly-go web site.
Named internally ‘Project George’ the new launch is all
about Telstra attempting to re-gain momentum in the broadband internet access
market, in the face of increased pressure from dozens of smaller players, many
of whom actually re-sell Telstra broadband – but costing Telstra money because
it makes less from wholesaling broadband than retailing it.
In a quote which takes the breath away, Telstra’s broadband
manager, Justin Milne, was quoted in the Australia newspaper as
saying “We think we’re re-creating the good old
days when things were really booming". I think he means when
things were really booming for Telstra, and, given its ability to extract the
maximum amount of cash from our pockets, as evidenced by its quite remarkable
profits, on that basis I’m not sure I want to return to that golden age.
More interesting is, in the same report, the news that “excess
downloads account for 10 to 20 per cent of revenue, which are incurred by less
than 6 per cent of users.” Telstra ‘caps’ a customer’s usage of the
Internet, based on the amount of data you download or upload. Once you exceed
the cap, you pay by the megabyte. This has led to a raft of well-publicised
incidences of home internet customers signing on for $60 or $70 a month access
plans, then being hit with bills of thousands of dollars. Mostly this can be
attributed to file sharing networks like Kazaa,
where you setup your PC to share music and other files with users across the
File sharing all seems very caring and sharing, until you
discover that, as long as your computer is turned on and connected to the
Internet, anyone in the world could be downloading files from your PC. Multiply
that by the number of people registered to the file sharing networks (Kazaa
claims 230 million users) and the potential number of people accessing your
computer is truly scary – they can all download your files, and that translates
to serious data moving up and down your broadband connection.
The maths are easy. A MP3 music song file is normally around
3 megabytes (give or take). If you are on the basic Telstra broadband plan with
a 500meg monthly cap, it only needs 5 people to download a file each day and
you are over the limit – and there’s 230 million Kazaa users alone clamouring
to do just that.
So why all this focus on data charges? Well, it’s been
mooted that this is a contributing factor to the slow pace of broadband
internet connection uptake in Australia.
There’s something of a perception out there Australians are
fast adopters of technology. True, it seems, if you examine history. But for such
a ‘switched on’ country, it may come as a surprise to find that the body
charged with promoting competition, the ACCC, has
“The OECD ranks Australia
19th in terms of the number of broadband users per 100 inhabitants. NOIE data
also shows low levels of household broadband take-up comparative to other
developed countries – only 5% of Australian home internet connections are via
broadband, much lower than Hong Kong (52%), Singapore (25%), the US (19%) and
And thank heavens for the ACCC because otherwise we might
not even have made it that far to start with. It took major action by the
watchdog in 2001 to force Telstra’s hand on broadband pricing, with Chairman Fels
and his merry band of consumer champions threatening
Telstra with fines of millions of dollars if Telstra didn’t open up its
network and enable other retailers to access wholesale ADSL connections.
Hard on the heels of the BigPond relaunch came Telstra
executives giving evidence at a Senate Committee meeting, saying that they
have halted the roll out of ADSL to telephone exchanges, and that Telstra will
“now only add new exchanges if they become ‘commercially viable’”.
Senator Kate Lundy, Shadow Minister for Arts and Information
Technology, and new Arts Hub columnist, wasn’t impressed:
"In the context of
eventually achieving universal broadband we are so far from that … it is a
lot worse than I thought."
What exactly constitutes ‘commercially viable’ is something
Telstra won’t say – which makes life a little hard for all those people who’d
love to take up the offer of fantastically fast internet promised in the
BigPond advertising, but who are being told it’s not available in their area.
It’s easy to understand why Telstra loves broadband,
providing it’s on their terms. The broadband web site Whirlpool says Telstra’s “average
revenue from a broadband customer is 3.5 times the revenue from a dialup
So, despite the fact we techno-loving Australians lag behind
the vast majority of the developed world in broadband adoption (the Government’s own figures have us dead last in their regular survey), commercial viability has struck, or at least,
commercial viability as determined by the monopoly telecommunications provider,
which not only controls the telephone lines; almost all the broadband provision
technology; but which also controls the content as well, with its mega-millions deals
with various sporting codes, and its 50% ownership of Foxtel, the ‘broadband’ television
broadcaster – the other 50% of course being owned by those other ‘men of the
people’, Mr Packer and Mr Murdoch.
It’s easy to bash Telstra, it’s a national sport, and, in my
more dreamy moments I almost feel some sympathy for them, but then I snap to my
senses and realise that Telstra’s just doing its job like any other corporation
– making money for its shareholders. Except I’m a shareholder – because despite
the Howard government’s best attempts, we the people still own 50.1% of the
I fell over an
article by Robert Clark on telecomasia.net while researching this column
which makes for fascinating reading. It confirms my anecdotal understanding,
that you can trace the current disasters back into time to the Hawke-Keating
decision to allow two competing pay television cables to be laid – at such vast
expense neither company, ten or more years later, has found a way to
recoup their investment and turn a profit.
Clark quotes Ewan Sutherland, chief executive of the
International Telecommunications Users’ Group (INTUG):
"Australia’s target is so
far down the world ranking it’s just not true, and I’d say you were running a
decade behind world leaders like Korea," Sutherland says. "So if your
target is world-class mediocrity, then Australia seems to have
made that target."
Clark places the blame firmly at the feet of the governments
of the day:
broadband crisis is the result of two decades of failed telecommunications
I’ll let you read the whole
article, just try not to get too depressed.
So where’s all this going? I think it’s obvious: if the
development of a vibrant culture, a community of diverse and rich art
endeavour is underpinned by communication, then we’ve effectively spent twenty
years shooting ourselves in the foot.
I harbour slight longings to move to China – a thought
prompted by a friends’ comments over dinner a few weeks ago. He and his wife
recently returned from a stint in China. He told us about the Chinese
government’s commitments to establish very fast broadband internet connections
and compulsorily install them through new apartment buildings.
I checked out some news and research reports online and came
up with nuggets like:
“The Chinese government is
determined to position China as a world leader in broadband
“Informatization has become
the core of China‘s economic development and industrial growth
and is a top priority at all government levels. Holistic informatization of the
economy, political structure, and society requires adroit planning, deft
administration, and a central leadership. China’s newest leading group –
Premier Zhu Rongji’s State Informatization Leading Group (SILG) – is seen to
potentially provide this central leadership. One of SILG’s focus is
coordinating convergence between all digital media over one pipe and
development of a viable broadband business model.” 2
‘Informatization’ is a terrific word, and of course I’m
quick to note the ‘central leadership’ reference. The reality of the ‘central
leadership’ is not always positive outcomes for the people, but it has one
massive advantage – when the leaders decided to do something, it happens – and
on a big scale, which is the only way they know how in a place the size of China.
It’s summed up well by the man who should know, Wu Jichuan,
the Chinese Minister of Information Industry in a conference
speech earlier this year:
“The Chinese government has
made it clear that it will be committed to ICT-driven industrialization by
using ICT to develop and upgrade the traditional industries, and to promote the
optimization and the sustainable development of the industry as a whole. It will
promote ICT applications in various fields, further develop and utilize the
information resources and facilitate the informatization of the national
economy and society. By doing so, China‘s information industry
will become a pillar industry of the national economy.”
The Federal Government’s own Broadband Advisory Group is
under no illusion. The first paragraph of its recent report, Australia’s Broadband Connectivity says:
technologies can deliver substantial economic and social benefits to Australia.
They reduce the constraint of distance and greatly increase the quality of
communications in many sectors. Their defining characteristics (fast, always-on)
enable a paradigm shift in the way people or resources (such as computers)
interrelate. In short, broadband technologies can transform the way people
live, work and do business.”
And what’s the impediment? Ewan Sutherland from INTUG is emphatic:
“It is really metered broadband in Australia and New
Zealand that seems to be the barrier.”
In June this year the Government announced
its response to the Esten’s Inquiry into Regional Telecommunications, with
funding of $142.8 million over four years for the development of a National
Broadband Strategy (NBS). A central objective of the NBS will be to provide access
to affordable broadband services in regional Australia.
There’s much motherhood in the NBS, and lot’s of talk about
creating equity of access for regional Australia. But nothing about redressing
the fundamental structural problems highlighted by Robert Clark.
My theory is simple. I don’t want my broadband ‘connection’
to be free, what I want is not to have to take out a mortgage to use it.
Let’s rewind twenty years. Cue wavy lines and dreamy music. The
government of the day decides that high speed data is fundamental to the growth
of the Australian community, and economy. Our leaders determine we should have
a national infrastructure project to provide future-proof, broadband data
(which can include television) to all Australians – the same as the much-lauded
right to a telephone (get with the program guys, Alexander Bell invented the telephone in
1876). You think we’d moved on…
Because there’s only one network, for the same cost as Optus
and Foxtel spent vainly rolling out two separate, competing networks, every
telephone exchange in the country is converted to providing high speed data.
The Government then leases space on its network to content and service
providers – and ignores the lobbies of the media moguls seeking to protect
their traditional broadcasting rivers of gold . It caps the connection charges
at a rate mere mortals can afford, and doesn’t penalise high capacity users
(you know, the ones swapping large files like pictures and music) thereby
promoting the ability for every Australian to share information, dialogue and
creativity. And along the way, to do business, embark on e-commerce, and export
Australian knowledge and expertise and culture to the world.
Be interesting to see how that utopian dream might have
affected Australia’s economy, and culture, over the past twenty years, instead
of us hobbling forward trying to recover from the bullet wound in our foot.