Australia’s broadband dilemma

Workers in Australia’s ICT industry have never had it so good – not only has broadband taken its place as a ‘water cooler’ topic, it has brought with it unprecedented levels of investment. But not everyone’s happy.

I sat at a roundtable held at the Australian High Commission in Singapore yesterday with a trade delegation from Australia, made up of organisations including peak industry bodies the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA) and the Communications Alliance and iiNet, an Australian internet provider.

Research and development was represented by two leading government agencies: the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and National ICT Australia (NICTA), with the lone government voice heralding from Queensland.

Opposite were a string of members from Singapore’s Infocomm Development Agency (IDA) and local and regional industry representatives and academics.

As its title suggests, the Digital Economy and Broadband Application delegation’s role is to ‘examine the benefits of high speed broadband and opportunities created by the National Broadband Network (NBN) rollout’.

Another job for the intrepid travellers has been to tout Australia’s own ICT research sector – Australian innovation is at the core of Wireless LAN, the technology behind Google Maps, and the Australian developed L4 microkernel used on 800 million mobile phones worldwide.

One of the first questions posed from the Singapore side of the table was why broadband had divided politics in Australia. Not an easy opening ball.

The size of the investment would be one reason – A$43 billion is a polarising figure. But Korea, Japan and Singapore – all destinations covered by this delegation – have celebrated broadband success which much more sustained levels of investment.

In 2010 Japan will spend an estimated US$348 billion on ICT, South Korea US$76 billion, and Singapore US$20 billion. Currently, more than 80 per cent of Koreans enjoy broadband services in their homes.

What’s at stake on broadband in Australia? As the CSIRO quite rightly informed the roundtable, health services would be bolstered through web-based medical care and telemedicine. Remote work practices in Australia’s economy-propelling mines – as being used by mining giant Rio Tinto – are a significant boost too, as is internet telephoning and many more of broadband’s benefits.

The speed at which information is being consumed and exchanged and the pace at which mobile services have developed, all point to a need for more greater speed and bandwidth.

Sweden, Norway, Ukraine and the US have all started to offer services at even higher broadband speeds, moving to next generation wireless platforms.

The roundtable heard also about the geographic challenges Australia faces on broadband – the economics of covering 8 million square kilometres with cable. From Perth in Western Australia, it is more than 2000kms to the next city.

But Down Under it often comes back to the politics – the NBN was a national election issue in Australia in August, even an election-deciding issue; its cost and whether it can be effectively rolled out has dominated national debate.

There’s another potential spanner in the works – an ongoing standoff with the formerly fully government-owned telecommunications provider, Telstra, which is being required as part of the NBN rollout to free up its cables to competitors.

That was a talking point too, and whether Australia can move beyond its domestic obstacles to bring broadband to its furthest reaches, remains to be seen.

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