by David Bartlett

Why Australia is becoming a digital backwater

Dec 17, 20144 mins
Technology Industry

On a recent business trip to London, I switched on my mobile at customs wondering what data billing horrors would await me on my return to Australia. I only really wanted to use my smartphone to summon an Uber car.

I had even gone to the trouble of buying an overseas data pack for the right royal sum of $160 for a paltry 500MB. Barely enough to read the Trip Advisor reviews for a good Soho pub.

I need not have worried, because I spied a vending machine dispensing UK SIM cards in many varieties, plans and providers. For the equivalent of $40 Australian I was connected in seconds with 8GB to squander. The seemingly ubiquitous provision of free Wi-Fi across UK and Europe in malls, shopping centres, public transport and hotel rooms meant that 8GB lasted and lasted.

As I settled into the trip, I did worry even more for the state of our nation. We are seemingly, and in so many ways, becoming a digital backwater, trailing hopelessly behind other western democracies and, perhaps even more worryingly, our nearest neighbours in both content and connectivity.

A recent report by Akamai technologies showed that while Australians enjoyed an average broadband speed increase of 19 per cent year-on-year, our nation’s ranking relative had dropped from 38th globally to 40th in the same period.

My views are very well known on the visionary National Broadband Network project and it continues to frustrate me that as a nation, we can’t see the obvious future benefits of such an investment. The most recent nail in that coffin was hammered in by the Cost-Benefit Analysis report led by Dr. Michael Vertigan.

Eminent broadband leader, Rod Tucker, argues Vertigan’s ‘willingness to pay’ survey methodology, on which he bases many of his conclusions, is deeply flawed.

If a similar survey approach had been taken to Australian businesses just 20 years ago, would any have predicted the emergence of disruptive online technologies like search, a proliferation of mobile devices and the imminent death of newsprint and broadcast? No. So how can Australian businesses understand what they will be willing to pay for 20 years from now?

The Vertigan report represents a tragic, visionless view of Australia where the digital revolution that is changing everything about the way the world creates wealth and solves problems is irrelevant. This argumentis not really about the NBN, though. It’s about an attitude and approach. An attitude that says major hotel chains can charge up to $20 per day for a Wi-Fi connection.

Yes I know the free Wi-Fi provided by a UK shopping centre is probably tracking my every move. But why aren’t Australian retailers doing the same? Surely it’s just the modern equivalent of putting the milk on the back shelf to maximise sales?

It’s an attitude that views paying $230 per bill for an unused home phone line simply to access inferior broadband as normal. An attitude that sees most major media providers miss the boat on digital delivery and then try to hold back the tide through anti-competitive behaviour.

Unfortunately, many Australians have decided to respond to this lack of content through online piracy. Essential Media’s survey of 1200 Australians found close to 60 per cent are miffed about seeing movies and other video content online in most other jurisdictions but Australia. A vast majority of them are happy to pay for it but aren’t given the opportunity.

Just like tens of thousands of other Australians, I recently signed up to pay $4.99 for a US IP address so I could fool NetFlix into thinking my Apple TV is located somewhere in Wyoming. Why? Because Australia is not only rapidly becoming a digital connectivity backwater but also a digital content backwater. Apart from our ABC – soon to have its funding massacred – it’s hard to find genuine digital content innovation.

Capital is starting to seriously flow out of Silicon Valley into Australian startups but our growth as an innovative, digitally leading nation is at risk if we allow complacency. Marshall MacLuhan said ‘the medium is the message’. The message we are sending to ourselves and our nearest neighbours is one of digital disinterest.