There was a great deal of debate last month after an engineer published a website showing the comparative speeds of the federal government’s NBN and the Coalition’s plan for broadband.
While it is interesting to compare how long it will take to upload an album of photos under each of the proposals, the better measure of policy is how many people can upload those photos rather than how fast it can be done.
While the current plan for fibre-to-the-home is undoubtedly faster than fibre-to-the-node (the Coalition’s alternative), fibre-to-the-node is cheaper for customers and will arrive sooner.
The Coalition’s plan may not allow you to download Game of Thrones in the blink of an eye, but it will do much more to assist entrepreneurs and businesses and to spark the next digital enlightenment.
This is vital because rarely in human history have the ingredients necessary for a creative explosion existed in one place at one time. The Renaissance, for example, was made possible by the concentration of a small group of talented individuals in the same place at roughly the same time, both collaborating and competing with each other.
Continual contact, interpersonal competition and constant innovation over a sustained period fostered a remarkable period of cultural, intellectual and social growth.
Those same factors started the digital revolution. It’s no surprise that the city of Palo Alto in California has been the incubator of companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, Hewlett-Packard, and Logitech. The Silicon Valley hub has allowed terrific competition and cooperation since 1953.
The innovation created from the resulting creative friction has been startling, from the miniaturisation of technology to the development of whole new business practices.
In both Florence and the Silicon Valley, the close proximity of players, a stable culture of innovation, support from a larger body and a pool of talented individuals together created something very special.
But the world has now changed. Physical proximity is no longer required to enable a burst of innovation.
Instead of collaboration and completion occurring from a meeting in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence or in the refectory at Stanford University, this process is occurring in bedrooms and garages, in home offices and in wifi-enabled parks through applications like Skype, Jabber and Lync.
Only ubiquitous broadband can make this process actually work – the speed of the connection is only a minor factor.
The Internet has also made the creative process much cheaper. Whereas once artists, scientists and humanists had to make their way to Florence, southern California or other centres of learning and activity to participate, the price of admission is now as simple and as cheap as a broadband connection and a strong idea.
These low barriers to entry for people willing to back their concept also results in low risk for participants, because the key capital investment is time. If an idea is not commercial, that knowledge can be applied to a different project.
Innovation is rarely wasted. By its nature, the digital economy is Darwinist. It fosters a battle of the best ideas and concepts. It is a place where natural selection occurs, resulting in the survival of the digitally “fittest”.
If an idea does not gain currency, the idea often evolves and develops, mutating into a stronger idea either in the hands of the original owner or in the hands of someone else.
This new, connected renaissance has already resulted in radical changes to the way business operates. EBay has displaced retail store dominance, sites like wotif.com and tripadvisor.com.au have changed the business model of the entire tourism industry, and mobile devices have changed the way we access information about the world around us.
But this is only the genesis of the next renaissance. The next burst of innovation could come in the area of analytics, business process improvement or any one of potentially dozens of different directions.
The best part of this next renaissance is that anyone – from Macquarie Park in Sydney to remote Birdsville in western Queensland – can participate in the beginning of the digital enlightenment.
The next Da Vinci or Steve Jobs could be in either place or anywhere in between. As long as the federal government’s policies provide more expensive, less universal broadband, they are standing in the way of this process occurring.
Daniel Wood is a consultant for Barton Deakin Government Relations, was formerly a senior adviser to the Queensland Minister for Science, Information Technology.
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