Government Accused of Broadband Neglect

The Federal Opposition has charged the Howard government with complacency and neglect in the wake of several reports highlighting the inadequacy of government broadband policy.

Shadow Minister for Communications and IT Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate Senator Stephen Conroy says the Howard government has failed to invest in Australia's skills and infrastructure.

"The key infrastructure required for future ICT growth is clearly true broadband infrastructure," Senator Conroy says.

The Senator described true broadband as a critical enabling technology that is currently driving substantial productivity gains around the world. He noted it was the platform for most of the new productivity driving ICT products being developed around the world eg VOIP, Virtual Private Networks, Customer Relationship Management services, e-health, and e-education and also a crucial tool for the commercialization of Australian intellectual property and content.

But he said the platform was currently in poor shape in Australia, with the level of bandwidth available to Australian consumers still in "the embarrassment zone".

Several recently released surveys would seem to reinforce his point. A recent survey of ICT use undertaken by the World Bank ranked Australia at 20th out of 28 countries in terms of international Internet bandwidth per person, noting it lagged badly behind other developed nations in terms of broadband internet speed.

Per head of population, Australia's broadband internet speed was just over one megabits per second (mbps), significantly lower than Britain (13 mbps), France (8.4 mbps), Germany (6.85 mbps) Canada (6.8 mbps) and the United States (3.3 mbps), but similar to Japan. On the other hand the average internet cost in Australia was slightly less than $25 a month, compared with Japan ($29), Britain ($33), the US ($20.50) and Canada ($17).

Labor has been arguing that too many Australians only have access to "fraudband" - broadband internet access at 256kbps - and says the target should be at minimum a 10mbps standard delivered through a new optical fibre network.

"Business visitors to Australia are regularly shocked to hear that 256kbps is currently the prevailing standard for broadband in Australia and that very few Australians have access to broadband at speeds any greater than 1.5 mbps," Senator Conroy said.

His comments came the week the Roy Morgan International Technology Monitor reported that in the highly competitive British and American telecommunications markets a majority of people connected to the Internet at home are connected to a broadband service. The report found more than 30 million Britons aged 14 years and over are connected to the Internet at home (61 percent of the total population) and just over 19 million have a home broadband connection (38 percent of the total population).

It also found US Internet users enjoyed similar rates of home broadband penetration.

"In comparison, and perhaps as an indication of the trend-setting nature of the UK and US markets, Australia and New Zealand lag well behind both the UK and the US in their adoption of broadband technology at home with 29 percent of Australians and 20 percent of New Zealanders having broadband service at home. This is despite the fact that more Australians and New Zealanders have an Internet connection at home than Britons.

Senator Conroy says services like IPTV, video streaming, online gaming, content downloads will only become ubiquitous with the availability of true broadband - 10mbps+ broadband.

"While Helen Coonan talks up the prospects for the emergence of new services like IPTV in her recent discussion paper on cross-media reform, it is clear that the government has neglected to lay the foundation for these services.

And he says essential infrastructure investments are being held back by the black cloud of regulatory uncertainty hanging over the Australian ICT sector.

"The effect of this black cloud on the Australian telecommunications sector is clear: Australia is currently being denied true broadband, and the productivity enhancing applications associated with it," he says

Senator Coonan was unavailable for comment.