CIO

The Lucky Country?

It’s time we recognized the bleeding obvious: Australia can’t compete globally without a much faster Internet service

You would think that someone living close to the CBD of Australia's largest city would have a reasonable chance of getting satisfactory Internet service. Think again.

It is not only the folks out the back of Bourke who are affected by poor Internet infrastructure in this country. I, for one, can personally vouch for the inadequacy of broadband coverage in our capital cities. Despite my proximity to the city centre, the only Internet service available to me is a slow and ponderous ADSL link. Adding insult to injury, the service does not even allow me to use the phone and the Net at the same time, and the Internet frequently drops out when I try to do basic multi-tasking.

All the major cities I've visited in Asia are building new freeways, airports and public transportation facilities. And, unlike Australia, it is extremely rare to find a business class hotel without a broadband Internet connection in every room

I know that ICT and the future of technology have never been big vote-winners in Australia. However, you don't have to be a rocket scientist to realize the ramifications from this appalling lack of investment in this country's IT infrastructure. Satisfactory access to the Internet for a company today is not a "nice to have"; it is essential. Net access is the mechanism by which you communicate and trade with your clients and suppliers. And if they can't reach you, then you can bet London to a brick that they will reach someone else, somewhere else.

I have spent a good proportion of my time in Asia over the past few years, and the difference in attitudes toward infrastructure is startling. While Australia is still struggling to join Sydney and Melbourne via a freeway, you can drive the length of Malaysia — a similar distance — on a state-of-the-art highway. All the major cities I've visited in Asia are building new freeways, airports and public transportation facilities. And, unlike Australia, it is extremely rare to find a business class hotel without a broadband Internet connection in every room.

I learned a long time ago not to support political parties in the same way that you support football teams. I am a resolute swing voter. However, I must confess that I did shout "Eureka" when I first heard about the Labor Party's commitment to create (and half-own) a new national broadband network.

At last, here was a political party that recognized the bleeding obvious: Australia can't live without a much faster Internet service. Moreover, by extending the network to 98 per cent of Australia's population, Labor's proposed network will provide an opportunity for many businesses to relocate to regional Australia and help address the out-of-control urban sprawl that continues to spread, unimpeded, out of Australia's largest cities.

Even more revealing was the dialogue that followed the announcement of the new broadband plan, which questioned whether it was an appropriate allocation of the resources of the Future Fund. The same business and political leaders whose "technology inertia" has held back ICT in this country for over a decade are, not surprisingly, the most vociferous in their objection to a new approach, but none of them have the gumption to suggest alternative ways of financing this critical addition to our nation's infrastructure. Instead, it seems more likely that Godot will appear before there is any resolution among the telcos over how a new high-speed Internet service should be financed and accessed.

While the full details of the Labor Party announcement are still missing, the plan has at least reinvigorated the debate over the need for faster Internet service in this country. And while the realist in me suspects that the outcome of the federal election this year will be determined by "bread and butter" issues, and not how quickly you can connect to the Net and download files, I continue to hope that the topic of infrastructure, and how important an effective ICT strategy is to a healthy Australian economy, will be significant components of the campaign.

Peter Hind is a freelance consultant and commentator with nearly 25 years experience in the IT industry. He is co-author of The IT Manager's Survival Guide and ran the InTEP IS executive gatherings in Australia for over 10 years