Beyond Broadband an Essential Investment for Our Future

As a 40 year veteran of the computer industry I’ve seen firsthand what technology has provided Australia and would urge the Independents to examine the major parties’ policies carefully and not reduce the debate to a simple choice between internet speeds and cost. It is much more than that; it is a choice between preparing for our future or simply making do.

In 1996 when my daughter was born I remember nursing her as I surfed the Web with my then 18 year old son. I can vividly remember him saying “Dad I wonder what we will be doing on the Web when she is my age”. That will be in 2014, the end of the current budget cycle.

We quickly suggested things getting faster, more disk space and of course cheaper and cheaper technology. Gordon Moore, the founder of Intel, had been right for 30 years with his law that computing power doubles every two years so we have not been surprised by terabyte disks and 20MB broadband, we would have been surprised if they had not appeared.

That is why a network based on installed copper and wireless technologies that will only be capable of meeting speeds a bit faster than we can get today needs to be carefully questioned. Moore’s law has been right for nearly 50 years so we know the rest of the world will have access to 1GB to the desktop in 3 to 5 years and 10 times that speed in a decade. Our current infrastructure is 40 years old and needs to be replaced with network technology that will serve us well for the next 40 years.

What we need our leaders to be contemplating is the investment necessary to build a future for a sustainable, dynamic society. One that is capable of making a leading contribution to the global community whilst achieving a vibrant and equitable society at home. We need our leaders to have an appreciation of technology to be able to make the important decisions necessary to drive innovation and creativity so that we can design better ways of working, learning and living for all Australians no matter where they live.

Back in 1996 it was hard to imagine Twitter, Facebook and eBay let alone the impact of social media on politics and war. Amazingly there were people back in 1996 thinking about these things that were not just an extension of what currently existed but creating entirely new concepts.

I was asked to speak at a seminar at the University of Melbourne alongside an artist known as Stelarc. His presentation was very confronting as he described his recent art installation in Paris where he had connected electrodes to his arms and legs that were stimulated by people in Amsterdam and London over the Web. This was the first global collaboration around physical movement and expression.

Around this time the company I had founded a few years earlier won the tender to build what we now know to be a Web portal for the Victorian Government. We didn’t realise it at the time but the design team were helping to invent a whole new way for governments to communicate and engage with their constituency. Stelarc had pushed us to think about how someone in one city could create a reaction in another. The artist had stimulated the scientists who in turn worked with the engineers to build a much better world.

If we had limited our thinking because our audience only had 28K modems we would not have imagined joined up government, citizen participation and connected communities. The connected and very digital economy of the future will see extraordinary innovations. We can dream and fantasise about what these applications might be but if we compare what we have today with what was available in 1996 we do know that there will be plenty of applications in 10 years time that will demand every bit of broadband and every byte of storage that technology can deliver.

This week the Independents should be asking both leaders to present their vision for our economic future. What are their detailed responses for not just building a national broadband network but what are their plans for taking advantage of their proposed infrastructure investments? That is, what trains do they envisage running on the track they propose to build?

There should be questions about their policies to move our rather traditional payments systems into the online future of tomorrow, how will they improve security on the Web so that Australians can feel safe using the Web or paying their bills and how will they sort out the copyright mess created by file sharing and fast downloads? Beyond getting the basics of a digital connected economy right what policies do they have to improve productivity through better health services in the home or regional centres, developing more authentic collaborative learning activities involving students, parents, teachers and business and how will they use the network to optimise the use of energy, water and other resources?

It is important that we invest our public money wisely. We should demand that major government projects include research, planning and good governance. A business plan is very useful when you are planning a business in a mature industry but I can assure you that if I had tried to document all the anticipated revenues for my Internet businesses over the last 16 years I would have invested in nothing and returned to paid employment! The Independents should be examining the broadband plans of both parties to identify what they have planned and why each of the options was chosen.  The exact applications in the future cannot be anticipated and nor can the revenues generated by them either so what we must demand is professional preparation and competent project governance to ensure we invest wisely for our future.