Australian papers dump print for digital

Mobile phones good, newsprint bad, say media groups down under

Major Australian media organisations are preparing to begin phasing out newsprint and deliver daily newspapers and magazines over mobile phone networks.

Organisations such as News have been trialling a variety of electronic reader devices including Softbook and senior News sources say the company plans to begin phasing out newsprint as early as next year.

The move could see mobile phone company One.Tel replace newsagents as the major distributor of text based news and magazines within five years in both Australia and Europe.

News director of new media, Patrice McAree, has confirmed that the company is looking at a variety of methods of electronic delivery and that it plans to use One.Tel, in which it is a major investor, to deliver news content.

News has been working with prototypes of electronic readers, including the California-developed Softbook, that are flexible, lightweight and capable of storing more than 10,000 pages of text and graphics. They also have audio capabilities so users can have the news read to them.

The price of the devices is expected to fall to around US$100 sometime next years and senior sources within News say the company has conducted a feasibility study that shows that it could recover the costs of distributing the devices free to all of its newspaper home delivery subscribers within 20 weeks.

Kerry Packer's Publishing and Broadcasting (PBL) also has a major stake in One.Tel and it too wants to use the telco for content delivery.

One.Tel's joint chief executive of new networks, Steve Moore, said: "We are talking on a regular basis with the guys at News and PBL about our strategy and our vision and we are looking at their content and the synergies that can be developed between their organisations and skill sets and our core business.

"Certainly there is the potential for One.Tel to become the newsagent."

But, he said, it could be five years before mass market devices such as electronic newspapers on flexible plastic sheets were available.

"But in that sort of time frame you can achieve a paradigm shift in the way people interact with their media and entertainment. We are true believers in the convergence of the media and the entertainment businesses and that's why our partnership with News and PBL is very exciting."

"We see that as definitely part of the future but there are quite a number of steps before we get to that vision."

One.Tel is already well advanced in building a core infrastructure capable of data delivery to a wide range of devices and Moore indicated the company favours a system similar to the highly successful Japanese i-Mode system that uses packet-based data over a narrow band wireless system.

He said the system was designed to be able interface with a range of devices and was flexible enough to be adapted for new devices as they came on the market.

"All of our backbone today is packet-based, all of our billing systems are capable of doing packet-based billing, all of our application architecture is modular so we can plug and play -- we have open standards so if some guy invents something tonight in his garage in Berkley and next week it takes off and is the next big thing we can plug and play it on our network."

"The core infrastructure will allow us to easily integrate new applications as we go."

Moore said the company was not convinced that customers were going to want a 2Mbit air interface offer by third generation networks.

"If you look at examples around the world such as DoCoMo in Japan, they have an incredibly successful data service that runs at 9,600bps and that is fairly graphically rich. It has colour graphics, text and input from the users."

"They have been able to build a very sophisticated service that operates on a very low bandwidth connection, although a packet connection, which is something we don't have today. We are now deploying GPRS (general packet radio service) so we will have that packet-based environment. We are still debating internally just how much bandwidth we are going to offer.

"We don't believe customers are going to want lots of bandwidth on their mobile devices. Customers don't care what the bandwidth is and they don't care whether it is WAP, GPRS, 3G or Edge. All they care about is whether the service is something they find valuable -- can I get the latest stock report, can I get a video mail, can I do whatever it is that I want to do that will help me and I think is value for money," he said.

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