Broadband shame: Sneakernet strikes back

Broadband shame: Sneakernet strikes back

Summary: There are times when the tone of Australia's broadband discussions makes me want to laugh, and others when it just makes me want to cry. The past week has been one of the latter, after two very different broadband-related stories made their way across my desk.


There are times when the tone of Australia's broadband discussions makes me want to laugh, and others when it just makes me want to cry.

The past week has been one of the latter, after two very different broadband-related stories made their way across my desk.

The first is the news that Cox Communications, the third-largest cable television provider in the US, is offering its six million subscribers the ability to download high-definition movies on demand.

The company's library of more than 5000 existing movies has apparently been complemented with 20 HD resolution movies available, and more are to come. For people that like their video on demand, this is cool stuff -- particularly since it bypasses the need for Blu-ray and HD-DVD discs and players that are still horribly expensive and scarcer than hens' teeth.

Cable, of course, offers great data speeds and the ability to simultaneously support what telecommunications analysts call 'triple play' -- the carriage of telephone, data and video services over the same connection.

Despite this promise, however, a horribly overdue and embarrassingly mismanaged cable rollout in Australia in the late 1990s led Telstra and Optus to stop building out infrastructure and instead focus on ADSL, which runs over existing phone connections but is much more problematic when it comes to triple-play.

Optus's decision several years back to pull out of cable TV content, handing a virtual monopoly to Foxtel, cemented the case for staggered inertia in Australia's triple-play market.

The story that had me feeling anything but inspired is one I discovered over the past week. That is, by next year, video chain store Video Ezy will be offering its own personal video recorder (PVR) with an Ethernet plug and a novel feature: a USB port that can be used to play movies downloaded at the local Video Ezy onto an iPod or other storage device.

Encryption technology from Verimatrix will make sure you can't snoop on the content without paying for it through the set top box, and content watermarking will allow any leaked copies to be traced back to the customer once the encryption is inevitably broken.

What makes this service so interesting is that it grew out of the fact that Australia's broadband is still so very -- how can I say this nicely -- quaint.

Video Ezy local general manager Andrew Gardiner was a little more blunt. "For some of our customers, it could be years before the quality of broadband reaches their homes in country areas and allows them to download DVD quality material in a speedy, convenient way," he said.

The solution: get customers to carry their own movies home with them. Decades ago, this practice was known as "sneakernet" -- a reference to the practice of copying files to disk and carrying them from one computer to another. Sneakernet was due either to the file being too large, or the company network being too slow, and it rapidly died out with the advent of 100Mbps Fast Ethernet around 10 years ago.

With everything from refrigerators to mobile phones now networked, you'd think things had improved. But Video Ezy's need to incorporate a physical storage device into its content distribution food chain reflects just how far Australian broadband has yet to come.

For the head of the country's largest video store retailer to say it could be years before country residents get enough bandwidth to even contemplate downloading DVD-quality movies is sad enough. But to read in the same week that American households are now able to download HD movies because they enjoy the fruits of a vibrant and competitive cable industry, is enough to bring tears to one's eyes.

So, too, is the fact that this is no longer Australia's dirty little secret. In an earlier conversation with a Verimatrix executive, he referenced as commonly accepted knowledge the perception that Australia's broadband just isn't up to scratch. For all this country's opportunity, expertise and promise, we have become a laughing-stock on the world broadband scene.

This is not to detract from Video Ezy's upcoming solution, which I think will address a great need and will be appealing for many people. It is certainly much more logical than previous farcical efforts like the apocryphal Adam's Platform, which claimed to squash movies to a size that could be downloaded in minutes over a dial-up modem connection -- but ended up imploding in scandal.

Gardiner mentioned, with some pride, that the innovative solution has drawn enquiries from as far afield as Brazil and South Africa, where broadband is equally problematic. A career politician would point to this as another example of Australian innovation being brought to the world, but as a career telecommunications industry watcher I find it hard to see it as anything more than another scathing indictment of Australia's lagging broadband.

What do you think? Will you be happy to carry movies home on an iPod? Do we have the right to expect more from our broadband? Or are we expecting too much?

Topics: Broadband, Telcos, Optus, Telstra, NBN


Australia’s first-world economy relies on first-rate IT and telecommunications innovation. David Braue, an award-winning IT journalist and former Macworld editor, covers its challenges, successes and lessons learned as it uses ICT to assert its leadership in the developing Asia-Pacific region – and strengthen its reputation on the world stage.

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  • Ethernet?

    I understand the point of the article wasn't about Video Ezy's technology. This technology has been introduced because of the pathetic state of Australia's broadband. I can only agree with that.

    People have only recently started getting ADSL2+ and we're being told by the suppliers "WOW guys - see how advanced we are - 2Mbps!" And the masses cry "WOW - Thanks guys! 2Mbps! That's 5 times faster than what I had before. WOW!"

    Duh! I communicate with a guy in the US and he thinks his 100Mbps cable connection is "just OK".

    BUT ... this Video Ezy thing has got my curiosity.

    Movies can be loaded onto an 8GB or 16GB USB key, or a 100GB hdd in a 2.5" enclosure (yeah ... or an iPod which I don't have or OMG - I don't want), as in the article. That's the easy part.

    But why ethernet? Not everyone has access to an ethernet port, and if they do an ethernet connection can be quite tricky to set up for the average computer user, especially if there is a good firewall in place.

    Hello? Is there something I've missed here? Probably

    Presumably the download from the store is fully encripted so the iPods can't view it. The PVR then downloads the movie from the storage device, then decodes and displays the movie to a TV or whatever via standard AV connections.

    So why ethernet? Is the ethernet connection used to link the PVR back to Video Ezy for on-line payment and movie access?
    If so, why not the more ubiquitous, faster and easier-to-use USB connection?

    Ah - maybe in other countries you pay for your encrypted movie on line and download it directly via an ethernet connection from a cable modem (@ 100Mbps) straight into the PVR?

    Too many guesses and not enough real answers. Maybe an article about Video Ezy's technology, please, David?
  • We have to remember who stopped the cable roll outs

    The cable roll outs were stopped by us. Residents complained to their local councils who then used their powers to persuade or prevent further roll outs of cables in their areas.

    The telcos just threw their hands up and stopped beating their heads against the brick walls and ceased the rollouts.

    So I would say that there is shared responsibility - the telcos didn't do their homework nor negoatiate skillfully, the local governments were stubborn, the other levels of government didn't care enough, or have enough vision, but WE collectively stopped it.

    @ Ian Bond, ADSL 2+ is up to 20Mb/s, not 2, even ADSL 1 unlimited (which is what I am limited to being on a RIM) is 8Mb/s. Still not the 100Mb/s I dream of, but better than 2...
  • Clarification on Video Ezy service

    I have done a story specifically on Video Ezy, which is online as,239036008,339279837,00.htm and would have been linked with this story but wasn't online when this went up.

    The Ethernet plug is actually useless right now but is there in case Video Ezy wants to offer online Web browsing or, eventually, downloads straight to the box (as you queried). The challenge here is how to get the encrypted file from the store to the set-top box, quickly and reliably.

    But for now, USB is the only way to get content into the box. Movies are encrypted at the store and several can be loaded onto the USB storage device (iPods or any other USB device are OK).

    The set top box has a built-in mobile network modem that's used to contact Video Ezy's servers and get an authorisation token for the file - once that token is received, which happens when the $6 or whatever charge is deducted from the customer's account, the movie is decrypted inside the box and can be watched for as long as the token is valid.

    From what I gathered, movies that have already been watched will be able to be retained and, potentially, purchased for unlimited viewing or eventually burning onto DVD (presumably in CSS encrypted form). So the end product is the same.

    It's a good solution to the problem of customers not having adequate broadband -- but the fact that it's necessary at all is a crying shame.
  • Would like to hear more about this

    The explanation I have always heard is that CATV providers in Australia deemed there not to be enough demand here. This was said to be because free-to-air TV in Australia is pretty good in comparison to the USA, where if you want any decent telly you have to go with cable. (I.e. here we get heaps of the major commercial shows from the US on 7/9/10, as well as the really good stuff on ABC/SBS.)

    I note that satellite Pay TV (Foxtel, Austar, etc) has never been particularly high-demand in this country, either.

    So I would be interested to hear from somebody "in the know", i.e. who was there when it happened (or stopped happening). What was(were) the reason(s)?
  • ADSL2+ please!

    Australia's broadband is indeed lagging behind what I would expect. I have my adsl through optus, and I live in a capital city, mere kilometres from the cbd and ADSL2 is not available in my area, no will it be for a while so I'm told by Optus. A few months ago they reduced my speed on my plan to 512Mb/s and I am far from impressed. I plan to move to someone else who can provide a service where I can download anything larger than a web page in a reasonable time, however I find it sad that one of the countries major telecomunications providers cannot even provide me with a decent internet connection.
  • Australian Broadband

    A ernment persuasions small comment on the woeful service both political parties have managed to either avoid, or trying to play smart on a subject have don't have a clue about.

    The only solution i can see is that the Government spends the money and replaces all the copper with fibre and then let the market forces provide the service (apparently this was the Govt original business model but was rejected), or let industry do the lot.

    Broadband in this country is becomming "criictal mass" and unless something happens soon we will remain backwards in technology, education and business
  • Being Realistic

    To be fair we should be realistic about what to expect from internet access in Australia, and how we compare it to overseas.

    Japan (my home) is often quoted as being an example of a country where things have been done right - I have a 100mbit fibre optic connections, some people can get 1000mbit fibre optics. This sounds nice until you mention that it is only in very major metro areas and in practice is only about 40mbit of real speed, and everyone else gets ADSL which has a theoretical limit of 45mbit and usually is about 6mbit, thanks to distance and other factors.

    Even with my 40mbit 100mbit fibre optic I still download files at 100kb/s from most sites - only sites that are close or have huge bandwidth (such as Microsoft) actually come anywhere close to using part of the insane speed I have on hand.

    Unmentioned is the huge number of people in country Japan who use ISDN still, something that is almost unheard of in ADSL happy Australia.

    Also unmentioned in this article are the number of people in America who do not have access to ADSL or cable who are in the same situation as the people in rural Australia - its not mentioned often but they also have a longing for speed that only their urban cousins have.

    I think credit is also due to Adam Internet, a local Adelaide ISP that was among one of the first to roll out its own ADSL2+ network that already has in place the technology and infrastructure to provide DVD quality videos streamed in real time to customers - I should know, I was part of early trials.

    I honestly think we expect far, far too much from Telstra and ISPs in regards to broadband. The two biggest hurdles are cost and the technology itself - ADSL by design is not for long distance, fibre is just too expensive.

    Take my town of Kawaguchi. Within its humble borders (55.75km²) there are approx. 488,140, making a density of 8755.87 persons per km². Even here there are people who cannot get fibre optic!

    But as someone who has been on all sides of this debate - having been with Telstra, with the ISPs, as a customer and user of the services provided by both, its obvious to me that we are asking too much from what we have.
  • Connection not what it could be

    Wouldn’t it be nice if we even had access to Fibre optic connections to complain about? Further, its not just the connection types, but look at the expense of our connections in comparison to average wages, and then the download limits imposed. I could not download a HD movie over the net without hitting the download limit part way though. On top of this, I live in Brisbane city, but my ADSL2+ connection has trouble connecting, dropping out often. When I am connected its often only at speeds around 300kb to 2mb as I’m on the "edge" of the connection limits as we have too few exchanges. So much for a good connection in the city limits. I consider myself luck in comparison to the country side where they rely on dialup.
  • Actually the real problem is something else

    The real problem here isn't actually broadband vs sneakernet.

    Really, its not.

    The issue is that VideoEzy, by doing this, are managing to access the 'DVD' release window for content that they (as DVD hire company) already have access to, by framing this service as (in effect) electronic DVD's.

    The issue for IPTV in Australia (outside of the USA in general) to date is that the content owners simply *will not* offer content - at any price - in that (early) "DVD" release window, to IPTV players.

    Presumably this is due to a perception that it will cannibalise the existing income streams for the same content, and that attitude will persist until enough of that early release window (DVD etc) business has been lost to piracy from frustrated people who turn to 'Channel BT' instead.

    But, by then, the target market will be educated to expect to get their content free of (explicit additional) charge via broadband, and won't feel like paying much (if anything) for the same content as an on demand 'IPTV' style transmission.

    Its really, really important to appreciate the above. It bears repeating: The key, 'drop dead', issue, for video on demand content of any sort in Australia is access to that content in an early/timely release window, and that access is being quite intentionally withheld by content owners at this point in the evolution of this market.

    This is not a technology issue. Its not about broadband poverty. Its not even about BitTorrent. Its about content owners living in the past - and (like all good *old* industries) trying to hold on to the old business models as long as they can, because they understand those models and don't have the fear of them that the new models bring.

    In this context, the VideoEzy offering is extremely smart - and a very good leveraging of their existing (DVD release window) access rights to content. You would probably find, as a result of the above, that (right now) VideoEzy literally are not allowed, by the content owners they license from, to offer that content via 'Internet/IP' paths.

    Technology problems are easier to solve that mindset problems.

    Simon Hackett
    MD, Internode

    (who would deliver hollywood movies via IPTV if they were available to pay for in a viable release window at a viable price)
  • Pretty street vs. 12Mbps

    "Residents complained to their local councils who then used their powers to persuade or prevent further roll outs of cables in their areas."

    I remember all of this. Makes me wonder about how far FTTN will get. 50 cabinets on the footpath per exchange area (on average?) is the figure going around. I've seen photos of them online and I can only say, here we go again.
  • Thats not true

    Hi Simon!

    I have one comment to make - "content owners simply *will not* offer content - at any price - in that (early) "DVD" release window" - is just not true. They will offer this to IPTV players, but at a huge price.

    For example content provider Movies-Online states on their site that they have agreements to provide during the DVD release window. For a price I bet they could even secure content even earlier, but it would be a price that most consumers would not be able to stomach.

    Are they stretching the truth here Simon?
  • Still not realistic

    You still are not being realistic.

    Even Australia's most populated areas are nowhere near what you can expect in Asian countries with higher speed internet, and we don't have the numbers that make America and Canada profitable either.

    As it is simply providing a pair of copper wires to rural homes is done at a huge loss thanks to the distances involved and the effect the harsh Australian weather has on this type of technology.

    "Further, its not just the connection types, but look at the expense of our connections in comparison to average wages, and then the download limits imposed."

    This is just a fact of life for Australians. Download limits will always exist while we rely on a limited number of submarine cables that run for thousands of kilometers and supply ALL of Australia with its internet.

    "I'm on the "edge" of the connection limits as we have too few exchanges"

    You make a rediculous claim here, that there are "too few" exchanges. Too few for what? Making smaller exchanges is not financially or physically possible - telephone and internet equipment have requirements for space, electricity and their own internet supply (called backhaul), which is expensive to supply and run. Then you have to consider the millions (and it is millions) of kilometers of copper cabling that exists under and above ground throughout Australia that supplies phones, and in some cases ADSL, to homes. If they were to put in more exchanges now, it would cost billions between having to dig up cables, and lay down new expensive cables. Seen the price of copper lately? Its not getting any cheaper...

    You can't even call this bad planning - Australia has comparatively good telephone coverage and technologies that work well in our unique and harsh environments. ADSL is a new technology that would not have been given even the slightest thought decades ago when the sites for exchanges were chosen and the cables laid in the ground.

    There is plenty of complaining when talking about this, but no realistic evaluations and suggestions.
  • We have to remember...

    That is only partially true. Optus came up with the harebrained scheme to put hang thick black cables all over the cities, and one council (Warringah in Sydney?) won a court case to stop them. But the real issue is that the government let Telstra go private and did not force them to continue the cable rollout - or to allow Optus to share the underground pipe space.
  • Stretching?

    Hi John or anonymous poster!

    In one word, yes.

    If Reeltime is so great at securing compelling content why does it have no revenue? Reeltime are not much good at securing economically viable content and that is much more important than content at any price.

    As Simon says, Internode would love to offer an IPTV service with not just Hollywood movies but News, Sport, Documentaries and Entertainment. When the economically viable, interesting content is available the business model will emerge but in the mean time things that are FREE like Joost are not even able to gain critical mass over Channel-BT.

    When Hollywood doesn't need DVD libraries it will drop them in a flash and move to an online sales model.

    Apple has shown the world that service provider by service provider music sales models are not necessary and as soon as the cost of bandwidth drops below some threshold level movies logically follow.

    Eventually the studios will cut everyone's lunch.

    They will either do a handful of key deals with really large distributors like Apple,

    or they will offer non exclusive access to everyone which could include direct sales with no intermediaries.

    So if you launch IPTV now you're either going to lose completely or have to fight like hell to not lose. It's hard to see a path to profit and it's hard to know who is going to win and lose.

    As someone else in our industry said to me this week, "If you're at the table and you don't know who the patsy is, it's you."

  • Almost

    Are you saying hi to yourself, or to me? Because you aren't close, and I would have thought the interest I showed in Japan would have been a hint that I'm not John - and I assume you mean John Edwards of Adam.

    Funny that whenever someone says something you don't like it just has to be one of those Adam blokes :)

    Yours Truely,
  • Wrong John

    No, he wasn't referring to John Edwards, and the only people that constantly refer to Adam Internet are those from Adam Internet ;-)

    Reading the post there was an assumption that it may have been written by John K from Reeltime (which used to be called Movies Online before a merger and/or name change), and the post had no connection to Japan whatsoever because it was posted by Anonymous.

    FYI Adam Internet are now coming up to the second anniversary of their original movie on demand expected launch date.