Broadband shame: Sneakernet strikes back

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?


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