commentary Australia needs to do a lot more if it wants to compete with the rest of the economically developed world when it comes to the uptake of broadband services.
Falling broadband prices may have stimulated a rise in uptake by small business and residential customers but Australia still lags in comparison to our international competitors.
Good news stories on Australia's increasing broadband uptake hide the critical fact that our current ranking is 25th for broadband uptake among OECD nations, down from 19th in September 2003. This is an major concern and has implications for business competitiveness.
How can we maintain our position as a leading provider of ICT goods and services without competitive levels of broadband penetration? Even our status as a leading user of ICT products and services is under threat if we fail to provide without true broadband access.
The government has traditionally downplayed the importance of Australia being a strong ICT producer, focusing instead on the productivity benefits gained through being a good ICT user. But even these benefits will erode if we do not ensure all Australians enjoy high-speed connection to the Internet.
| In today's connected world, broadband internet access is essential to our social and economic future. It is particularly crucial for those living in rural Australia.|
It is particularly crucial for those living in rural Australia to reduce isolation, minimise the constraints imposed by distance, and improve health, education, employment, and quality of life for rural communities.
While Australia's business powerhouses have traditionally congregated along the coastal metropolitan centres, broadband opens the door for small businesses to compete for customers on a level playing field, regardless of their geographical location.
The debate over broadband in the past has been compromised by the focus on ADSL -- at best an interim solution running at 256-1024KB Mbps. True broadband delivers access speeds greater than 10Mbps and will be necessary for the next generation of Internet-enabled applications.
The ACS has released a policy document calling for the Federal Government to develop and implement a forward-thinking strategy to deliver true broadband, calling for national broadband availability at affordable rates, regardless of location and without download quotas, by the end of political term. We need greater accountability around broadband penetration. Australia should be ranked among the top five OECD nations for broadband access, calling for cooperative initiatives between federal, state, and local governments to improve access.
Local councils need to be educated about the benefits of broadband for their communities, how they can become more actively involved in establishing the necessary infrastructure, and including broadband services within their strategic and community planning processes, particularly for education, health, and employment growth strategies.
To improve access to affordable broadband in rural and remote areas, the ACS has proposed that spectrum be allocated to local councils in those regions on an "at cost" basis. This proposal would ensure that the high cost of providing broadband services to rural areas is not made worse by the expense of having to purchase spectrum. It would also ensure that in areas where there are no competing suppliers, broadband spectrum is still made available in a timely manner.
Widespread adoption of broadband is essential to maximise opportunities and productivity benefits for business and to stimulate the innovation needed for Australia to play a significant role in the world-wide information economy.
The ACS will continue to work closely with both sides of politics to develop initiatives encouraging greater competition in the telecommunications infrastructure market.
In the UK, broadband penetration rose from three percent to 22 percent in just 18 months after Prime Minister Blair called their low usage a disgrace and set a goal for full broadband coverage by 2007. Obviously, Australia's geographical challenges are much greater than those faced in the UK, but this example shows what can be achieved when Government, and industry join forces to achieve a desired outcome.
Edward Mandla is National President of the Australian Computer Society (ACS, www.acs.org.au). The ACS attracts a membership (over 16,000) from all levels of the IT industry and provides a wide range of services. The Society can be contacted on 02 9299 3666, or e-mail email@example.com.
This article was first published in Technology & Business magazine.
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