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Reaction round-up: Conroy's digital economy opus

Communications and Digital Economy Minister Stephen Conroy will tonight release the government's roadmap for Australia's participation in the digital economy. But what does the nation's industry think of the effort?
Written by Suzanne Tindal, Contributor

Digital Economy Minister Stephen Conroy will be releasing the government's roadmap for Australia's participation in the digital economy today, but what does the industry expect from it?


Stephen Conroy
(Stephen Conroy, image by Kim Davies, CC2.0)

The goal of the paper was to outline the key areas of focus for Government, industry and the community, according to the Minister.

"Australia needs a digitally aware and enabling government, a digitally confident, innovative and skilled industry and a digitally literate and empowered community. The paper explores the actions we need to advance to enhance these key factors for success," Conroy has previously said of the effort. "It is time now for government, industry and the community to work together to foster and harness the benefits on offer in the digital economy."

The big gun
Microsoft Australia chief technology Greg Stone said that although he welcomed the paper, he didn't believe it was about laying out strategies for the future, but more about creating a picture of what current conditions were and what was being done so the industry could reflect.

"This is part of the government laying the building blocks for enablement," he said. "If these things are referred to in that paper, then that paper becomes a useful point for the reflections of society." He didn't believe the paper was supposed to be prescriptive, but more a milestone to mark the government's progress — an opportunity for the industry to pause and think about the future.

"In many ways what people are looking to in this whole thing is not the paper," he said. "We see the paper as a signal. We see it as part of the process ... I'm certainly not looking to it for where we should be placing our bets."

The government had recently removed an enormous stumbling block in promising to create widespread broadband connectivity, Stone said. The executive believed it was now up to the industry to use its own levers to make the best of that.

The start-ups
Martin Hosking, chairman of Aussie start-ups RedBubble and Aconex and Looksmart co-founder, said that he hoped the final version went past the grab bag of issues which was the draft paper. "The draft paper has 500 different things. That's all well and good, but you have to focus on a number of small things so you can win," he said.

Australia has poor performance in the digital economy sphere, according to Hosking. "There's not a single Australian company in the top 500 internet companies in the world," he said, noting Australia needed to focus on why that has happened.

Three main issues Hosking picked out were a lack of recognition of Australia's distance from the global markets, the very low numbers of engineers and computer science graduates coming from universities and the difficulty of getting capital for internet ventures. "If you need $25 to start the next Google in Australia, you can't," he said.

If you need $25 to start the next Google in Australia, you can't

Start-up veteran Martin Hosking

Austrade was often helpful on the first issue, he believed, but he thought there could be more done to ameliorate the concern. On the graduates, Hosking suggested making certain degrees free for bright students. The capital issue was a hard one to resolve, he said, needing a long-term commitment from the government.

Bart Jellema, the director of all things cool and wonderful at coupon discovery start-up Tjoos and active organiser of community start-up initiatives such as Startup Camp and BootUpCamp said that first he thought the government needed to do something about the price of international bandwidth to make its National Broadband Network investment worthwhile.

He also said it took too much effort to wade through the red tape to get government grants: "When you're doing a start-up, there's so many other things you have to learn. There's so many programs out there. Sometimes it's more trouble than it's worth."

Jellema thought that there should be a general tax cut for all starting businesses to make it simple and help companies right from the start, when it could be just two people in a garage.

Mick Liubinskas, web strategist, co-founder of start-up consultant Pollenizer and start-up veteran also called for more funding to be invested in digital technologies. He said that funding prototypes had been made necessary because of the sinking economy, which had meant that money from the usual sources — family, friends and fools — had dried up.

The internet provider
iiNet regulatory officer Steve Dalby said he hoped to see government support for the development of new applications to drive take up of the National Broadband Network. "100Mbps might be cool to brag about, but an export industry based in Australia that exploits that bandwidth, with productivity and lifestyle-enhancing applications, is much more exciting," he said.

Investment in Australian software and hardware development that could be traded to the rest of the world was needed. It would be great if there was an iPhone apps store-like model for the National Broadband Network, Dalby said.

The support could come in increased funding for the private sector, as well as universities, TAFEs, CSIRO — anyone who wanted to get creative. "The NBN should put Australia at the cutting edge in this world. Generalities about 'e-Health' and 'smart grids' just doesn't cut it anymore, it needs to be driven by incentives aimed at developing real applications," he said.

The opposition
Conroy's opposite Nick Minchin was not impressed by the report, because he saw it as a summary of where Australia was at, as opposed to providing any clarity on how the government intended to deal with the issues the industry faced.

He singled out convergence as one issue he believed required more clarity — those areas where boundaries were blurred between broadcasters, content providers and telcos.

He agreed with the paper's points on the dangers of badly constructed regulation, but pointed out the hypocrisy of saying that the digital economy was market-led while supporting an enormous government owned investment in it — the National Broadband Network.

"The reality is there is currently a great deal of uncertainty in the sector and most of that has been caused by the government's mishandling of broadband policy since coming to office," Minchin said.

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