Aug 312015
Fibre broadband rollout

How much does broadband really matter in developing a competitive and innovative modern economy? A corporate lunch with US software company NetApp last week illustrated that there’s more to creating a successful digital society than just rolling out fibre connections.

Rich Scurfield, NetApp’s Senior Vice President responsible for the Asia-Pacific was outlining the firm’s plans for the Australian market and how it fits into the broader jigsaw puzzle of economies across the region.

Like many companies in the China market NetApp is finding it hard with Scurfield describing the market as “chaotic”. This isn’t unusual for western technology companies and Apple is one of the few to have had substantial success.

Across the rest of East Asia, Scurfield sees them ranging as being mature, stable and settled in the cases of Japan, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand through to India where the opportunities and the challenges of connecting a billion people are immense.

Digital outliers

The interesting outlier is South Korea, one of the most connected nations in the world, where the promise of ubiquitous broadband isn’t delivering the expected economic benefits to the entire community.

In theory, South Korea should be seeing a boom in connected small businesses. As Scurfield says, “from a technology providers’ view this connectivity means you could do more things very differently because of the infrastructure that’s available.”

Global Innovation Rankings

Korea’s underperformance is illustrated by last year’s Global Innovation Index that saw South Korea coming in at 16th, just ahead of both Australia and New Zealand whose broadband rollouts are nowhere near as advanced as the ROK’s.

Making a close comparison of Australia and the Republic of Korea’s strengths in the WIPO innovation index, it’s clear the technology and engineering aspects are just part of a far more complex set of factors such as confidence in institutions, the ease of doing business and even freedom of the press.

Putting those factors together makes a country far more likely to encourage its population to start new innovative businesses that can compete globally. When you have a small group of chaebol dominating the private sector then it’s much harder for new entrants to enter the market – interestingly a private sector dominated by big conglomerates is a problem Australia shares.

Small business laggards

NetApp’s Scurfield flagged exactly this problem, “Korea is an interesting market in there’s about six companies that matter and from a competitive view those companies are extremely advanced, they have great technology and great people.”

“However what’s not happening across the rest of the country is this adoption isn’t bleeding into the broader community,” said Scurfield “Because of that I don’t see broadband connectivity as having a wide impact.”

That Korean small and medium businesses aren’t using broadband technologies to develop innovative new products and service in one of the most connected economies on earth raises a question about just how effective investment in infrastructure is when it’s faced with cultural barriers.

Certainly we should be keeping in mind that economic development, global competitiveness and the creation of industry hubs is as much a matter of people, national institutions and culture as it is of technology.

We shouldn’t lose sight of the importance of our people and institutions when evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of a nation in today’s connected world.

Oct 032014
Fibre broadband rollout

Google Fiber’s stated aim is to improve access to high broadband internet connections for the communities it’s being rolled out in.

The Wall Street Journal reports that this isn’t going so well with take ups of the fiber service in the poor parts of Kansas City being a quarter of those in middle class areas.

It’s not surprising an expensive service like fiber internet isn’t taken up by folk who don’t have money, but the discrepancy between the haves and the have nots should be a concern as access to today’s communication tools is key to economic progress.

During the rollouts of the railways, telegraph and motor car it was giving working people access to the new technologies that drove growth. If internet access becomes only available to the few then today’s technological developments deliver on their promise.

Apr 032014

Australia’s government research agency, the CSIRO, released a somewhat alarming media alert this morning warning that our cities are approaching Peak Data.

Peak Data, which borrows from the ‘Peak Oil’ term coined in the 1970s to describe the point where oil production reaches a maximum, is where we run out available bandwidth on our wireless networks.

The release is around the agency’s new report, A World Without Wires, where the agency lays out its view of the future of cellular and radio communications.

“In the future, how spectrum is allocated may change and we can expect innovation to find new ways to make it more efficient but the underlying position is that spectrum is an increasingly rare resource,” says  the CSIRO’s Director of Digital Productivity and Services Flagship Dr Ian Oppermann.

“With more and more essential services, including medical, education and government services, being delivered digitally and on mobile devices, finding a solution to “peak data” will become ever more important into the future.”

The wireless data paradox

It’s a paradox that just as we’re entering a world of unlimited data, we have limitations of what we can broadcast wirelessly as radio spectrum becomes scarce and contested.

With fixed line communications, particularly fibre optics, available spectrum can be relatively simply increased by laying down more cables – wireless only has one environment to broadcast in –  so finding ways of pushing more data through the airways is what much of the CSIRO’s paper addresses.

For telecommunications companies, this presents both a challenge and an opportunity; the challenge being squeezing more data into limited spectrum while the opportunity lies in charging more for guaranteed connectivity.

The latter raises questions about network neutrality and the question of whether different types of traffic across wireless networks can be charged differently or given differing levels of priority.

Distributing the load

This also gives credence to the distributed processing strategies like Cisco’s Fog Computing idea that takes the load off public networks and can potentially hand traffic over to fixed networks or point to point microwave services.

While M2M data is tiny compared to voice and domestic user needs, it does mean business critical services will have to compete with other users, both in the private Wi-Fi frequencies or the public mobile networks spectrum.

Overall though, the situation isn’t quite as dire as it seems; technological advances are going to figure out new ways of stuffing data into the available spectrum and aggressively priced data plans are going to discourage customers from using data intensive applications.

A key lesson from this though is those designing, M2M, Internet of Things or smart city applications can’t assume that bandwidth will always be available to communicate to their devices.

For the Internet of Things, robust design will require considering security, latency and quality of service.

Oct 172013
radio programs for techonology, web, social media, cloud computing and computer advice

The National Broadband Network has always been a hot political issue in Australian politics and with the election of the new Federal government the often delayed project is being reviewed.

What does this mean for communities and businesses struggling with inadequate internet connections? Join Tony Delroy and Paul Wallbank from 10pm, October 17 on ABC Local Radio across Australia.

If you missed the program, you can listen to it as a podcast through the ABC Tony Delroy’s Nightlife page.

Some of the questions Tony and Paul be covering include;

  • Why did we need the NBN in the first place?
  • What’s happened to the NBN since the new government was elected?
  • Why are we are we having political arguments about an infrastructure upgrade?
  • What are the differences between fibre to the node versus fibre to premises?
  • Why is the NBN running so late?
  • How will the coalition’s change the slow rollout?
  • Australia’s come in around 40th on an international survey on Internet use. Is this because of the NBN?

We’ll also be looking at some other topics such a Google’s new advertising plan and how to drop out of it.

We’d love to hear your views so join the conversation with your on-air questions, ideas or comments; phone in on the night on 1300 800 222 within Australia or +61 2 8333 1000 from outside Australia. If you’re outside the broadcasting area, you can stream the program through the ABC website.

Oct 152013
Fibre broadband rollout

The assertion that internet connectivity drives economic growth is largely taken for granted although getting the maximum benefit from a broadband network investment may require more than stringing fibre cables or building wireless base stations.

A key document that supports the link between economic growth and broadband penetration is the International Telecommunication Union’s 2012 Impact of Broadband on the Economy report.

While the reports authors aren’t wholly convinced of the direct links between economic growth and broadband penetration, they do see a clear correlation between the two factors.

ITU Impact of broadband on the economy report 2012

ITU Impact of broadband on the economy report 2012

One of the areas that disturbed the ITU report editors were the business, government and cultural attitudes towards innovation.

The economic impact of broadband is higher when promotion of the technology is combined with stimulus of innovative businesses that are tied to new applications. In other words, the impact of broadband is neither automatic nor homogeneous across the economic system.

For South Korea, internet innovation is a problem as the New York Times reports. Restrictions on mapping technologies, curfews on school age children and the requirement for all South Koreans to use their real names on the net are all cited as factors in stifling local innovation.

In reading the New York Times article, it’s hard not to suspect the South Korean government is engaging in some digital protectionism, which is ironic seeing the benefits the country has reaped from globalised manufacturing over the last thirty years.

The problem for South Korea is that rolling out high speed broadband networks are of little use if local laws, culture or business practices impede adoption of the services. It’s as if the US or Germany built their high speed roads but insisted that cars have a flag waver walking in front of them.

Indeed it may well be that South Korea’s broadband networks are as useful to economic growth as Pyongyang’s broad boulevards just over the border.

Similar problems face other countries with Google’s high speed broadband network in the US so far not attracting the expected business take up and innovation, although it is early days yet and there are some encouraging signs among the Kansas City startup community.

In Australia, the troubled National Broadband Network has struggled to articulate the business uses for the service beyond 1990s mantras about remote workplaces and telehealth – much of the reason for that has been the failure of Australian businesses to think about how broadband can change their industries.

Like Japan’s bridges to nowhere, big infrastructure projects look good but the poorly planned ones – particularly those no-one knows how to use – are a spectacular waste of money.

Hopefully the fibre networks being rolled out won’t be a waste of money, but unless industries start using the web properly then much of the investment will be wasted.

Mar 202013
Demonstrating the benefits of the national broadband network

This is not good for the National Broadband Network project; contractor Service Stream announced it was handing back the Northern Territory rollout contracts to the Australian Security Exchange this morning.

It raises serious questions about the timetable of the project.

Service Stream advises that Syntheo, a 50/50 joint venture with Lend Lease, has reached agreement with
NBN Co to hand back the remainder of its design and construction activities in the Northern Territory. Syntheo is committed to working with NBN Co to complete its work in Western Australia and South Australia.
Given NBNCo abandoned its construction tender in April 2011 amidst hints of price fixing by contractors, this is a worrying development that indicates those ‘overpriced quotes’ may have been closer to the money after all.
I’ll be writing something up later today for IT News.
Jan 302013
The inventor of the World Wide Web

The man who invented the world wide web, Tim Berners-Lee spoke at the launch of the CSIRO’s Digital Productivity and Services Flagship in Sydney yesterday.

In telling about how the idea the idea of web, or Hyper Text Markup Language (HTML), came about Berners-Lee touched on some fundamental truths about innovation in big organisations.

In the 1990s the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN) in Geneva had thousands of researchers bringing their own computers, it was an early version of what we now call the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy.

“When they used their computers, they used their favourite computer running their favourite operating system. If they didn’t like what was available they wrote the software themselves,” said Tim. “Of course, none of these talked to each other.”

As a result sharing data was a nightmare as each scientist created documents using their own programs which often didn’t work on their colleagues’ computers.

Tim had the idea of standard language that would allow researchers to share information easily, although getting projects like this running in large bureaucratic organisations like CERN isn’t easy.

For getting HTML and the web running in CERN Tim gives credit to his boss, Mike Sendall, who supported him and his idea.

“If you’re wondering why innovation happens, one of the things is great bosses who let you do things on the side, Mike found an excuse to get a NeXT computer,” remembers Tim. “‘Why don’t you test it with your hypertext program?’ Mike said with a wink.”

There’s much talk about innovation in organisations, but without management support those ideas go nowhere, the story of the web is possibly the best example of what can happen when executives don’t just expect their workers to clock in, shut up and watch the clock.

One key point Tim made in his presentation was that it was twenty years after the Internet was invented before the web came along and another five years until the online world really took off.

We’re at that stage of development with the web now and with the development of the new HTML5 standard we’re going to see far more communication between machines.

Berners-Lee says “instead of having 1011 web pages communicating, we start to have 1011 computers talking to each other.”

These connections mean online innovation is only just beginning, we haven’t seen anything yet.

If you want your staff to stay quiet and watch the clock, that’s fine. But your clock might be figuring out how to do your job better than you can.

Tim Berners-Lee image courtesy of Tanaka on Flickr