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Crossing digital divide in the broadband nation

THE use of high-speed broadband Internet connections might be growing, but not quickly enough to prevent substantial problems in the near future.

Indeed, the head of one major web development firm predicts the ‘digital divide’ will be costly, both to businesses and individuals.

Pretzel Logic’s Steve Pretzel says there is a growing disparity between the connection speeds available to corporations and many of their cyber-visitors. Based on predicted levels of broadband use – as the pre-valence of video-based applications increases and companies devise their own Internet-delivered products and services – it will not be possible for these uses to be made universally available.

To overcome this disparity, companies are going to be forced to set up dual systems to cater to the needs of both high-speed and dial-up customers, in the process costing themselves a lot of time and expense.

Mr Pretzel used Internet banking as an example of the difficulties that could lie ahead.

“Yes, [banks are] able to get a lot of people banking online now … but what happens when they try to close a branch? People throw up their arms in horror because there are still too many people out there who want that personal service, who want that real, physical interaction, and who don’t have either the access online or the desire to go online to do it,” Mr Pretzel said.

“What the banks and other companies are finding is that through this distribution period they’re adding on a new distribution channel, but not really able to turn any of the old distribution channels off – that’s the problem.

“Broadband is going to just add one form of distribution channel without being able to take away what they’re doing in other areas. So it’s going to be a real problem.”

Internet Business Corporation managing director Richard Keeves agreed that both the deployment and take-up of broadband access had been slow across Australia. But he said people would not rush to adopt it just because it was available.

Mr Keeves said new technology was usually surrounded by a good deal of hype, but when that wore off, people tended to become quite negative about the technology.

It was only fairly recently that the Internet had become recognised as a genuine source of productivity improvements, and broadband would likewise take some years to engender a similar attitude towards itself.

“There needs to be far greater motivation to take the mass of the marketplace into that technology, rather than just the innovators who will dabble with things just because they’re new,” Mr Keeves said.

“The majority of the marketplace won’t take it up until it’s been proven, until it’s cost-effective, and until there’s such a critical mass shift to market it such that it’s not something to dabble in any more. It’s something they need to have, otherwise they’re going to get left behind.”

He pointed to the example of the first fax machine to be sold in Australia in 1972. It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that fax machines started to become useful to businesses, and a few years after that they were essential to business operations.

But Mr Pretzel believes broadband should be universally rolled out immediately in anticipation of consumer and business demand for its benefits.

He said if the Federal Government still owned all of Telstra, a decision to take such action would be much more easily made. On the other hand, one radical thought is for the Government to sell the rest of Telstra and then use the sale proceeds to build a proper national broadband network.

“If you try to leave it to market forces, you will always have capital investment decisions being delayed to align them with short-term uptake; the supply side will wait for the demand side, and the whole process will be much slower,” Mr Pretzel said.

“What Australia should do is bite the bullet and give every house access to high-speed broadband Internet in a very, very quick rollout period, so that Australian companies can start using broadband with confidence for their communi-cations.

“People won’t have to make the decision: ‘Do I go broadband or don’t I’. They don’t have to weigh up the justification of the additional expense broadband is – broadband shouldn’t cost them more, and companies shouldn’t have to make those decisions where they can’t justify investing in a new form of communication because there’s such a small number of people doing it.

“It’s the old chicken and egg situation. The only way to break through that is to take some absolutely radical thinking and say everyone is going to be on broadband at once, and at this date Australia becomes the Broadband nation.”

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