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May 11, 2011

What would we do with the NBN?

Optical FibreArguments about the NBN continue to rage in political circles and, to a lesser extent, among the rest of us who might be expected to use it. Two themes continue to dominate: “Can it be built on budget?”and “Is it worth building – i.e. what are we going to do with this high-speed network?” Tony Abbot's recent remarks say that Labor cannot be trusted with money due to their incompetence – so cost seems to be the issue. Malcolm Turnbull, on the other hand, questions its value. His statements at a discussion with Mark Pesce were pretty forceful. He said "..it's nuts that even a notorious, self-proclaimed futurist like Pesce isn't able to name the applications that the NBN would fuel in the future. Speed in and of itself is an abstraction. It doesn't do anything for you, unless you have applications you can use." (see the full report from Zdnet here)

True enough. And this has been the main argument of the naysayers for a while. But that's another way of saying that Australians don't have the imagination or creativity to develop innovative, valuable applications, given decent infrastructure. That's all it is, by the way. Decent infrastructure, not best-in-the-world or cutting-edge. Australia will just be catching up with many developed countries (see earlier blog entry).

Fortunately Australian companies have already proven themselves more than capable of high levels of creativity and innovation, in ICT and elsewhere.

Take the Internet games companies that have recently been in the news (Firemint and a few others) or Google Maps (which was originally founded by Lars Rasmussen in Sydney and bought by Google in 2004) and world-leading companies like Cochlear and CSL, for example. Pesce's position is, in fact, quite valid. Applications such as bit-torrent, he says, would never have been invented before broadband became widely available. But who could have imagined something that clever, beforehand? Even the mainstream media seems to be moving from a fairly skeptical position (see this from The Australian, Dec 2009) to a much more imaginative perspective, recently (As driver of change – Business Spectator, Entertainment - Computerworld).

Leaving aside the really smart applications that are yet to be invented, it's not that hard to see where the main opportunities lie. The NBN will connect homes, small businesses, schools, hospitals – relatively small entities to a high-speed network. These are not people who habitually crunch large amounts of data, so what will they use it for? Well, video, for one. And hopefully, various creative applications of interactive multi-media, such as 3-D graphics. High-quality, real-time imagery is the main thing that requires lots of bandwidth these days.

The entertainment industry is undoubtedly getting ready even now. IP-based TV is already available (here), and there is no question that the NBN is going to create all kinds of opportunities in this area. Internet gaming will also benefit.

But what about more “serious” applications? Big companies and government agencies already use applications like video-conferencing a great deal, but small businesses (professionals like ad-agencies, graphic designers, architects, for example) are yet to catch on - for a few reasons: First, people don't generally have high-quality video-conferencing facilities in their offices and homes (“high-quality” eliminates Skype at this stage. We are talking of images good enough to judge peoples' expressions, reactions and body language accurately). Second, it's hard to present drawings, documents, models, etc over the video link, the way we'd do it in person. That's partly due to the technology available, partly due to our training. But what if we had a 42” 3-D capable screen, and some software that could present things interactively, in addition to the video image of the participants? Wouldn't that change the game?

In fact, many people do have the 42” screen in the form of a flat-screen TV. Most of these professionals use advanced computer software in their work. It's just a package to integrate all of these with a camera or two and a little training, that seems to be missing. And, of course, the NBN.

There has been a lot of talk about tele-medicine. Once again, it's the same basic components that are required. If people are comfortable using them for one application, they'll use them for everything else.

What about Education? There is a lot of interest in using interactive games for teaching. Imagine the fun kids would have playing / learning / creating things with their friends across the country? And why not adults? The design of training programs, seminars, workshops could all be turned upside down.

Or we could take Malcolm Turnbull's position and refuse to be diverted by the “abstraction” of a high-speed network and just work harder at whatever we are doing now.