The NBN's forgotten business potential

Labor's NBN will provide the best platform for our businesses to innovate but while politicians play games and NBN Co drags its feet many industries are falling behind their international competitors.

Yesterday NBN Co released their latest corporate plan to an increasingly sceptical media at their headquarters overlooking the Sydney Harbour Bridge’s northern end.

Defending the project, Communications minister Stephen Conroy pointed out that had the designers of the Harbour Bridge taken the same attitude as the opposition have to the NBN, the bridge would have been built with a hopelessly inadequate two lane road instead of six*.

Across the bridge from NBNCo’s North Sydney headquarters the minister had earlier addressed a much friendlier crowd at the Cloud NBN Forum which discussed how broadband technologies are transforming business and communities.

That transformation is happening right now as industries like retail and media struggle with the digital economy. It would be brave for any business to think they won’t be affected by these changes.

One of the questions asked during the forum was “why would a plumber need a broadband connection?” That was answered by Steph Hines of Newcastle accounting firm Growthwise.  

Steph cited her building trade clients in the Hunter Valley using services like Geo Op to prepare invoices and job sheets while on site, saving hundreds of hours and giving those businesses a competitive advantage over tradesmen stuck in the pen and carbon paper way of doing things.

“Small businesses have to take this up,” says Steph. “If they are not looking at the cloud they are not looking at their business.”

Larger businesses are also reaping the benefits being online. Telstra’s chief operating officer Brendon Riley cited how Dominos Pizza’s transformed their computer systems and tripled their ordering capacity through moving their IT systems onto the cloud, a process that took eight weeks and less than a million dollars.

Dominos Pizza is a favourite with software developers, MYOB’s CEO Tim Reed pointed out in a recent interview that the chain’s smartphone app gives them an advantage over the local shop that might serve a better pizza but doesn’t offer the ease and convenience of ordering.

None of this matters though if businesses or customers’ homes can’t get decent, reliable broadband connections. This has been the failure of successive Liberal and Labor governments since the 1980s.

The focus on the NBN rollout has been on regional Australia but there are thousands in middle ring suburbs and inner city developments who find they can’t access high speed broadband.

Peter Simpson of Physical Disabilities Australia lives just outside Parramatta in the centre of Sydney’s Western Suburbs. He found his house couldn’t receive ADSL2 services and the cable alternative has proved to be unreliable.

Access for the disabled is one of the big benefits of a connected society. As the Disability Discrimination Commissioner Graeme Innes told the forum, “disabilities are the untold story of the NBN.”

One of the challenges for Australian businesses, along with most of the first world economies, is the labour participation rate. The luxury of excluding disabled, remote or older workers is ending as we face labour shortages in everything from plumbers to radiographers.

While this is a worldwide trend, Australia isn’t particularly well placed to take advantage. Technology commentator Brad Howarth told the forum that Australia has a problem of no unique natural advantages in the global, connected economy.

One of Brad’s frustrations is that Australian society, including business and governments, doesn’t have a sense of urgency about the challenge facing our industries in the global connected economy.

Brad’s worry is one that was shared by many at the Cloud NBN forum, while politicians play games and NBN Co drags its feet many industries are falling behind their international competitors.

As Dean Economou of NICTA, the government funded National ICT Australia initiative, pointed out, “what can be digitised, will be digitised.” That digitalisation of products, services and industries is a clear threat to large parts of Australia’s economy.

Dealing with that threat requires having the appropriate infrastructure not just to deal with today’s data demand but also the projected demands of decades ahead. Cisco System’s Visual Networking Index sees global and Australian data traffic growing fourfold between 2011 and 2016.

Senator Conroy’s point about building Sydney Harbour Bridge with only two lane to save costs is valid. No-one in 1927 could have seen the explosive growth of the motor car over the next fifty years. Today we can clearly see how data demands are going to grow over the next few decades.

Building a network that can deal with those demands makes sense, but we shouldn’t forget though that the Harbour Bridge nearly bankrupted the NSW government and forced the state Labor premier Jack Lang into a confrontation with overseas bankers.

All Australians – particularly Senator Conroy and his cabinet colleagues – will be hoping NBN Co doesn’t repeat history too closely.

*The Sydney Harbour Bridge was originally built with six traffic lanes. In the late 1950s the tram lines on the Eastern side were converted into the two road lanes that are now the Cahill Expressway.