It’s a quirk of fate and geography that our family home and my work at the Renew Australia office in the Melbourne suburb of Brunswick are both smack bang in the middle of one of the first mainland rollout zones for the Australia’s fibre-to-the-home National Broadband Network. We’ve now been on it for more than a year.
Recently, our family was asked by a PR company (long story!) whether we would be be happy to feature in a media event to showcase how the NBN was changing our life. It is and I was happy to talk about it. Apparently a prominent celebrity was going to come to our house with a gaggle of press types in tow and show us doing “typical” NBN-type things. Of course, because it was to be a staged media event the “typical” things they wanted us to do bore little if any relation to what we actually do with the network, and (as it transpired) the whole thing got cancelled at the last minute anyway.
Now i’m free of any obligation to say the right things about the NBN (having had a big insight into what the PR people thought the “right” things were) it did inspire me to reflect on how access to a 100 megabit NBN connection at home and work has actually changed the way we live and work and how it might continue to do so as the network evolves. I’d been meaning to post this for a while, but as i’m on holidays with time on my hands (and ironically on a dodgy wifi connection) I thought it might be timely to sit down and do it…
It has greatly improved my efficiency and my ability to move seamlessly between home and office
This is probably the biggest thing that has changed. I work from home a couple of days a week and from an NBN connected office in the same street. A lot of my life involves talking to people about Renew Newcastle and Renew Australia. I only realised this recently but my typical photo and animation heavy Renew presentation is currently in the order of just under a gigabyte (a random example of me delivering one is here). I customise it virtually every time I do it. Through the combination of a 100 megabit NBN connection at both home and at work and dropbox, I literally don’t even have to think about where I am, which device i’m editing it on or whether it’s up to date.
I can open it at home in the morning for half an hour, add or hide a few videos, tweak a few slides, hit save, take a few minute walk to the office and grab a coffee, faff about for a bit with my colleagues then sit down at the office and be 100% confident that the 700mb file is there on the desk for me to continue to work on it. Of course the same is true for word files, spreadsheets, or anything else but the seamlessness is much more noticeable for media heavy presentations. As a result of the NBN I communicate in words, pictures and videos much more than I ever did before because it is very easy to.
Outside of NBN land it’s a different story. It’s common that i’m asked after a conference presentation whether the hosts can have a copy of the presentation – almost without exception once they realise that it’s 700mb they don’t bother. While I can move it between home and office while getting a coffee, most of the country lacks the infrastructure to simply download it and share it with their networks.
Which leads me to my second work-related observation…
It’s about connection quality not download speed
I spend an inordinate amount of time on the road visiting cities and communities across regional Australia. To be perfectly honest I actually hate it a lot of the time — I don’t much like flying, i’m no great fan of hotels, and I have young family i’d rather not be away from. A lot of what I do is training people up and talking about the Renew Newcastle/ Renew Australia model. To give you a simple example the last few weeks alone there have been stories in local papers from Ballarat, the Illawarra, Launceston, and Dubbo and that’s pretty typical of the interest from month to month. Most of these communities want or need me to go there but they often lack the resources to pay for it or I lack the time to do it or a bit of both.
Being on the NBN has allowed me and Renew Australia to dip our toe in the water of supporting these communities remotely. I’ve done presentations to Champions of the Bush from Broken Hill to Kalgoolie/Boulder and Geraldton in WA all online. Unfortunately, right now, the reality is that for most communities the bandwidth isn’t there at the other end … yet. As an organisation Renew Australia needs to invest in using the internet as the primary means of communicating and supporting these communities. To the extent that we’ve dabbled in it it has become obvious that somewhere between the live-in-HD world of the NBN and the sketchy satellite, DSL and dialup that are lot of these communities are on the technological advantage breaks down. I need to be able to connect with these communities at high speed and not simply get “fast downloads.” We’re not there yet.
Ironically communities with NBN connections may well be the best candidates for the kind of creative-industries-seeding local economic revitalisation strategies that Renew Australia promotes and pursue (see my Makers and Places argument here for a hint as to why). The real efficiencies to our organisation, the chance to spend more time with my family and even the potential to transform regional Australia through our work (and dozens of other strategies and models in other fields) are entirely dependent on it becoming a network and not a series of places that have access to great bandwidth trying to do business with places that don’t.
On a more personal note…
Our media consumption habits have changed pretty dramatically — and no Australian company is catering to them yet
The DVD player was one of the first casualties — I think it’s in a cupboard somewhere but we have literally not watched a DVD in our house for more than a year. It’s a dead medium to us. Early in the piece we invested in an Set top box to go with our hi-def flat screen TV and prepared to take advantage of the bandwidth to watch HD streaming movies, video rentals on demand and the vast library of infinite entertainment that was suddenly available to watch.
Then we came to a stunning conclusion rather quickly… no one is actually even selling us anything useful in Australia. It may have changed in the last 12 months but when we last looked into it it became very obvious that all of the Australian streaming video services are, to put it bluntly, a complete and total joke. They either have a poor range of content, are overpriced, or come bundled with a whole bunch of junk we simply have no need for.
So, one of the perhaps more unlikely consequences of the NBN is that, for media consumption purposes, I live in America now. Through the wonders of Unblock.us and various VPN type technologies I also live in Canada, the UK and wherever else there are companies offering a respectable range of reasonably priced HD video download services, free broadcasts and other services. Technically, i’m sure i’m breaching some rules and regulations by bypassing geo-blocking but the reality is that it is becoming the norm not just for us but anyone trying to access high bandwidth video on demand.
On one level, through my own work and that of other businesses in my neighbourhood i’m aware that the NBN is seeding all sorts of start up enterprises, opening up all sorts of sunrise industries and possibilities. Yet in terms of the goliaths of Australian media meeting my family’s practical media habits it seems like we have opened the floodgates to Amazon, Netflix, the BBC, CBC, PBS and dozens of other media providers and the Australian media industry has responded by a retreat into technological protectionism. Australian media is thinking small and local when the rest of the world and the nation itself is thinking and moving big. Real big. Real fast.
It’s about the network
The more I think about the NBN and how it’s working for us the more obvious it becomes that the value is in the network. I’m not going to weigh in here about the coalitions plans v the NBN Co plans but I am keen to observe that the value of the NBN grows with the number of people, places and communities that are connected to it. This is obvious in my work right now.
The difference in how I seamlessly move files between home and work and how hard I find it to just send them to anyone outside the local NBN bubble and back onto the regular internet is a microcosm for me of the efficiencies the NBN generates. I want and am starting to expect that frictionlessness in all manner of communications and connections to all different communities. With every connection the value of the network increases, with every community that comes online the costs of me working with them drops, the efficiencies of what we can do increases and the days I have to spend away from my family start to diminish. Indeed, a critical mass of customers will also go some way towards solving the lack of NBN specific content and services in Australia.
There are probably dozens of tangents I could go off on here: is the NBN better than wireless? (Yes, obviously – wifi is the bottleneck in our house now), Is it expensive? (No, i’m not paying much more than I was before and the service is infinitely better), What about the low take up rates? (Our house was in the “opt-in” phase where every property owner had to explicitly sign up to get it connected — we spend three f***ing months chasing our landlord to get him to sign the piece of paper so I can see why a lot of others didn’t bother) and chances are there are a few dozen obvious questions i’ve missed.
Anyhow, free of any PR obligation to talk up how we are supposed to use the NBN, that’s the reality so far of how we are actually using it (slightly dubious international geoblock busting and all). Should anyone does actually need, as the NBN publicists proposed, a photo-op of the kid watching a streaming HD video, dad uploading a home video and mum talking on skype — we do actually do all that stuff and yep, you can do it all at the same time — we’d still be happy to oblige. Thus far the reality is a lot more complex and interesting.
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