Australia could learn from Dutch broadband experience

Broadband penetration in Holland three times that of Oz

Being geographically compact, having a government that fosters a competitive telco environment and being home to a major transcontinental internet exchange makes Holland the number one broadband nation in Europe, a Dutch delegation told Australian counterparts last week.

The Dutch have broadband internet penetration of between 55-60%. Australia, by comparison, has roughly 20% or three million of its population with broadband. New Zealand is even further behind and shows no sign of catching up.

Members of the Dutch government, including Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, along with Australia’s Minister for Communications, Helen Coonan, gathered for the Netherlands-Australian Broadband round table.

The event was part of the celebrations for the 400th anniversary of the landing of the Dutch East-India Company ship, Duyfken, in Australia.

Clemence Ross van Dorp, the acting Minister for Foreign Trade, says its broadband strategy — the Dutch don’t count anything under 1Mbit/s as broadband — does not stop at fast speeds.

“Broadband is important for economic growth and for a service-oriented economy,” says Guus Broesterhuizen, the Netherlands’ deputy director general for energy and telecommunications.

The Dutch got to this high level of broadband uptake by abiding by an EU regulation that forced markets to open. As a result of increased competition, 95% of the population now have access to high-speed cable.

“Australia has challenges that are difficult to overcome,” Broesterhuizen says. The Netherlands — when compared with Australia — contains almost no rural areas, which works in its favour.

In addition, the trans-Atlantic cable, which connects mainland Europe and North America, lands in Amsterdam. This enables many of the ICT companies and providers to tap into this fast connection and deliver services to residents. In New Zealand, of course, the Southern Cross cable lands in Auckland and connects New Zealand with Australia, Fiji and the US.

Amsterdam also featured in the round table talks. The city has a new “fibre to the home” project, called Citynet. It has invested in a public-private partnership to deliver end-users symmetrical speeds of 100Mbit/s. Presently 40,000 homes are in the process of being connected, with a target of 400,000 overall.

Hans Tijl, of the development corporation of the City of Amsterdam, says the network is designed to be open. “Everyone [will have] access to it.”

Having symmetrical pipes is the key, as he suspects all the new services would utilise triple-play — video, data and voice. “It is very important to upload at speed.”

Although it won’t be completed for another five years, the project will allow for innovative service providers to ply their trade and deliver next-generation services such as education or healthcare, he says.

Communications Minister Helen Coonan detailed the Australian government’s initiatives to boost broadband, particularly its regional schemes.

She says the government has set up Broadband Connect, a new scheme to provide registered ISPs with incentive payments to supply competitively priced higher bandwidth services in regional, rural and remote areas of Australia.

“We need to think big about what we can do to provide something innovative and different in rural Australia,” she says.

She also acknowledged the Austar and Soul alliance, announced recently, which will deliver the wireless broadband standard WiMax to 25 regional Australian locations by the end of 2007.

On the competition front, she says competitive pressures deliver best outcomes.

Dutch born Australian Telco analyst, and organiser of the event, Paul Budde, pushed this further, “We need a stronger regulatory regime as there is no competition here,” he says.

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