Review - Willing users, telcos needed: broadband book

Among the imaginative visions for the use of broadband espoused in 'Survival of the Fastest', nagging voices keep bringing discussion back to the realities of commerce and user need - and questioning whether the telcos have done their part to encourage broadband use.

Survival of the Fastest, 128 pages plus appendices; $24.95 + $2.00 p&p from www.tuanz.org.nz.

Among the imaginative visions for the use of broadband espoused in Survival of the Fastest, nagging voices keep bringing discussion back to the realities of commerce and user need – and questioning whether the telcos have done their part to encourage broadband use.

“Yes, but will it make a buck?” says a heading in the chapter on retail applications. Speakers also cast doubt on a key plank of the broadband project “that applications, retail or otherwise, would drive broadband uptake. Many felt that widespread availability of broadband needed to come first and then applications would follow.”

The chapter cites retail group participants’ “considerable anger at the telcos for not doing more to drive broadband”. Free access trials should have been available some time ago, delegates suggested.

One said he had the need and probably the application availability already, with “130,000 customers in dire need of video streaming ... Why the hell has Telecom [he is a major Telecom user] not come to me with some sort of proposal?” he asked.

Tuanz head Ernie Newman, in the preface to the book, born out of last year’s Broadband Applications Project (BAP) meeting in Nelson, fingers “the perversity of the old Kiwi Share” for retarding the growth of broadband by artificially subsidising old technology.

Yet laying blame at Telecom’s door is simplistic, he says.

“Tuanz knows there are leaders within Telecom who share the passion for the [newer] technology. And, of course, there are other dynamic telecommunications companies out there actively vying for market share.”

Debaters in the “health and disability” sector said low appreciation of broadband applications reflects a lack of will among professionals to “learn to work smarter”. No amount of collaborative broadband applications will create willingness to collaborate online among those “hidebound by tradition”, said one.

I showed this section to a specialist in disability, who asked “where’s the disability perspective? It’s all health.”

The visions, from an international virtual birthday party to real-time “udder data” on the quality of milk expected from a particular cow, are not lacking in imagination. But they stirred three questions:

The first was, haven’t we heard this before? So many of the ideas seem familiar as largely unfulfilled predictions for the near future of a decade ago, once the web achieved wide use or, in an earlier era, when ISDN got going.

Some speakers in the health and disability sector clearly shared the view of a “past-future” unfulfilled. “New Zealand has been down the road of technology-tripping in the past. Automation was going to change our lives in the 1950s and 1960s ... computers were going to deliver cost-efficient welfare and police services.” Little of it, as we know, came to pass, one delegate said.

My second nagging thought: haven’t we even done this before? I’ve attended online parties (admittedly in a 6cm-wide screen at one frame a second) over a 56kbit/s link.

The tourism vision of looking at a building or artefact and having a voice in your ear tell you its history was a reality, albeit in restricted space, when I saw the Bayeux tapestry in 1963. You got a wireless handset, stood by a coloured light indicating your desired language, and the light and the commentary moved you along the tapestry at a comfortable speed, telling the story of the part you were looking at. Similar commentaries are a reality at Wellington’s Te Papa – using off-line portable CD players.

The book goes on to postulate an “immersive” multimedia experience through the viewer’s spectacles, presenting the building and surrounding life as it was.

I live with cats, so I’m used to walking round an immobile body staring fixedly at something I can’t see. But when humans start doing it? Pickpockets and road accidents might be just the thin end of the problems.

Many of these visions seemed a difference in degree rather than substance – but perhaps that’s an optimistic sign of achievability. Yet, experts keep telling us, the real “killer apps” will be in areas no one has previously imagined.

The third persistent question: Does this need broadband? I find it hard to persuade myself that multimegabit per second connections would be necessary to plan optimal routes for deliveries by lorry, or to record the fat content of a cow’s milk.

Repeatedly I read “the only limitation is our imagination”; “the only limitation is users’ vision” and, of course “the only limitation is those [expletive deleted] telcos.” The most obvious limitation is surely cost-benefit, which the book, in my view, underemphasises. My most frequent marginal note was “$?”

Some visions, such as high-pressure wireless selling to customers passing a shop (“let’s hope we can turn it off”) and a newspaper with items tailored to a reader’s interests (prejudices?) are to me frighteningly dystopian.

And there was at several points an apparent unwillingness to confront real attendant problems such as multimedia digital rights management and micropayment processes.

In summary, a fine set of visions, ranging from the reasonably obvious to the fanciful. What will be critical is the next stage. Even when broadband arrives, how do we start putting the vision into practice?

Meanwhile, among all this prophecy, the award for most off-the-wall statement must surely go to Ernie Newman, who suggests New Zealand’s large population of pokie machines owes something to Kiwis’ enthusiasm for technology.

Pardon me while I pencil it in the margin again: “$?”

  • IDG (publisher of this website) journalists Justine Banfield, Paul Brislen and Anthony Doesburg contributed chapters to Survival of the Fastest.

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