Digital Directions to set the digital media agenda for 2011

On Thursday March 3 some of the world’s foremost thinkers in the field of digital media will gather in Sydney for the annual Digital Directions conference. Hosted by Fairfax Media and powered by X Media Lab, Digital Directions (previously run as Media 09 and Media 10) has proven to be one of the most informative and useful events of the year.

This year’s event features two speakers features in A Faster Future. Robert Tercek is one of the world’s leading thinkers on the global digital media industry and talking extensively in the book about the evolution of the entertainment industry and the ‘data-isation’ of products and services. Also feature is Tan Le, who as president of the Australian-born start-up Emotiv has been developing the next generation of human/computer interface technology with Emotiv’s EPOC brain/computer control device.

The event also features Columbia Law School’s Tim Wu, who is the author of the best-selling books The Master Switch and Who Controls the Internet, and who has been one of the drivers of the net neutrality debate in the US. Also on the agenda are journalism entrepreneur and former head of the The Guardian’s online strategy, Kevin Anderson, director of digital for The Onion, Baratunde Thurston, and Anthony Rose, former CTO at YouView and Future Media Controller at the BBC.

Live from Kickstart 2011: Paul O’Sullivan from Optus #ks11

For the next couple of day’s I’ll be reporting from MediaConnect’s Kickstart 2011 conference. Each year Kickstart brings together Australia’s community of technology journalists and bloggers to hear from numerous companies within the industry.

This year’s event was headline by Optus CEO Paul O’Sullivan, whose keynote presentation focused strongly on the topic of competition in the Australian communications sector, particularly as we move to the deployment of the National Broadband Network. He pointed out that while in the wireless industry prices have halved, the same cannot be said in the less-competitive fixed-line communications market. He also cautioned that the NBN will not automatically generate greater competition, and called for greater scrutiny of the $11 billion payment being made to Telstra lest those payments distort the new market in its early years.

“Our major concerns if that the economics of acquisition will be strongly distorted by a deal between Telstra and the NBN Co,” O’Sullivan said. “All we are asking is that the industry gets a level playing field as the NBN is launched. Let’s not recreate the sins of the past in the way that we create the new NBN Co.”

He called for the operation of the NBN Co to be periodically put out to tender, in the same way that the city of Melbourne for instance tenders out the management of its public transport system, and an independent oversight board be appointed for the NBN Co, similar to the Reserve Bank of Australia.

Another theme was the rise of applications and services, and not always in a good way, as foreign companies now dominate online.

“We need to think about access in the physical world as we do in the local world,” O’Sullivan said.

He called for a debate to begin about how content is operated online, such as perhaps that links to be placed on the “winner-take-all” content and service owners to direct traffic elsewhere, and to possible even let other service provider bid for the eyeballs that visit those sites.

O’Sullivan also discussed (and dismissed) the alleged rivalry between fixed and mobile services, and he also posed the question of how Optus can give customers a seamless experience on fixed and mobile networks.

Live from Broadband & Beyond Day 2 – Mike Quigley of NBN Co

Day 2 of Broadband & Beyond 2011 kicked off with a keynote address from Mike Quigley, the chief executive of Australia’s National Broadband Network company, NBN Co.

the NBN Co has received around 75 pe consent to connect in its early release sites, in line with targets, with Willunga in South Australian reaching 91 percent for a network that is being deployed entirely underground. In Brunswick in inner city Melbourne consent sits at just 50 percent, although Quigley attributed the low take-up to the high proportion of rental properties in that suburb. That figure will jump quickly should a deal with Telstra be consummated as its copper network will be retired in favour of NBN Co’s fibre. Whether the deployment will go overground or under will depend greatly on individual circumstances – underground is great in areas of high winds, but not so good in flood plains.

Quigley also took time to once again try to settle the debate over whether fixed-line broadband is better than mobile, citing the usual arguments regarding the fact that wireless connections are shared and degrade over distance. He also called on examples from around the world, including statements from the CEO of AT&T, Randall Stephenson.

“There are going to be applications coming that are going to be difficult for even the latest mobile technologies to deal with,” Quigley said. “(Mobile and wireless) are both complementary. They have advantages and disadvantages. If you want to stream lots of video it is going to be difficult over wireless networks.  Every big telco is working hard to try and get data off a mobile network and onto a fixed network.”

He also discussed the business case, which will deliver a 7 percent return without any analysis of social or business benefits. He also pointed to a report from Huawei that talked about how people are more compelled to live in rural areas if there is good broadband.

Live from Broadband & Beyond Part 5 – Business models realised

The first session back after lunch focused on companies that have already been building successful broadband-based businesses. The first speaker was Tom Kennedy, the executive director of group digital services at Omnilab Media, who talked about his company’s success in international media production, and its services business, which delivers media to dozens of different media companies and distribution platforms. In terms of revenue, he talked about how revenue from advertising is in decline, while subscription services are likely to rise and transactional models are getting stronger.

“If you give people the model where people can get to content fast, efficiently, and in a time when they want to get to it, they will pay for it,” Kennedy said.

And while content is king, Kennedy said distribution was King Kong, in terms of the value that came from getting content out to as many different distribution platforms as possible. He also talked about the difficulty today in delivering content with quality – something that requires more investment in networks.

The ABC’s head of strategic development Abigail Thomas, who talked about what it means when people have access to synchronous networks and what they mean for media applications, especially when everyone has access to them. She ran through a demonstration of its use of the Ushahidi services, which asks citizens to report in during emergency situations to allow people either on the ground or elsewhere to pinpoint where help is needed. It has been used in situations such as the Haiti earthquake, but also for the Pope’s visit to the UK. The ABC used it to ask citizens to provide information about feral animals around Australia, and again in a more serious way for the Queensland floods, where it was viewed by 200,000 people. It was the second biggest deployment after Haiti.

Thomas also described how an application like Ushahidi could looking in a broadband-enabled world, with more people more comfortable with the technology and contributing to crowdsource initiatives, and doing so in a richer way.

“The synchronous nature of the NBN has the potential to connect us into many national conversations,” Thomas says.

The third speaker for the session was Rachel Dixon, the chief operating officer at Viocorp. She described there being three things that you need to do anything online – content, infrastructure and salaries. She said that the old trend of online video being confined to short-form content is being turned around, with the big growth now in long-form content and IPTV.

Live from Broadband & Beyond 2011 Part 4 – Connected environments

The final session before lunch focused on remote and rural communities, and was led by a presentation from CSIRO ICT Centre’s director Ian Oppermann, who talked about a range of initiatives that CSIRO has made in delivering broadband access and services to regional areas. He talked about two projects, including one that performs remote ophthalmological testing, and about CSIRO’s partnership with NICTA in the Australian Centre for Broadband Innovation.

The second speaker was Rosalind Dubs, chair of the Space Industry Innovation Council who talked about the importance of space technologies to Australian society today, such as weather forecasting, the timing of banking transaction, television broadcasting, and of course, the GPS network. She discussed the role that the National Broadband Network will play in providing the terrestrial data network for moving satellite data around, especially in regional areas.

The final speaker was Rangan Srikhanta, executive director of One Laptop Per Child Australia. He talked about the importance of equipping remote communities with skills and equipment to participate in the digital econom.

“We need to consider all the moving parts to make a solution stick,” he said.

Live from Broadband & Beyond 2011 Part 3 – Powering cities

First up in the third session was Ben Hamilton, head of corporate strategy and communications at Country Energy. He talked about how electricity networks are getting faster as they are overlaid with a telecommunications layer, and how ever point in his company’s value change is changing as a result of the data that now moves through it. The concept of giving customers access to information has already been proven to change their behaviour, but requires home-area networking and smart meters. Customers will switch their load when they know the best times to buy electricity.

“We are on the cusp of a huge change, but we can ony plan for the known knowns at the moment,” Hamilton said.

Next up was Paul King, smart grid industry consultant at Logica, who spoke about the change of the role of the consumer in the energy ecosystem, the role of data in driving that change, and the emergence of specialist business models in the energy industry. While energy consumption has been passive, we are moving towards being able to be informed consumers, with consumer intimacy being a key to achieving a better energy future. He also cited the example of UK-based Tesco, which went from being a retail grocery company to becoming an energy retail company selling solar installation, gas, electricity and heat pumps.

“If was an enegy rtailer in Australia I would be very scared of this trend,” King said, adding that new entrants were not hindered by legacy customer management systems.

The third speaker was George Margelis, general manager of Care Innovations (who is also quoted in A Faster Future), who talked about the limiting factor in the growth of communities being access to services.  He talked about how healthcare is all about communication, and that where people want their healthcare to be delivered is very different to where it is delivered today.

“What they want is services delivered in their communities, in their homes,” Margelis said. What we need is a model of care that is connected, where patients work with their care team, and that is flexible and can be delivered remotely out to where the patient is.

Live from Broadband & Beyond 2011 Part 2 – Delivery of services in a broadband world

The second session at Broadband & Beyond 2011 kicked off with a presentation from John Wadeson, deputy secretary for ICT infrastructure at the Department of Human Services, who talked about the extremes his department had to go to in order to keep services running through the recent Queensland flood crisis. He also talked about the need to be able to deliver services in any place, any time. He also showed a graph that shows how the number of people logged in to services in any given year have more than doubled in a year.

“If you’re not there when the citizen really years you, you’re not there at all,” Wadeson said. “We have always been on the limit of what the infrastructure can do. My view around broadband, and why we need these things, is that it will facilitate. We need to run big complex applications wherever people are, because that is the nature of government.”

The second speaker was Michael Georgeff, chief executive officer from Precedence Healthcare. Georgeff talked about how the NBN may impact healthcare, with a key message that broadband is a rare opportunity to really transform healthcare, but will require a lot more than the healthcare. He talked about how healthcare is really a knowledge enterprise, and many of the negative outcomes are a failure of knowledge.

He also talked about the huge strain that chronic illness places on the medical system, due to its need for long-term planned care involving an care team – with a huge amount of communication (it’s another theme picked up in the healthcare chapter of A Faster Future). Only three percent of patients in Australia are currently receiving best-practice care. Michael has been involved in the development of cdmNet, a collaborative Web-based service for managing the entire life-cycle of chronic disease. It’s about much more than sharing data.

“Using high-speed broadband we can deliver all of this at the point of care,” Georgeff said.

The third speaker was Paddy Nixon, the pro-vice chancellor at the University of Tasmania. He talked about the business opportunity for the university to utilise broadband to improve its offering. He said universities needed to think about a global business model, and one that competed with new learning tools such as Brain Trainer on the Nintendo DS.

And they must also think in terms of  life-long learning, rather than focusing just on highschool leavers. Nixon said that universities were the ideal hosts of life long learning profilies and would be the organisations that assured the awarding of titles. Content is king, but context is key, and learning needs to be componentised and available in an open marketplace and be time-independent.

Live from Broadband & Beyond 2011

Am sitting in the audience at Broadband & Beyond 2011, the annual Communications Alliance industry conference. As you can imagine, much of the discussion is centred on the National Broadband Network, and what i can be used for – which is pleasing, as the usage of high-speed broadband networks is a big part of what is covered in my new book, A Faster Future.

The opening keynote was delivered by KPMG partner for the digital economy Malcolm Alder, who spoke about the challenges that will be faced by the retail sector as we move to the NBN. Malcolm covered a huge amount of territory in a short period of time, from healthcare for the elderly to the future of utilities. He also talked about the possibility for service providers to aggregate other services and sell them through their portal. It may be possible that a telco no only sells access, but possibly electricity and healthcare.

Malcolm was followed by Shara Evans, chief executive officer of research firm Market Clarity, who spoke about the current penetration of broadband and gave some predictions on its future take-up. The general theme was that access will continue to faster and cheaper.

SmartCompany – Australia’s new dot com boom – and why it’s different

If anyone doubts whether Australians entrepreneurs are making money out of the Internet, they should read this article that I wrote recently for SmartCompany. Australian Web entrepreneurs are making the most of 20 years of Web-based technological development and rapidly changing consumer behaviour to create fast-growth businesses with minimal cash outlay. Recent sales of companies including RetailMeNot and Spreets have shown that there is genuine money to be made out of good ideas online, and you don’t need a portfolio of patents to make it happen.

UPDATE: The story got a second lease of life, being picked up by Renai LeMay’s Delimiter site. You can read Renai’s thoughts, and those of entrepreneur Roger Kermode, by clicking here.