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Category Archives: australia

National broadband is anything but a failure

Railroad construction: what a waste of taxpayer money, am I right?

Railroad construction: what a waste of taxpayer money, am I right?

Telecom consultant Mark Goldberg had some fun the other day in slagging suggestions (like mine) that the Canadian government might want to get more directly involved in the country’s broadband and wireless markets. He pointed to an article by Jeffrey Eisenach, an economist for the American Enterprise Institute and professor at the George Mason University School of Law, that criticizes Australia’s efforts to build a super-fast government-owned National Broadband Network.

With $7.3 billion being spent so far to connect just 260,000 premises – about five per cent of the nation’s households, representing a cost of $28,000 each – it’s “a failed experiment” that never should have happened. The best way to get great services and prices, Eisenach argues, is to continue letting companies compete against each other. “As the Australians… have learned the hard way, however (sic), there is nothing romantic about pouring billions of dollars down a broadband rathole – especially when, as the U.S. experience has amply demonstrated, the real path to better broadband lies in letting the market work.”

Where to begin? Perhaps it’s best to start with some background. The AEI is a well-known conservative think tank that has received funding from many of the biggest U.S. corporations including GE, Kraft, Ford and, of course, the AT&T Foundation, according to Right Wing Watch. Its board has included executives from the likes of ExxonMobil, American Express and Dow Chemicals. If there’s a pro-big business position to be taken, the AEI has probably taken it. Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on March 12, 2014 in australia, government, internet

 

Happy birthday Sex, Bombs and Burgers!

At some point over the past two weeks, while I was busy running my crazy technology predictions for the next 10 years, we passed the one-year anniversary of the release of Sex, Bombs and Burgers. That means we also passed the second-year anniversary of this blog, which actually started out over at http://www.sexbombsburgers.com. Both have been more successful than I could have hoped, so thanks to everyone out there for making them so!

If you haven’t read the book yet, just a reminder that you will soon have another chance to do so. A smaller and cheaper format is coming out in the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand in June, while the paperback version will be out in the United States and Canada in December. As a bonus, both will have new covers while the North American version will have a tiny bit of new content at the end.

And yes, Sex, Bombs and Burgers is also available as an e-book. Check your favourite e-book store as it should be there in most of them.

 
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Posted by on March 14, 2011 in australia, books, new zealand, u.s., uk

 

A new international cover

A new version of Sex, Bombs and Burgers will be hitting bookstores in the UK, Australia and New Zealand in June. All three will have a brand, spanking new cover. I’m pleased to unveil it here:

It’s obviously very cheeky. There are things I like about this new design and things I don’t, but I’ll reserve judgment for now because I’m curious as to what you all think. Please jump in through the comments section.

 
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Posted by on February 10, 2011 in australia, books, new zealand, uk

 

Don’t fear the foreign reaper

You know what they say: when it rains, it pours! Or, in the case of Canada, when it snows, it Snowmaggedons! Hot on the heels of the whole usage-based internet billing fiasco, the Federal Court on Friday dropped a bombshell in ruling that our government goofed when it let Wind Mobile, one of our new cellphone companies, start up back in 2009. It’s a huge decision that throws our telecom market into chaos. I’ve written about the repercussions in an op/ed piece for CBC.ca.

In the meantime, it certainly looks like the issue of foreign ownership restrictions is finally going to get some attention. I’ve seen a good deal of concern from readers over the last little while on foreign ownership, both in stories and blog posts I’ve written. A lot of people don’t believe that opening Canada’s telecommunications market to foreign companies would be a good move, based on a number of fears.

There’s a few well-established ones, but I think those are easily countered. Chief among them is that we’ll sell out our big Canadian companies to foreigners, likely Americans. To that one I say: so what? Bring it on.

When Kohlberg Kravis and Roberts, a U.S. private equity firm, thought about buying Bell Canada a few years ago, someone – I can’t remember who – criticized the deal by saying he didn’t want decisions about Canadian telecom made in Manhattan board rooms. That’s about as dumb an argument as I’ve ever heard because when it comes to telecom companies, we’re talking about the pipes – whether they’re wires or wireless – that stuff travels through. It’s like complaining about how the decisions regarding the computers we use or the televisions we watch are being made in California and Tokyo board rooms. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter who owns the pipes the stuff goes through. All that’s important is that we get the stuff, preferably faster and cheaper.

That fear is tied to another, that foreign firms will have no impetus to promote Canadian content, especially if they end up owning our broadcasters as well. That’s another dumb one. I won’t get into whether we need to falsely promote some notion of Canadian culture, but be that as it may, it’s actually a very simple fear to quash. All we need are some very simple and clear rules: foreign firms must devote X% of their revenue to creating Canadian programming and they must include said programming as X% of their daily content. And they can’t air it in the middle of the night when no one is watching/listening. Canadian companies currently follow these rules as conditions of having their broadcast licenses renewed, so there’s no reason we couldn’t apply them to foreign entities as well.

Another fear is that by allowing foreigners to buy Canadian companies, we’ll hollow out corporate Canada and see all of the top-level jobs leave the country. Also related to that is the possibility that a foreign owner might decide to pare down the Canadian operation by cutting jobs. Both scenarios are based on the presumption that our companies suck, and always will. Some of them probably do suck right now and could use a good round of fat-cutting, but they don’t have to stay that way. If we build good companies that service a vibrant market, the jobs will come rather than leave. If Bell or Telus or whoever could transform itself and start expanding out of Canada we could some day have our very own Vodafone, or a giant multinational behemoth. That would mean many, many more jobs of all levels right here in Canada.

In fantasizing last week about what Canada might look like if we did get rid of our restrictions, some relatively new fears came up. I’m of the belief that AT&T would become a big player in Canada, simply because it already does big business here and it would like to ease its operations and lower its costs. A few readers commented that they didn’t necessarily want a company that is known for abusing its U.S. customers to come north. That would hardly solve our problems.

In the first case, unfortunately things don’t work this way. If we open up the market, we can’t really pick and choose who gets to come in – the market decides that. If we decide we want to take steps to solve the oppressive situation we’re in right now, this is a risk that has to be taken.

But the real point is, it’s actually not much of a risk. If, for example, AT&T were to buy Bell Canada, there probably wouldn’t be any real change in the level of customer oppression. However, if AT&T were to buy a smaller company – I suggested MTS Allstream – it would immediately be put into the role of challenger to the likes of Bell, which is the reverse of its situation in the United States, where it is the incumbent.

In the end, market position determines market behaviour. Put another way, the level at which a company behaves like a bastard is directly proportionate to how much of the market it controls. Challenger companies have much more reason to be friendly to their customers than market leaders do.

This isn’t just theoretical – I had a front-row ticket to this phenomenon a few years ago in New Zealand. There, Telecom New Zealand was the big, evil phone company. TelstraClear, a smaller company owned by Australia’s Telstra, was the challenger. For years, TelstraClear fought Telecom to get better access to its network, and the company also built some of its own cable infrastructure in the capital city of Wellington. For the most part, internet speeds and prices were better in Wellington than they were in most other parts of the country. TelstraClear was generally considered a better company to get services from.

On the other side of the Tasman Sea, it was the exact opposite. Telecom fought against Telstra for better access rules and generally positioned itself as a consumer champion through its AAPT subsidiary. The irony was not lost on anyone – the two companies were bitter enemies, but whether they were bastards or not depended on which country you were talking about.

Such is bound to be the case in Canada. There will likely be foreign takeovers of incumbents, but there will also be acquisitions of smaller players or startups of new companies. As long as there are new, hungry challengers, they will be friendlier to consumers in their services and prices, regardless of their relative doucheyness back home.

ALMOST FORGOT: In writing this post up last night, I forgot to include perhaps the best example of this dual douchey-ness. Few would doubt that Wind Mobile has positioned itself as a champion of the Canadian consumer. The whole concept is in the company’s very DNA. But let’s not forget that the company behind Wind, Egypt’s Orascom, is also the only cellphone provider in North Korea. Doing business with Kim Jong Il scores some serious points on the bastard scale. More proof that behaviour in one country doesn’t necessarily equate to the same behaviour in another.

 
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Posted by on February 7, 2011 in australia, new zealand, telecommunications

 

Top tech stories of 2010

I hope everybody had a nice and restful Christmas (even those people who don’t celebrate it). I know I did. It was a welcome break from the madness of the past few months.

Speaking of which, were I still working at the CBC, I’d likely have my hands full right now putting together my top story list of 2010, just like everyone else in the media. I don’t like to feel left out, so I thought I’d compile my own list and present it here. So, with no further ado, here are what I considered to be the 10 most important technology-related stories of the past year.

10. Privacy, privacy, privacy

It seems like every web business got nailed for some sort of privacy violation this year, especially here in Canada where we have a bulldog for a privacy watchdog. Whether it was Facebook and the convoluted system it has for sharing people’s information, or Google accidentally gathering such data with its Street View cars, internet companies really skirted the line of what is considered public and private in 2010. Personally, this isn’t an issue I really cared about that much because I’ve long believed that if you put a piece of information on the internet, you should expect it to be public – and permanent. My feeling is that society’s general view of privacy is changing to reflect this reality and we’ll probably stop caring so much about websites are doing and more about what we’re actually giving them. But there’ll be more on that in my 2011 predictions, coming soon.

9. Antennagate

The media loves to build things up and tear them down, and Apple got a good taste of it this year when it released the iPhone 4 in June. While the device formerly known as the “Jesus Phone” could previously do no wrong, suddenly it was having connection problems thanks to a redesigned antenna. Again, it’s another situation that I found dramatically overblown, but it did ultimately help open the door for competing smartphones – particuarly Android – which is probably a good thing.

8. Video games escape the ghetto

Games have typically been the domain of teen and adult males, but this year they really exploded to a much larger audience. The move actually started in earnest four years ago with the release of the Nintendo Wii, which brought many women and young children into the equation, but 2010 saw both Microsoft and Sony get into the action with the Kinect and Move motion systems, respectively. The duo have only been out a short time but it’s clear the video game market is much bigger than those males, and all the big hardware makers are now going after them. Social games also exploded, with Facebook recently saying that nearly half of its 500 million members log on to the site specifically to play games such as Farmville. Video games have never been bigger and there’s no end in sight to their growth.

7. 3D TV flops – or does it?

Recent reports suggest 3D TV, launched with great fanfare at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, have been a big flop, with sales in the low single percentages. That may be true, and the reasons for it are many: people have either recently bought new HD TVs, there’s little 3D content available for them, and people hate wearing the glasses. But, two things are happening: glasses-free technology is improving and all of it is getting cheaper every day. Like I said in January, 3D is likely to soon become a standard feature of all TVs – like the “gaming mode” they all currently have – and will not incur any premium. The media has a habit of pronouncing many technologies dead, but the reality is they often seep into everyday life without our even noticing. Such will be the case with 3D.

6. Ebooks (and tablets) explode

I wrote a little while back about how ebooks were growing exponentially and 2010 was really the year things caught fire. I can’t wait to see what the final numbers will be for the year – I wouldn’t be surprised if ebooks account for as much as 25% of all books sold. The iPad is fuelling at least part of that, and things are really going to get crazy next year once you’ve got a flood of competitors for the device. I’m told there will be up to 80 new tablet computers introduced at CES next week. Ebooks are a key app for these tablets, so sales of them are going to skyrocket even faster next year.

5. Google, Verizon and net neutrality

Google drew a lot of heat in the summer for becoming a “surrender monkey” on net neutrality by proposing a set of rules in conjunction with telecom company Verizon. Those rules were pretty much adopted to the letter by U.S. regulators last week, and it’s certain we haven’t heard the last of it as the proposal must now go through government, where Republicans have vowed to kill it. What was most noteworthy about U.S. efforts to protect free speech and innovation on the innovation is how bogged down and watered down they became once the lobbyists were set loose.

4. Broadband becomes a right

On a related note, a few countries – notably Finland – enshrined access to high-speed internet as a legal right for their citizens while other countries such as Australia moved to build their own publicly-owned access networks. The past year saw some pretty clear ideological lines drawn between those that believe in government having the best interests of the country at heart, and those that think businesses do. As far as broadband and innovation goes, we’ll see in a few years who turns out to be right (I suspect it’ll be the former).

3. The fight for copyright

After a long consultation process across the country, the Canadian government in the summer introduced Bill C-32, the copyright modernization act. Pretty much nobody was happy with it. Entertainment industry lobbyists didn’t like that the bill created a lot of rights for Canadians to copy material and artists didn’t like that there were no new compensation schemes suggested. What really riled most every-day people, though, was a clause that prevents the picking of digital locks placed on devices and content. That means if a record label decides it doesn’t want you to copy your CD onto your iPod, tough noogies. Internationally, the U.S. pushed ahead on getting consensus on the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), which has been characterized as just as restrictive as C-32. One possibility under ACTA is that border guards would be able to search your iPod for pirated music. Yikes. Obviously, both efforts were hugely controversial in 2010. It’ll be interesting to see how they play out in 2011. C-32, at least, has the possibility of dying if an election is called in Canada.

2. Facebook as a social phenomenon

Okay, personally, I still think Facebook will ultimately prove to be fad. Yes, the website makes lots of money and has tons of users, but I just don’t see the real value proposition. Maybe I’m just not among the target users. Regardless, I also can’t remember movies made about Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, much less good ones that will likely garner a few Oscar nominations. While watching The Social Network, one thought kept recurring to me: I can’t believe that a website (and web coding) is the central focus of a movie. Regardless of anything else Facebook is or isn’t, it has propelled technology to the forefront of pop culture like few other things have, and that’s a pretty big accomplishment. More amazing is that people actually went in droves to see a movie that was mostly about coding and litigation.

1. Cell Wars: A New (Wireless) Hope

Like several hundred thousand Canadians, I almost wept when I kissed my old cellphone provider (Rogers-owned Fido) goodbye and said hello to my new one (Mobilicity). I officially shaved $12 off my bill, but more importantly I added a whole ton of value with unlimited data, texting and calling – including North American long distance. Mobilicity is just one of several new independent wireless carriers that have sprung up over the past year – with Wind Mobile, Public Mobile and Videotron being the others. In their short existence, they have done wonders in breaking the stranglehold the big three – Bell, Rogers and Telus – have had on Canadians and brought prices down significantly to where they’re almost comparable to what users enjoy in much of the rest of the world. Even the big guys have flinched and are starting to lower their prices or change their terms, so the arrival of real competition is finally having an effect. I want to end my top-10 list on a good note, but I do have to bring up the long-smouldering issue of foreign ownership restrictions, which was one of the biggest bad-news stories of 2010. With the government continuing to waffle on lifting these onerous restrictions, there’s already talk that some of the new entrants – particularly Public Mobile – are in financial trouble. If the ownership rules don’t change quickly, one or more of those new carriers surely won’t be around this time next year.

 
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Posted by on December 27, 2010 in 3D, apple, australia, CES, copyright, ebooks, Facebook, Google, government, internet, iphone, microsoft, mobile, net neutrality, sony, telecommunications, video games

 

Qantas tries to make good

With my trip to Australia and New Zealand seeming like an eternity ago, the memory of the horror show that was the trip over has faded considerably. You may recall that my already lengthy 22-hour trip became a nightmarish 48 hours thanks to an almost unfathomable string of ineptitudes from Qantas. My rant about that back in April was my single most-read blog post ever (I’m still trying to figure out why – do that many people hate Qantas?). Reading it over now, I’m reminded of the new heights in anger that this particular airline introduced me to.

It was that anger – and my gradual decline into cranky old man-ness – that prompted me to write a letter of complaint to Qantas when I got back from the trip. I made all the usual demands, i.e. my money back, an apology, a pony ride, etc., and sent it off. I suspect that most people who write such letters don’t really do so because we actually want our demands met. It’s really more of a therapy; the act of venting onto a piece of paper or email just makes us feel better. I did actually feel better, and slowly forgot about the whole affair.

You can imagine my surprise when, months later, I actually got a response. A customer service agent wrote me back to tell me that they were sending me a $400 voucher, good on Qantas or any of its partners (including American Airlines and British Airways). It’s funny because my first thought was remembering going to complain at Qantas’s head office in Sydney. The woman there told me to write to customer service and that they would get back to me because “we’re not like those American airlines.” It should be noted that I also wrote a complaint to American Airlines, since I had actually bought my Qantas flight through them, and I still have yet to even get an acknowledgement of my email in response.

So does $400 make up for that Easter weekend debacle? Definitely not. There’s just no excusing 26 hours of delay. As a strong believer in our capitalist system, I think the consumer should always be guaranteed the goods or services he or she paid for in a timely and reasonable manner. I fly a lot and delays are an inevitable part of the gig, but more than doubling your travel time is not reasonable by any stretch of the imagination. I remember once flying on Iberia in Spain – the flight was only an hour, but it was delayed by 30 minutes; they gave out coupons for free flights as a result. All of the passengers went from somewhat grumpy to very happy. That’s how the customer should be treated!

But, I must give Qantas kudos for making the effort. Even though the voucher amounts to only about 25 per cent of the total flight cost, at least it’s a relatively meaningful gesture. I should at least be able to use it to fly to the U.S., or even most of the way to the U.K. this fall for the launch of Sex, Bombs and Burgers there. I’ll stop short of singing the airline’s praises, but it would be wrong to not recognize that they’re at least trying to do right by their customers. And that’s worth something.

Speaking of which… hey American, I’m still waiting for my reply!

 
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Posted by on July 19, 2010 in australia

 

Aussie gamers join forces with Sex Party

They say war often results in strange bedfellows, and in the case of Australian politics, they are certainly right. Gamers4Croydon, a quasi-political party/advocacy group in South Australia, is encouraging its members to back the Australian Sex Party – another political group – in the upcoming federal elections.

The gamers’ main goal is to win an 18+ rating for video games, yet they have encountered hurdles in registering as a proper party for the election, according to a report in The Australian. The group’s organizers are thus encouraging supporters to back the Sex Party because its a progressive party whose policies are “very well aligned” with the gamers’.

I’m somewhat familiar with the Sex Party, having blogged about them before, but I’d never heard of Gamers4Croydon. After reading up on them, I have to admit to finding their position somewhat puzzling. As it stands, the most restrictive rating a video game can get in Australia is Mature Audiences 15+. The gamer group wants that raised to 18, so that it’s consistent with most other peer countries. As their site says:

Not only does the current classification system fail to allow adults the right to choose – its first guiding principle under law – but it also falls short on the second: protecting minors from potentially harmful or disturbing content.

What I don’t get is that most activist groups often argue for less rules and less censorship, yet these gamers seem to want more of it. I can see a morality group arguing for stronger restrictions on video games, but this same group is very opposed to Australia’s proposal for harsh internet filters, which is mainly aimed at stamping out porn online – something the Sex Party is also against.

Can anyone Down Under explain this seemingly contradictory position?

And while we’re on the topic of Australia… regular readers may remember my rather venomous rant against the country’s national airline, Qantas, back in April. Thanks to a litany of mechanical and scheduling problems, my already lengthy flight to Sydney took an extra 27 hours, which I’m sure is responsible for some of my newly discovered grey hairs.

That rant happened to be my single most-viewed post ever, so quite a few people have obviously had similar experiences. I also wrote Qantas a rather angry e-mail, fully expecting to hear nothing back. Well surprise, surprise! The other day I received a response from the airline with an offer of a $400 travel voucher, good on Qantas or its various partners.

The voucher apparently won’t be good online, but I will be able to use it for booking over the phone. I’m not sure how that’s going to work or what kind of value it’ll provide, but in the end it’s far more than I was expecting. It just goes to show that complaining sometimes pays off. Now the only question is: do I ever want to chance flying Qantas again?

 
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Posted by on June 15, 2010 in australia, internet, sex, video games