Communications

Communications technology is a interesting thing and one that is viewed so differently by every generation and even by every individual within each generation. It’s an endless rush that leaves many confused and sometimes isolated because of the rapidity of change. For me, technology in all of its forms has always been fascinating and so many aspects of my life have involved understanding technology in its ever evolving way. As a kid, I was forever pulling things apart and putting them back together (sometimes not) and, to this day, I sometimes wonder how I’m still alive, considering the things that I did. One of the most significant communication events that I’ve ever experienced was Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon in July 1969, when every high school kid was sent home to watch it on TV. However, it was Buzz Aldrin that featured most dramatically on the day when it came to images.

Buzz Aldrin steps on moon - (source: NASA)

Buzz Aldrin steps on moon – (source: NASA)

Since 1969, so many things have changed. And when one looks back on history, you have to wonder what were the most significant developments in technology over the centuries. The Gutenberg printing press, developed in 1450, would have to be the most significant global development (though the Chinese developed movable type centuries before), as it allowed everyone access to knowledge that was previously held, more or less, by privileged people. There’s also no disputing that the Industrial Revolution, which begun in the early 1700s (how many today are even aware of this), was also one of the most important technology steps in human history. It was the beginning of ‘mass production’, which has led to everything that we know today.

Hartmann Maschinenhale 1868 - (Source: commons Wikimedia.org)

Hartmann Maschinenhale 1868 – (Source: commons Wikimedia.org)

Assembly line at the Ford Motor Company's Highland Park plant 1913 - (source: US Library of Congress)

Assembly line at the Ford Motor Company’s Highland Park plant 1913 – (source: US Library of Congress)

However, since the early and later days of the Industrial Revolution, things have changed significantly. One of the most frustrating business communication requirements of the last century (compared to today) was that of written communication and its transmission. I still remember the days when you wanted something typewritten at work, it went to a typing pool staffed by women in fish bowls who churned out the best that they could from scrawls penned on paper (with things cycling back many a time before it was right). And don’t laugh, the typing pools were still a going concern well beyond the 1980s (ie last century) but, soon after, everyone had a PC on their desk. The typing pools were gone and much lamented by many who now had to learn typing skills, amongst other things.

Max Dupain's Australians- (source: The Australian)

Max Dupain’s Australians- (source: The Australian)

Since those days, technology has accelerated at a pace that simply beggars belief and, with the advent of the mobile phone and associated technology, communications has taken a leap forward that probably eclipses that achieved by the printing press. The world has become almost totally connected 24/7/365. It’s not only that we have the ability to send text just about anywhere (akin to the old telegraph), but we can talk, have video calls, send photos as well as transfer vast amounts of data in ways that only a few decades ago was in the realms of science fiction. No corner of the world is immune from mobile technology today.

Mobile Phones in Africa - (source: sundaytimes.co.uk)

Mobile Phones in Africa – (source: sundaytimes.co.uk)

But with technology development and growth, there also comes an insatiable desire for more. Some are so obsessed with getting more, that you wonder whether they have forgone any semblance of reality; ignoring costs, needs and practicality regarding the things that they desire. And nothing inflames sensitivities more than our current debate about the NBN. On the one hand there are those that believe it’s an all or nothing option and that virtually every home must be directly connected to fibre optic. On the other side of the fence are those that believe compromise is needed and that a combination of fibre optic where nothing currently exists (greenfield sites) and utilisation of existing infrastructure where practical (brownfield sites) is a better option. God forbid that the twain shall meet. That said, the proponents of the former view reminds me of the famous Looney Tunes cartoon of the never satisfied hound that always demands gravy, in addition to food, from his ever suffering companions. He eventually gets his gravy (moral tales weren’t exclusive to the Greeks).

Chow Hound - (source: Warner Bros, Looney Tunes)

Chow Hound – (source: Warner Bros, Looney Tunes)

Chow Hound - (source: Warner Bros, Looney Tunes)

Chow Hound – (source: Warner Bros, Looney Tunes)

What punctuates the NBN debate is the incredible vitriol displayed by many towards anyone that questions the all fibre option. I can’t ever remember witnessing such vitriol in any debate regarding technology in the past. Also, some genuinely seem to believe (and argue vociferously) that if Australia doesn’t get the full fibre option, that we will crumble as a nation and will soon be living in metaphorical caves. I suspect that a mix of broadband technologies is not going to lead to our nation’s destruction, as feared by some, should we fail to get fibre to everyone’s home. But some persist:

‘It will be high noon for any chance of this country to avoid becoming the poor, white trash of Asia to paraphrase what Lee Kwan Yu said to Hawke in 1983 about where we were going.’

‘With low cost of borrowing and pleadings for infrastructure building, we have truly missed the boat on this one, because it is the most important infrastructure we could possibly build at this time.’

‘I’ve said before the rest of the world will not be kind to us if we can’t compete – we will be left behind and no-one else will bat an eyelid…’

Living in a rural area, one of the most pressing issues for many is not internet access, but mobile phone access. The number of black spots throughout Australia is significant and while improvements continue every year, it’s at a slow pace. Ironically, those who want the taxpayer to foot the bill for fibre, decry anything similar when it comes to mobile access. Similarly, while many of the proponents of fibre argue that other countries such as Africa, India etc are leading the way in fibre, the arguments are often couched in such a way that it implies that everyone is getting fibre to their homes, huts or whatever; whereas, in reality, fibre is being laid to improve mobile communications. The truth is that landline internet activity occupies a relatively small proportion of total media consumption and the growth in mobile phone usage across the world is staggering.

Global Media Usage - (source: dazeinfo)

Global Media Usage – (source: dazeinfo)

And when it comes to broadband usage, the figures are also very telling. Even though these figures are a few years old now, the trend continues and note where this is happening. And it’s stories like this that show how mobile phones are helping out in every corner of the world.

Mobile vs Fixed Broadband - (source: investeddevelopments)

Mobile vs Fixed Broadband – (source: investeddevelopments)

Mobile vs Fixed Line Broadband Usage - (source: brookings.edu)

Mobile vs Fixed Line Broadband Usage – (source: brookings.edu)

There’s no doubt that we have a genuine need in Australia to improve our internet capacity and capability, as there are still far too many areas that have no internet or very poor quality of service. But mobile communications is as vital for many in Australia, if not more so, than fixed landline services and shouldn’t be ignored. Many remote areas of the world such as Ethiopia, Tanzania, India to name just a few, benefit from effective mobile communications; Australia’s rural and remote areas are no different and would benefit in exactly the same way. And when real world figures show that Australians are choosing to take up the slower NBN speeds, it makes you wonder why there’s all the furore over a mixed model.

Internet Euphoria - (source: ubergizmo.com)

Internet Euphoria – (source: ubergizmo.com)

Actually, I don’t wonder at all, selfishness tends to override most things. The saddest thing is that there is no communication possible between those that insist on one thing and those that are prepared to accept another, and often the debate is about how far behind Australia is in world ranking, yet the average speeds worldwide aren’t as great as many make out. Oh, and I did forget one possibility.

Update1. A very frustrating issue arose today when the service provider that hosts this blog went off-line for nearly a day. It just made me realise that no matter how fast your internet service might be, if the servers and what not that provide you with access to the internet go down, you don’t have anything. It’s not necessarily a common occurrence, but as more and more people start accessing such things as on-line video (especially high quality), the load and stress is going to be on the servers providing all of that, not the lines. So are the former being upgraded with the latter and are we likely to experience more ongoing issues as time goes by?

Update 2. As a follow-on regarding the importance of mobile phone coverage, the late 2015 fires experienced in Victoria provide a sober illustration on how vital mobile phone coverage is, compared to fast broadband internet.