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  Issue No 61 Official Organ of LaborNet 07 July 2000  




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Downloaded and Done Over

Interveiw with Peter Coroneus

In the wake of the TV Networks' digital TV victory, Internet industry chief Peter Coroneus rues a missed opportunity for Australia.


Peter Coroneus, Executive Director IIA

Firstly, what are the implications of the vote from last week on data casting?

Well, essentially that delivers the Government its outcome, which was to severely restrain or confine what non-incumbent free-to-air broadcasters can broadcast using Australia's spectrum.

To put that more simply, the spectrum belongs to everybody - all Australians. The Government is the custodian of that and we say they have a social and a moral responsibility to use that and to allocate it in a way that delivers the maximum benefits to the greatest number of Australians.

Now what happened in this decision and indeed the decision that preceded it in 1998 was that the free-to-air television networks who have had pretty much of a monopoly on what you might call broadband delivery through televisions over the last 44 years. Now, they have had that. We haven't seen a great deal of innovation coming out of television. Here we had a chance to have some spectrum - give it to data casters or sell it to them even. Allow them to compete head on in terms of content. Let the technologies compete on their strengths.

This is what other countries like the UK are doing where they have had digital broadcasting for some time. Let the technologies compete on their strengths. Don't artificially confine them and build walls around them, and then, whatever emerges from that - you know - you could even put parameters that Australian content rules on data casters if you wanted to, and some of them have indicated that they wouldn't object to that.

At the end of that you see multiple avenues for the production of Australian content, rather than selling it through three or four TV stations. You could sell it to several dozen data casters.

How does that translate in terms of jobs for Australians?

It is hard to put a number on how many jobs this decision has cost, because as we have discussed, when you kill an industry before it is even borne you can never really know what its potential is going to be, but what we can say about this was, that this medium - this digital medium - was capable of delivering large amounts of content over very large geographic areas, in a very efficient way.

Now that means you could have had people developing the content. You would need technologists developing the technology, which by the way has export potential. You also have people deploying the infrastructure. All of those things are now in doubt. The content creators - if you are looking at film production in Australia for instance - and there are people - the actors - the entertainers - the people that at the moment can only get up on the TV through deals done with the networks. Those people can deliver the same kind of content over data cast spectrum and also over the internet.

Now, the big concern we have now in the wake of this legislation is the ABA Review, which is going to look at potentially limiting anything that looks like television from occurring over the internet as well, because that would be consistent with their decision in data casting ... Their rationale is that we made a policy decision two years ago - no further television networks - no further licences. Now, in order to give effect to that we had to constrain what data casters could do, so you don't allow backdoor broadcasting, and then by extension, it is only a very small step over the internet space, and there you are talking about thousands of jobs because when you are talking about streaming over the internet, all the layout of the infrastructure, all the building out of the networks that are occurring in broadband, high speed networks, are all predicated on the assumption that Australians are going to want to do more over those networks than just surf the Web or get e-mail. They want interactive content which is interesting, which will be more involved - streamed video and streamed audio.

If you are going to artificially limit that then basically you are undermining the entire business case for broadband content and broadband deployment of broadband carriage. So that means that all the people that would be developing all this content - and don't forget that Australian content is very highly esteemed internationally. We are a well educated population. We are operating in a very multi-cultural society so that there is huge export potential into Asia and places like that.

When you think about the opportunities, by cutting through the barriers and allowing innovation to occur and allowing a new economy to boom, and then you see what this decision has done, you can understand why industry is just so completely - I don't even know what the word is - so completely dumbstruck. That politicians who talked about a commitment to the information economy could have made a decision which is so damaging to the information economy.

And of course Labor hasn't come out of this process totally smelling of roses either. How has their performance equated with Kim Beazley's proffered commitment to an information nation?

I have to say that we were hoping that Labor was going to be able to match its rhetoric with the appropriate course of action in the Senate. They had the opportunity to argue for their own amendments and to negotiate with the Democrats to get the numbers whereby those amendments could have passed, and in fact neither of those things really happened and it was because of Labor's failure to really negotiate a practical solution with the Democrats that has enabled the Government to walk right through with their own, pretty much unopposed regime.

So where to now for the internet industry? Do you keel over and die, or what is the plan of attack?

That is a really interesting question for us. We have clearly been out manoeuvred at the political level here because we are a young industry and we don't have the kind of political power that the old established, old economy television stations have, but we are working on it, and I think we are very optimistic that as more Australians come online, politicians will begin to realise that they are dealing with a substantial part of their own constituency, and I think the challenge for us is to translate that into political action and also to use that to achieve outcomes that will benefit the industry, and therefore will benefit many more Australians than what this decision has done.

So what is the correct formula in the short term?

Look at the countries where there is not just a notional commitment but an actual commitment to growing the information economy. Countries like Israel and Ireland and even Malaysia. Look at Malaysia. A country which is traditionally a closed society, where political power is very concentrated, and even there they have decided if they are to encourage investment in the new technology they have to let go some of that desire to limit diversity of use, and I think it was a very difficult decision.

Similarly, Singapore. I am going there probably next week or the week after to talk to them about the opportunities but they understand from the viewpoint of a small country, very intelligent, very well educated, that if they are going be at the vanguard of this revolution they have got to assume a pro-revolutionary, regulatory stance. In other words, let go of the constraints on media. By doing that you encourage investment into the region. By investment into the region you generate the jobs and the skills and the demand - and then you have an industry.

How long have we got until the horse has bolted?

It is almost a revolving thing, where at each iteration of the internet, more opportunities arise, but at each iteration where you don't take the advantages, you can't say how much you have lost. All I can say is that every time I go to America, I see that they are pulling further and further away from Australia and the rest of the world in this, because they are not fettered by any of these artificial constraints.

So, I think the horse has already bolted. The horse bolted the moment America developed critical mass in electronic commerce the horse had already bolted. Everyone is playing catch-up. The issue for us is whether we are going to be catching up as quickly as we can, or whether we are going to hamper our own attempts to catch up and therefore fall further behind - and that is the predicament we now find ourselves in, where we are just getting whipped on e-commerce. American content will inundate us, and this is the irony in this decision you know.

If you track it through, part of the rationale of the Government was that we must protect the free to air networks because after all they have obligations for Australian content, but by limiting the diversity and by limiting the demand and growth for Australian content - by extension we will have less Australian content. There will be proportionately more American content, so you have actually defeated your own policy objective.

Finally, the union movement is fairly equivocal on the new economy. It sees it as being an enemy of jobs. What message do you want to the union movement and what practical support can the union movement give you?

I think it is an understandable fallacy. I think the union movement has confronted this phenomenon many times over in the history of technology from the industrial revolution forward. The point is, people are still employed, it is just that the jobs change. The great thing about the new economy jobs is that they are higher paying. In America now, the average return on software development and those kind of jobs is around from US$47,000 to US$65,000, compared to average earnings which are still around US$28,000.

So what we are trying to say, I guess to the union movement our message would be: We understand your reticence, but we also see the amount of growth that is occurring and the under-supply - the lack of supply of jobs. We can't get enough jobs to fuel this revolution. And this is a great opportunity for your children to actually move outside of the traditional categories of employment that they might otherwise aspire to. That's point one.

But also for established workers to retrain in areas to actually provide - step up to the plate as it were and pick up the bat and have a go, because you have got nothing to lose. Your old jobs aren't secure anyway - and so we think a more active role in the transition, rather than being opponents of it and resisting it and then finding that you are the victim of it - it is much better to actually be leading it and helping to shape the outcome.

To talk about how we could work together on these kind of issues - I mean if the Labor movement had supported us on this issue on the basis that here were opportunities for Australian growth and content and other areas of employment ... You know, the government has actually sold short everyone that is in employment in Australia because television networks are not creating lots of jobs, it's the internet industry that is creating all the jobs and that is why I think it should become partners with those people that are the next generation of workers and the next skilled generation is a win-win. It is a win for industry and it is a win for the Labor movement, together we work together to try and create an environment, which despite the attempts of the politicians will deliver the benefits to the most number of Australians.


*    Visit the Internet Industry Association

*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 61 contents

In this issue
*  Technology: Union Rep for Global Net Body
The godfather of unions and the Internet, Eric Lee, is seeking your support to give labour a voice on the net's governing body, ICANN.
*  Interview: Downloaded and Done Over
In the wake of the TV Networks' digital TV victory, Internet industry chief Peter Coroneus rues a missed opportunity for Australia.
*  Legal: The Global Millennium Project
The International Centre for Trade Union Rights (ICTUR) has developed a draft proposal for a comprehensive revision and modernisation of international labour standards for the new millenium.
*  Unions: Sandgropers Get Serious on Stress
The Australian Services Union in Western Australia in conjunction with the University of Western Australia, is surveying workers across the state's call centre industry.
*  Politics: New Work for a New Millennium
View in full the ALP's Draft Industrial Relations Policy to be taken to the National Conference at the end of the month.
*  Solidarity: Korean Hotel Workers Seek Global Help
Striking Korean hotel workers at the Swiss Grand Hotel and the Seoul Hilton are worried they could be the next targets of escalating riot police violence.
*  History: Vince's Parable of the Sundial
How a working man survived WWII and ASIO blacklists to save a sundial.
*  International: Room for Optimism from African Poll
The performance of pro-Deomcracy groups in the Zimbabwean elections has given supporters hope for better days.
*  Environment: Mexican Wave Goes Green
American politics has taken on a Green hue with the left leaning National Action Party and the Greens in Mexico picking up nearly 40% of the vote in the recent elections.
*  Satire: Aussies Celebrate Centenary by Leaving Country
Prime Minister John Howard has defended his government's decision not to involve Australia in the centenary federation celebrations.
*  Review: A Building Sings of Lives Lived in Music
Mysterious shadows flicker in the windows of the Parramatta Town Hall. Strains of trumpet and sarod float outside. It's all part of the urban Theatre Project's latest work, 'The Palais'.

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