Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Government Statistics Cutbacks Threaten Broadband Future

Every few months I attend the Australian Bureau of Statistics ICT Reference Group for the Australian Computer Society. These are some notes from the 2 April 2008 meeting held at ABS House in Canberra (previous meeting was November 08, 2007 and others are available). Please note these are not official minutes. They may omit some confidential material and do not necessarily reflect the views of the organizations mentioned.


1. Welcome

People introduced themselves. It was interesting that people from federal agencies were still not used to saying the new longer post-election names of the agencies. ;-)

The agenda was rearranged, moving item 4 and 8 after 2. I have retained that numbering.

2. Minutes from last meeting and action items status

No significant changes.

4. Changes in ABS work program in relation to ICT statistics

ABS has had about a 6% budget cut and has to make changes. They decided to drop whole items of work, rather than cut everything by an equal amount. Except the 2011 census will be run in the same way as the last one, saving on development work.

They will therefore run the Census much the same as the last one, without large changes. There was a 9% take up of the online eCensus (I expect it could reach 25% next time). The AIIA representative suggested AIIA and ACS could help promote it.

Also there will not be a “thematic” part to the census; everyone will get the same census form. There will still be a half page for Internet questions and the like. New “mesh block” output results will still be provided.

ABS will not run ICT industry survey 2008/08 (perhaps ACS could step in and help find some more money, or help do so some research?). There will be a reduction to the household and farm use surveys.

8. Presentation on Economic Significance and State of the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Industry and Impact of the Mobile Phone on Work/Life Balance by Chris Althaus

Mobile statistics indicated revenue of $13B, employing 21,000 people. Mobile subscriptions are now at saturation point, with more mobile phones than people in Australia. Access Economics did some economic modeling of direct and spillover “Australian Mobile Telecommunications Industry: Economic Significance & State of the Industry” (July 2007).

Economy wide benefits are expected by a skilled workforce with mobile data. 3G is assumed to provide 20 minutes per week in productivity. By 2010 mobile data is expected to provide $1B more to GDP. 3G had a slow start, but is picking up (I suspect high costs for mobile data were holding things back).

Social research is looking at the impact of the mobile phone on work/life balance. M-Commerce, m-Education and m-Entertainment are major areas. ANU and others researched “Social Research - The Impact of the Mobile Phone on Work - Life Balance”. Surveys where mostly positive as to the impact of the mobile phone. One interesting outcome was the role of the mobile in micro-social management (travel with a family and see the way the phone is used to run a trip like a military operation). Males tended to emphasize work use of mobile, females social use.

Recycling is an issue, with phones replace every 12 to 18 months. The MobileMuster program aims to have old phones recycled. I suspect that the iPhone and Goole Mobile software equipped phones with large touch screens and good web access will disrupt the industry, creating a new category. In the short term this will result in more replacements and in the longer them might reduce replacement.

One issue raised in discussion that email on Blackberry type devices is a big driver as will be 3G in laptops. Convergence was also raised, as was social networking and its negative aspects. The role of 3G in providing broadband versus fiber to the node was discussed. SMS spam and scams were also raised. There was also an interesting discussion of the difference in the way mobile devices are used for payments in developing countries and developed ones. I saw this first hand in India.

3 ICT Strategic issues – current and emerging
  • Changes in policy landscape and priorities since the change of government (Presentation by Dr Judith Winternitz, DBCDE)
  • Emerging regulatory priorities (Presentation by Mr Joseph di Gregorio, ACMA)
  • Future directions for ICT statistics from a user perspective Emerging trends in technology
  • Other, as identified by members
5 Census of Population and Housing: Strategies for 2011 with regard to ICT related questions in view of changes to ABS work program.

The question asked last time was: “Can the Internet be accessed at this dwelling?”. The answers were: “no, dial-up, broadband, other”. The issue was how much this question could be changed. There is no budget to test new questions and so changes must be minimal. The obvious answer to add would be wireless and mobile phone, but it would be difficult to add these without testing.

It is ironic to think that some of the people filling in the census form may be doing so using a mobile phone, for whom the question about Internet access at “the dwelling” will not make a lot of sense.

Also there are political implications in the question. The Census will be around the time of the next election. The government made promises about broadband and the decision by the government to cut finding for ICT statistics may be seen as a way to avoid seeing if the commitment was met. As doctors and engineers get told: "If you can't measure it, you do not know if it is working".

For the Government to cut $22M from ABS to risk the Australian economy, as well as its own political future seems odd. This is a message which needs to get to the Treasurer. AIIA and ACS might make some representations on the ABS' behalf. This change, if it is to be made, has to be done in the next few weeks.

6. Future of Household Use of Information Technology survey

Plan to publish results around December 2008. Detailed data will be charged for. The next survey will be 2010. ABS wants to know what the industry wants to know.

Options for provision of ICT industry data following budget cancellation of 2008-09 ICTIS.

At this point government representatives discussed changed following the election. One of these was the increased emphasis on fiber broadband infrastructure by the new government and the “digital” economy being emphasized. The government has set a date for 2012/13 for digital TV switchover, freeing up spectrum for broadband wireless data.

One issue raised was the environmental issues with the changeover, as this is likely to accelerate the replacement of TVs (also digital TVs tend to use more power). But digital can;t really be blamed for this, as take-up of digital TVs is already up to 42%, due to the consumer's love of large flat screen TVs.

SMH reports OPEL has advised the stock exchange that the deal for them to provide broadband is off (I was interviewed by ABC TV News about this later in the day).

ACMA looked at the issue of voice (that is an ordinary phone service). Research published in “telecommunications today” shows that consumer see mobile and fixed phone services as complementary, not competing. The point was made that there is little regulation around Internet compared to phones.

Landlines are seen as critical services (this might be interpreted as reliable services). VoIP is not new, but still has issues for emergency services and enforcement agencies. One problem I had was that the discussion was that the role of mobile phones was not clear, between fixed traditional phones and Internet. In some ways mobile phones are like fixed phones and in other ways they are more like the Internet.

ACMA is not seeking to use regulatory powers to collect statistics, instead working with ABS. Given that ABS is having its funding cut and that statistics collection from ICT providers can be easily be automated, there is the opportunity to create standard automated collection formats for the industry.

The Innovation Department discussed the formation of innovation councils. There may be an ICT Innovation Council (AIIA and ACS might need to lobby for this). There is a review of the innovation system (I have suggested using GovDex for on-line consultation). This is likely to cover CRCs and government procurement.

ABS asked if a specific survey was needed for the ICT , or if this could be got from general collections. ABS is trying this out out on the pharmaceuticals industry first.

9 Recent developments, upcoming releases and work underway in ICT statistics (for information)

Work underway
  • ICT Industry Survey 2006-07 (report)

  • Integrated Business Characteristics Survey (IBCS) 2006-07 and 2007-08 (report)

  • Farm Use of IT 07-08 (status report)

This was going to be cut back, but ABS have been able to work out how to do it another way. The details escaped me.

  • OECD Information economy product classification : Current status (report)

  • Recent releases (for information)

  • Summary of Innovation and IT Use in Australian Business (19 November 2007)

  • Patterns of Internet Access : Analytical work based on 2006 Census question on Internet access (29 November 2007)

  • Business Use of IT 2005-06 (from Annual Business Characteristics Survey) (7 December 2007)

  • Household Use of Information Technology 2006-07 (20 December 2007)

  • Australia and New Zealand Standard Research Classification (31 March 2008)

  • Upcoming releases (for information)

  • Internet Activity Survey, December 2007 (24 April 2008)

10. Other Business and conclusion

One amusing part of the meeting was that the screen saver on the projection screen showed a sequence of landscapes, but in between a field of flowers and stone hinge was the federal cabinet at government house. The significance of this was not clear.

Meeting closed 2 April 2008. Next meeting is in the first half of August.

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