Saturday, May 14, 2011

Future of Telecommunications in Canberra

Australian Computer Society Telecommunications Special Interest Group (T-SIG) held its first Canberra meeting on Thursday. TSIG was formed from a merger of the Telecommunications Society of Australia (TSA) and ACS. The TSA is much older than ACS, being founded as the Telegraph Electrical Society in 1874. The merger recognises convergence between telecommunications and computing into IT.

The speaker for the first meeting was David Parkes, General Manager Retail for Transact on "TransACT – Past and Future". He detailed Transact's origins as a broadband, telephone and digital TV provider in Canberra and parts of Victoria. Transact was a pioneers of fibre to the curb in Australia (there is a Transact fibre optic node in the basement of my apartment building). They were an early provider of digital TV.

Transact is now installing Fibre to the Premises (FTTP) underground in to Canberra suburbs. The company installs a metal box on the outside of the house, similar in appearance to an electrical meter box. This houses the fibre termination, Ethernet and telephone interfaces and, importantly, a battery backup. The backup lasts for up to eight hours and maintains voice communications as a priority, first dropping d-TV, then Internet, to save power. While I and others, have advocated that battery backup should be part of the new NBN service, it is not c;ear this will be done and so Transact's service is superior in this respect. During Canberra's fire-storms, the service continued to operate across the city despite power brownouts (apart from the suburbs where the infrastructure was destroyed by the fire).

David provided an excellent overview of Transact's history. What was less clear was where Transact will go in the future. As he pointed out FTTP provides so much bandwidth that the current decentralised computing model can be rethought. Computing services can be centralised, with the desktop computers becoming essentially smart terminals (or thin clients). There will also be new ways to provide TV and other content. However, with the arrival of the National Broadband Network (NBN) it is not clear where Transact will find a business in this.

Transact has for years provided for Canberra, and parts of Victoria, what the NBN aspires to do for all of Australia: provide a reliable, high speed digital network to homes, with telephony, Internet, digital TV and other services. The ACT Government, who are a part owner of Transact and businesses have invested heavily in providing broadband for Canberra: what will happen to this investment with the arrival of the NBN, which has a mandate to connect all Australian homes?

Daivd outlined some of Transact's thinking of how they intend to prosper in the NBn era. Part of this is to maintain their customers and the service they provide: Transact have a functioning network and years of experience in supporting customers, whereas the NBN is still learning what to do.

No doubt Transact are also lobbying government to ensure that its investment will not be rendered worthless by NBN. It would be unfortunate of the debacle where Telestra and Optus wasted billions of dollars duplicating hybrid pay TV cable down the same streets of Sydney and Melbourne. There is no pressing reason for NBN to duplicate Transact's cabling in Canberra. NBN should cable the suburbs which Transact has not covered.

The likely future is that Transact will continue to provide services over their network to existing customers. Transact will also aim to become an NBN Retail Service Provider, delivering services to customers who use the NBN network.

Less clear are new areas with "The Cloud". David outlined how Transact were looking to resell Google Apps and Microsoft cloud based services, branded as "Storm Cloud". The servers will not be based in Australia and as David pointed out, this imposes legal limitations for commercial and particularly government customers. Smaller cloud service providers also offer locally based services from servers located in Transact's own data centre.

David also hinted at Transact providing virtual services for small business and home users. With this arrangement a virtual PC s provided on a shared server in a data centre. The customer using a think client computer, or an application running on a PC, to access it. The customer needs not worry about backing up or installing applications, as this is done for them.

While cloud and virtual PCs are interesting possibilities, these are new areas and ones Transact does not have any particular advantage in the market with. I suggest the area Transact does have an advantage in is being local to Canberra.

Australian government agencies, companies supporting them and companies providing services to the public are limited in their ability to use overseas based cloud services. Australian privacy legislation and security requirements limit the practicality and legality of hosting data on a cloud service located in another country. This, I suggest, provides a business opportunity for Transact. As a partly government owned entity which already meets Australian telecommunications legislation and has a data centre in Canberra, Transact could provide government and private customers a level of comfort their data is not ending up in some foreign location.

Transact could offer a vertical bundle, where they provide a server with the software and thin client computers (about the size of a paperback book and costing $200). Companies and smaller government agencies could afford to have a thin client desktop computer in the office and one at home for each staff member. As this could would only be used for work purposes, it would make security much simpler. The Defence project for thin clients could provide a good model for this which would overcome security objections. Transact could configure their network to separate the communications to these computers from other traffic, thus providing a level of security superior to that on the Internet.

One problem is educating clients as to what is possible. Google is doing some of this by having released some Chrome thin client computers ("Battle of the Chromebooks: Acer vs. Samsung",
By Melanie Pinola , PCWorld May 12, 2011 2:34 PM). Goggle's offerings are not that attractively priced and have severe technical limitations, making it relatively easy for Transact to say "like Google but better and cheaper".

In terms of government customers, the ACT Government is an obvious place to start. The ACT Government has recently decided to restructure itself from being a state government, to a large city council. As part of this, the ACT Government could decide to outsource its computing function and also adopt the IT standards of the federal government. Along with the servers, an external provided could provide email, applications and electronic records management. Staff would get a small thin client box to replace their desktop computer, to be plugged into their existing screen, keyboard and mouse. They could also have one to take home.

The application provided would be standardised across the ACT Government and be based on those of the federal government. This same service could then be offered to federal agencies.

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