There are still occasional elements of life in Australia that leave me befuddled. Like yesterday’s discovery that Woolworths, one of the big two grocery chains over here, is one of the most profitable supermarket businesses in the world.
Just think about that for a moment the next time you’re wondering why there are no cucumbers, or you are sorting through bags of limp pre-washed salad trying to decide which one is the least offensive – you are interacting with one of the most successful businesses of its type in the world.
The same thought occurs to be even more frequently when I deal with the telecoms behemoth that is Telstra, the country’s former state-owned company that dominates the phone, internet and mobile phone sector.
How – I ask myself – can a company that is so frustratingly inept have such a profitable hold over so many people? It’s a refrain oft repeated by many a rail commuter in the UK, but that’s a weird one, because the notion of introducing competition via rail franchises puzzles me anyway – either you want to take the 8.32 to Shrewsbury or you don’t, the fact that there’s a competitor company running a cheaper service to Norwich is neither here nor there. But surely choice in the telecoms sector, customer choice should be more straightforward, no? No.
The definition of broadband internet is an ‘always on’ connection. Telstra stretch that to a ‘sometimes on’ service but somehow still get away with it. Whether you can choose to go elsewhere depends on the history of your neighbourhood and how the connections were established.
Like in the UK, it seems Telstra, when it was state-owned, was responsible for putting in the phone lines and providing a service if you wanted one. At some point, deregulation followed but, unlike in the UK, your ability to shop around varies. In our neighbourhood the choice turned out to be Telstra or nothing – rival companies would look up our address and say: “Ah, no. We can’t do that one. Have you asked Telstra?”
Telstra, of course, in the way of those former state-owned monopolies, likes to charge as if it still is a monopoly, and just like the old days, it has scant regard for the competitiveness of its service or the notion of best practice – caterpillar speeds for ant-sized data allowances are common, and that’s if you can get a connection at all. This past week, Telstra managed to kill internet connectivity for several days for nearly the whole country, which takes some doing when you think about it.
When we arrived, we were told the best connection we could get was an ADSL2 line. “But they’re all full, so you’ll have to have an ADSL1 connection.” It was the same price, you understand, but an inferior service. “Will you be adding capacity to the ADSL2 network?” I asked. “No, but we can put you on the waiting list in case someone cancels.” Telstra clearly live in an age where they think this internet thing might be a fad and people will get bored with it.
All this is supposed to change soon. The government is bankrolling a so-called National Broadband Network, which is supposed to offer high-speed connections and a choice of providers for all. Apparently, our neighbourhood is due for the big switch on in the next month or two.
This sounds great, but you’ll forgive me for not holding my breath. When the mobile phone networks were deregulated, Telstra managed to keep most of the coverage for itself, so if you live anywhere outside the main cities, or ever drive there, you’re kind of stuck with them
Early inspection of the fees for NBN suggest that, if you really want decent speeds or unlimited data, you’re going to have to pay premium prices, otherwise your speed will be throttled and your connection cut off when you use up your allowance.
Meanwhile, Australia, the country that wants to lead the way in the Asia-Pacific region and compete on the world stage, has just the 60th fastest internet speeds in the world. That’s if a connection is available at all, and you can afford it, and it’s actually working.
The situation puzzles me because, surely it’s harder to put 21st century internet into a thousand year old city like London or Copenhagen than it is to put them into brand new suburbs? And yet Australia (and the Canberra region) continues to build houses with little regard for data connectivity (I’m looking at you in particular, Murrumbateman).
The NBN is a start in catching up, but service reliability, decent customer service and realistic pricing need to be added to the mix before Australia can truly lay claim to being an innovation nation.