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Wednesday, 24 August 1994
Page: 211

Senator TIERNEY (1.34 p.m.) —I have recently returned from a study tour to the United States where I looked at the information superhighway, its implications for Australian industry and society, and its implications for this parliament in terms of the regulatory framework that we establish and modify to assist the development of this new stage of the industrial revolution.

  Communications are going to change vastly from now on. The world, which up to this point has been wired by copper, is rapidly being wired by optic fibre. This revolutionary new technology is a glass substance that looks something like a fishing line, but the power of an optic fibre transmission cable is about 1,000 times, at least, that of the old copper wire.

  The implications of this are enormous for what we can do in communication technology in terms of telephones, computers, interactive television and video. The difference between what is coming in communications in the future and what is there now is akin to an old, two-lane country road being compared to one of the LA freeways I was driving on with about 12 lanes of traffic in different directions.

  The potential of the roll-out in Australia of the optic fibre network is enormous. Currently we have our two major communication companies, Telecom and Optus, rolling this out at a very rapid rate. We will have much more information in this country available as a result. We will have better computer links within the country and with countries overseas, particularly into the system known as Internet. This is the interconnection in America of 30,000 different computer networks. Australia is now linked into that and is the fourth largest user in the world of that system. So we are well placed, not only for computers, but for more faxes, TV signals, radio signals and interactive television.

  These are industries and products that exist at the moment. The great thing about what is coming with the information superhighway is the way in which it opens up a whole range of new services and the construction of a new set of industries. Given the level of unemployment in this country at this time, it opens up new hope for the development of new businesses and new employment, provided Australia is properly placed to take advantage of this new age.

  As well as interactive television where people can participate in game shows for entertainment, we will be able to do our shopping from home. We will be able to bank from home. Another application which will generate enormous interest in the city of Los Angeles where people are clogged up on the expressways is telecommuting. With this new technology, people can actually do a lot of their work from home.

  Just think of the implications if, all of a sudden, people can stay at home in the suburbs and do their work. If they are in rural and regional Australia, they would not have to move to the cities to work, they could work by telecommuting from home. This has enormous implications for the structure of society, for the way we develop our cities and the way we develop our roads and expressways. Just think of the implications also for things like less pollution and less congestion and the improvement in the efficiency of the economy overall. With telecommuting, the location of businesses is no longer as important. It is a chance for Australia to get rid of what was coined by Geoffrey Blainey and called `the tyranny of distance'. It gives regions the chance to attract new business without the old disadvantage of distance being such a great problem.

  Probably the most revolutionary change this coming new information age will bring to Australia is what can happen in the home. At the moment, we have got a copper wire going into our homes and this will bring in computing services and telephones. We can actually do some low level television with copper wire, particularly with the new ABSL technology. With the new system which combines optic fibre and coaxial cable, one can have a situation where the husband is watching football on cable television, his wife might be working on an office related task, the son could be a participant in an interactive video game and the daughter might be downloading research material from a major library to do an assignment. Another family member could be calling up a video on demand. This gets rid of going to the local video store; people can actually call up the particular video they want at the time they want with this technology. This is all on one cable. This is not very far away in Australia. What I am talking about will be here in the next five to 10 years.

  The great opportunity of going to America to look at what they were doing was really an opportunity to look at the way they are structuring it and, indeed, to learn some of the lessons. One of the things that struck me about America in the information age is the way in which the issues that come out of the information superhighway are a matters of very high level debate. They discuss matters such as privacy; they discuss the intellectual property rights of people. A whole series of issues about the creation of new businesses, and the proper regulatory framework to bring that about, are not yet being discussed at any great length in this country.

  Interestingly enough, the person who is taking the lead on this in the United States, the man who is the guru of the information superhighway, is Al Gore, the Vice-President. He goes on chat shows and to all sorts of places to sell the message that there is great news for America in the development of the information superhighway and great opportunities for American business. I do not hear our own Deputy Prime Minister, Brian Howe, saying anything like this. I do not think he is even aware of the information superhighway—and certainly Al Gore he ain't!

  There needs to be much more debate in this country about this matter and a lot more pro-active involvement of government in the development of the information superhighway. In America, they are changing the regulatory structure to take into account the converging technologies in this area. What we now know as radio, as television, as a computing industry will all start to merge into one industry. What we know as a telephone, a television and a computer screen will all merge into flat screen technology. There will be the one instrument in the house, or a number of those, that will do all those jobs.

  Americans are putting money into research. The government is supporting research into the development of these new products. It is setting up a series of what it calls `research test beds' across the United States to try out the applications of this technology. They are wiring up whole towns and cities just to see how people are going to use this technology. I was in Silicon Valley and one section of Silicon Valley, called Smart Valley, is being wired up. Over the other side of the country in Florida they are wiring up the whole city of Tampa. Are people going to shop from home? Are they going to demand video to the level that we think? Will they bank from home? Will they telecommute? There are billions of dollars involved in investments here. How is the market going to react? America is very advanced in having a look at how it will react.

  Looking at Australia's position in relation to this, we are very well placed. We are not debating the issues that we should be at this point, and I hope what I am saying today is one small contribution to the kick-off and continuation of that debate. But we do have a position in this country that places us well in terms of the development of the structure of this industry. The Americans are very tied up in a regulatory web that covers not only the federal level but also all states which have a say in the communication industries. We do not have the problem. We have one set of federal laws so it makes it simple. They have an enormously complex industrial structure for rolling out this information superhighway. We have Telecom and Optus that are doing this at a very rapid rate.

  Even though we are well placed to build the information superhighway, we have to be sure that in the end we do not have an information superhighway that has no Australian traffic on it, that it could be all American traffic. If that is the case, they will make a lot of money out of it and we will not. That has all sorts of implications for our economic growth, for our jobs and for our foreign exchange. The potential is there for Australia to create a whole range of new industries to put on the information superhighway. I can give you one example: home publishing. If you have ever published a book, you will find 90 per cent of the profit goes to the publishing company. The information superhighway provides the opportunities for you to set up and publish books from home, put it on the information superhighway. For someone ordering your book, it can be actually downloaded in the store, printed in the store. To give you an example, Gone with the Wind can be printed in 10 minutes under this system, bound and handed to you. But that is only just one industry; there is a whole range of industries.

  In Silicon Valley I met the managing director of a company which he started six years ago. He started out with $100,000, based on his mortgage, and he worked out of his garage. Now, six years on, he employs 100 people in his computer navigation business. He has found a niche market. When I spoke to him he was about to float the business on a $30 million share deal and he was about to expand very rapidly into a market of almost limitless opportunity.

  We need to look very urgently at our communications infrastructure and at our regulatory framework. The parliament needs to take account of the converging technologies that we have in relation to computers, telephones, video, broadcast radio and TV. Instead of a series of acts, there should be one broad act that allows open competition, allows movement of services across different technologies and allows business to take advantage of the additional opportunities that this will create.

  The information superhighway is going to have as much impact on society as Gutenberg's printing press and Watt's steam engine had on the creation of the industrial age. We are moving from the industrial age to the information age. It will have a profound effect on our work, leisure and entertainment. The information age is coming, whether or not we are ready. I am giving the first speech on this matter in order to alert the parliament to the tremendous opportunities for Australia. I invite my colleagues to join with me in seizing these opportunities for the future growth and development of our country.

Sitting suspended from 1.47 to 2.00 p.m.