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Standing Committee on Infrastructure and Communications
Role and potential of the National Broadband Network

TREASURE, Mr Bret, Member, Australian Web Industry Association


CHAIR: I now welcome the Australian Web Industry Association. First of all, Mr Treasure, I would like to say thank you from the committee. Our request for you to participate did come at very late notice, and we greatly appreciate your attendance here. It was only last night that we were able to get a commitment and have you along, so we do appreciate it. You have perhaps had the opportunity to hear some of the evidence and to have a look at the terms of reference. We are particularly interested in your association's comments and any contribution that you might be interested in making more broadly around the issues that we have been dealing with during our inquiry. I should indicate to you that the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, but the hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and has the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. Would you like to make an opening statement and then we will have a question and answer session?

Mr Treasure : Yes, thank you. Like many important institutions, the origins of the Web Industry Association lay with a group of people getting together to drink beer. The port80 groups were informal groupings of people working in the web industry I think about 10 or 15 years ago. They formed into the Australian Web Industry Association in 2004 with an agenda of educating the public a little bit about the industry and providing relevant services to people who work in the industry. There are about 400 members in Australia. The association began in Perth and is strongest here, although now we have 50 per cent of our membership in Melbourne. In Perth and Melbourne our association is well represented and WIPA, the other industry association, is very strong in Sydney. There are conversations happening at the moment about the possibility of those two organisations forming a single organisation. That is underway.

The make-up of our group obviously includes people who are developing web pages—so web developers, programmers, designers—and people who are start-ups. There are a lot of people involved who are interested in starting businesses over the internet. Generally they are people with technical backgrounds but there are some marketing people there as well. There are people like me who have marketing and search engine optimisation businesses. We are a smaller part of that as well. Many of the large web industry developers are in the association—most of them, I guess—and the rest of us are small businesses or freelancers. There are a lot of freelancers involved in the industry, as you would expect. So, in terms of the NBN, we are the group of people who will be developing applications on the network, and it is probably fair to say that there is a great deal of excitement amongst those people about the prospects of being able to develop—with even, perhaps, a competitive advantage in the world—with that speed of infrastructure.

The organisation has two principal things that it does at the moment apart from the networking, which is there in the background. The first thing is that it runs a technology conference specifically about the internet and web development once every two years in Perth. We have never had here before a world-standard industry conference until the last couple of these events. It has gone very well, and we now have international speakers volunteering to come here and pay their own airfares, so the thing has taken off to a good degree. Last time it was held, 200 people attended that event, so that is a strong focus. Obviously, there is benefit to the web development community in bringing that expertise over here and in the conversations that take part as a result.

The other thing that the association has been successful with is developing a web industry awards contest. That has been a focus for people in industry. Like most awards nights when they are properly done, it generates a lot of excitement and people get acknowledged for things that they do not otherwise get acknowledged for publicly. That has been done in good style and people look forward to it, and now we are at the point where we need to open up entries earlier because people are knocking on the door saying, 'We want to submit a site.'

The other part of that that is good from an industry viewpoint is that it is very much about bringing people up to standard. If you want to win an award you have to conform to W3C standards and various other industry norms, so it is about dragging people up and saying, 'That's all very well—you have done a beautiful site—but is it a standard site?' So that is really what has driven that, and that awards event is now held in Melbourne as well, and we expect to enlarge that on the east coast. So they are the two principal focuses of the organisation at the moment.

That is really all I had to say about the association itself. I was hoping to talk a little bit about some opportunities that we see exist as a result of the NBN and also to do a little bit of blue skying for you, if I may.


Mr Treasure : Thank you. The thing that has been talked about in terms of small business opportunities is local hosting. Most of the hosting of websites in Australia is done offshore; there is a very small hosting industry here. There is hosting at the very big end of town—it is very expensive—but almost everyone else is hosting in America because the prices are very low relative to what people charge here. The NBN would give us the opportunity to offer faster hosting locally. Then for the first time people could say, 'Here is an advantage—here is in a reason to host in Australia: you will actually get a faster loading time to website then you would get otherwise.' That has direct benefits not only in the users getting better experience but also in the fact that there are search-engine advantages in having that faster load time—Google rewards you for having fast load times; Google also rewards you for being hosted locally; if you have a and you are hosted locally, then that is going to help you in the rankings as well—so there are some side benefits to that. At the moment most of the people who are at the lower and middle ends are offering hosting in America, but we could produce a sizeable industry compared to what we currently have if we had that faster infrastructure.

The other thing I would like to do, though I am sure you have heard a lot of this before, is to say that there are clearly applications which have not been developed yet and there are developments of applications which already exist but do not have enough bandwidth to be successful. It is clearly difficult for us to blue sky about the applications that have not yet been developed, but I do not think that we should ignore that that is going to happen. We have evidence that that is what has already happened where—

CHAIR: History shows that it was only 10 years ago and so forth.

Mr Treasure : It is hard to predict. The case study for me is Ray Tomlinson, who invented email as an application. An interviewer asked him what, I thought, was a very good question: how did you develop this thing for which there is no market, no requirement and no identified need? He said, 'It just seemed like a neat idea.' And how could you predict where those neat ideas are going to come from? But they will change the world. So we are just giving those neat ideas a much bigger platform. It is a big juicy plate for those ideas to materialise. But it is hard to predict what those will be.

I would like to talk about the applications that already have proof of concept but are constrained at the moment. In particular, it frustrates some of us in the industry that we hear people criticise the NBN on the basis that it is all about downloading faster movies. For us, the potential is for use of video in ways that we have not seen yet. I would like to reference that to the virtual world. The opportunity for two-way interactive video is not just video conferencing; it is the opportunity to map onto the real world what exits in the virtual world. The virtual world has been prototyped but it is heavily constrained by bandwidth; it is a very bandwidth-intensive application.

There is one application that has been developed and the proof of concept has been done on it. It was done by Georgia Tech in the United States. I do not think everyone understands how the virtual world works—

Mrs PRENTICE: The audience is wider than just us, so if you could give us a basic picture of it.

Mr Treasure : Virtual world applications allow you to create a representation of yourself, which is called an avatar. You can then go into that environment and relate to other people who have created representations of themselves. It is very compelling. Compared to a Facebook experience or the social media in any other realm, there is no comparison. Social worlds are extremely compelling, but they are constrained.

The application that Georgia Tech has developed allows you to project what happens in the virtual world onto the real world. One of the advantages of the virtual world is that you can animate and program what happens to your avatar in the virtual world. What has already been done in that realm is spectacular. You can go into the virtual world and meet someone and have a dance with them and the animation will have you dancing like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It is a different experience to what you get elsewhere. The application, with an appropriate headset in the first place, would involve you having, say, a projection onto the inside of your glasses that overlays what you are currently looking at. You have a video camera on the outside of your glasses that is mapping what you are looking at at the moment and combining the two of those things. So you have a picture of your real world with an overlay from the virtual world projected on the inside of your glasses. Have I made that clear?

CHAIR: I am following it.

Mr Treasure : For example, we are sitting in the room at the moment and we all have a headset on, but in the chair I am indicating there is an avatar that looks exactly like us, but the person is a projection on the inside of our glasses and it works in real time, so we can move our heads around and the avatar will still look like a real person. That person will be an avatar and therefore able to be animated, so, although they will sit there and look like a normal person—and they will have a map of our room; this is a person sitting at a computer somewhere else—they will be able to blow smoke out of their ears when they are unhappy with something that is said.

CHAIR: You knew I was an avatar all along, did you?

Mr Treasure : They will be able to get out of their chair and walk on the ceiling upside down, because they have a map of our room. That is not science fiction stuff; that has already been demonstrated as proof of concept. The thing that is missing is bandwidth. If you have the bandwidth to send video two ways, you can do that stuff.

Mrs PRENTICE: That is more than the three-dimensional holograms they are talking about?

Mr Treasure : It is a solid depiction. It will look like a person sitting there like we are now.

Mrs PRENTICE: You would not be able to see through them, for example?

Mr Treasure : No. It can be solid or it can be see-through. You can program it any way you like. Obviously that is a fascinating prospect from an entertainment viewpoint.

Mrs PRENTICE: We are thinking of our missing committee members.

Mr Treasure : Yes, and from a videoconferencing viewpoint it is very powerful as well. But it also suggests that there will be a metalevel of business that takes place, because if you are a bank you do not need people to come to your bank anymore; you can send an avatar to their home and the avatar will present exactly the way that you want them to present. They will be groomed the way you want them to look, and they will have animations that are appropriate. That person will appear in your lounge room and sit in your lounge room chair, an environment in which you are completely comfortable, and you can have a conversation about what you are going to do with your finances with that person, who is sitting in an office somewhere in the world. Those applications will happen, and when that happens we will have transformed business and social interaction, for better or worse.

CHAIR: I am just thinking of examples. Tell me if I have your concept right. We have had evidence from a specialist—I think from Rural Health, the AMA or one of the doctors organisations—that there is a real problem with people who get inner ear issues. They have to be taught how to do particular types of balancing exercises and things, and you have to get them very specifically right for them to have the desired effect. It requires an enormous number of people coming in to see him in the city all the time. He tries to do it with video, but current video is not specific enough for the person to get good-quality video. He was saying how great it would be if he could take video of them doing the exercise and then look at it and say: 'No, this is where you're going wrong. You're not leaning far enough this way.' I am now thinking that what you are talking about would mean that he could send an exercise specialist to stand in their lounge room, in effect, in three dimensions—

Mr Treasure : That is right.

CHAIR: and work with them.

Mr Treasure : Holding his left shoulder.

CHAIR: And saying, 'Further that way.'

Mr Treasure : Yes.

CHAIR: It is quite amazing. I do not know if you heard the evidence previously.

Mr Treasure : Some of it, yes.

CHAIR: There was a challenge to the view that the NBN would be able to offer this two-way—my understanding at the end of it was that that was about the pricing model that was being put out; it was not the technology. Can you just clarify this for me from your organisation's understanding. The fibre based technology will enable what you are talking about?

Mr Treasure : Fibre is fast enough to do it, yes, if it is proper fibre, high-speed fibre in two directions. The issue is the real-time communication between the video going out and the video coming in.

Mrs PRENTICE: And aren't we developing products so you can send more down less? That is the future of fibre?

Mr Treasure : More?

Mrs PRENTICE: You would be able to send more information down less fibre?

Mr Treasure : Yes.

Mrs PRENTICE: It is one of the advantages of fibre that it will not become obsolete?

Mr Treasure : Exactly, yes.

Mr NEVILLE: What speed do you need for one of these avatar people?

Mr Treasure : I am outside my area of technical expertise in telling you that, but eight megabits per second gets you normal video. I understand it can be done with fibre. It certainly cannot be done with the existing technology that we have, and you will need fast fibre to do it.

CHAIR: We had evidence the other day that 3-D holograms are actually not that far away.

Mrs PRENTICE: They need to be at 300, I think.

CHAIR: They need about 300.

Mr Treasure : Okay, so you can do that. That is exactly what we are talking about—3-D.

Mrs PRENTICE: Or the next step up—holograms.

CHAIR: One of the issues that has been raised—and this was part of the evidence from the ICT Industry Collaboration Centre—is that many of the things that we talk about are available on current web based internet services but that people do not necessarily take them up, and part of that is culture. It is all right to talk about government service delivery and the wonderful applications that can be developed, but the cultures of organisations may not change. We had evidence, I think in Sydney, about the difference between Japan's and Korea's experience, in that the technology was the same but the leadership from the government in driving things onto the net based services was the challenge. I would be interested in your organisation's perspective. There is probably a huge range of things that we could do. If we were making recommendations to the government, where would you say is the best place at this point in the cycle of rolling out technology to be putting some energy and effort into research and development, application development, education and training? Where do you think we could most usefully start to direct some of this? Perhaps there are some examples you have seen internationally where it has worked well and been taken up well.

Mr Treasure : I guess my advice would be that it would make sense to have some virtual world expertise. That would be an interesting thing to do.

CHAIR: What do you mean? Do you mean some more investment in education and training in that area, or do you mean developing that expertise in government service delivery? Where exactly?

Mr Treasure : I mean creating hubs of expertise, encouraging people to get together in training and giving them starts. I do not feel qualified to talk about what government initiatives there should be in that area—

CHAIR: No, just broadly.

Mr Treasure : Broadly, for me, those things are commercially driven. Our organisation is largely commercial people. We would say it is not sensible to bet on particular industries or particular technologies. Put money into science and then rely on the businesses to use those opportunities. Some of them will fly and some of them will not. Do not try to pick winners.

CHAIR: We should focus on the science, the research and development, the skills development—those areas?

Mr Treasure : Yes.

CHAIR: We have had some interesting evidence. The previous witness, Valerie, talked about her father as an example and a lot of our conversation was particularly about health and ageing service delivery and so forth. But there is this generation who will use it who are not familiar with it. Realistically, the generation now in their 20s are regularly engaged in the sorts of worlds that you are talking about. Indeed, I saw that the School of the Air in New South Wales is developing an online virtual school experience with avatars, as opposed to the old phone and radio type stuff. It has been hugely popular and successful.

Mrs PRENTICE: Do they have an avatar for each student?

CHAIR: Yes. The students walk into school and they can interact and chat to each other and recognise each other as avatars. The reality will be for us in government service delivery that that generation will expect nothing less. I am interested in your observation about how far off we are from that. I would suggest the baby boomers who are about to retire are big users of computers and computer services.

Mr Treasure : Exactly, and the fastest growing group of Facebook users are women over 40. When people identify a need for a technology, they will use it if they perceive value in it. It seems that it does not matter if you are a little older. If you still think there is value for you in doing it, you will learn how it works.

Mrs PRENTICE: Like Skype.

Mr Treasure : A good example, yes.

CHAIR: We have had somebody pull us up quite strongly, saying that the current retired aged population are big users of Skype because it allows them to stay in contact with family and so forth.

Mr Treasure : Yes. And if in the old days of ARPANET and Bulletin Board someone had said, 'We really should upgrade this network and provide more bandwidth,' they would not have said, 'because if we do that we'll allow grandfathers to talk to their grandchildren in different parts of the world.' But that application is unexpected and powerful and valuable.

Mr NEVILLE: Do you think then that in the selling of the NBN and fibre broadband that we have missed the point somewhat?

Mr Treasure : I think you have certainly missed the point, yes. I think most of the people out there think that it is an expensive indulgence which is all about downloading movies faster. I think that the message is about health, and health in particular has got through to some degree.

Mr NEVILLE: But how do we lift the level of the debate? You can say, 'Yes, health will be so much better, education will be so much better.' We get these aspirational things day after day, but what I am asking you is: what are the practical applications that we need to invoke to make it happen?

Mr Treasure : Let me say this to you about that. Why don't we say to people: 'Use your imaginations? Here's what happened in the past. Here's where we were, here's where we got to. Now we're going to do this, which is a quantum leap. What do you think we're going to be able to do with that?' And ask them to imagine what they are going to be able to do rather than trying to—we are not going to be very good at saying, 'Here are the new things that we will be able to do with that.'

Mr NEVILLE: Okay. I do not know if you heard me earlier, I have spoken a couple of times today with previous witnesses about engaging older people with computers, the internet, e-health and all of the various manifestations of electronic communications. Do you think there is a role for a simplified touch screen for older people? We have these in schools now for younger students, we have them for disabled students, we have them for deaf and blind people and so on. Do you see a way in web design and technology design in general that we can develop a system to, for example, keep older people in their homes longer. A touch screen would have a limited number of functions—it might only have nine or 10 functions—for their medicine, their food, if they have a fall, they have those things around their necks and they trigger that which sets off a computer and the computer alerts the district nurse or the Blue Nursing Service, or whoever might be supervising them. Do you know of any work that has been done in that field to simplify the computer to make it less intrusive for older people?

Mr Treasure : I do not know of any research that has been done in that area. I would say we should be doing the research with those people to identify what their needs are and then those applications need to be developed. The research needs to be done at a human level into what is working and what is not working, rather than imposing a technological solution on them.

Mr NEVILLE: It seems to me that 20 per cent or 30 per cent of the population will never use a computer unless it is made computer friendly.

Mr Treasure : I heard a discussion earlier about the use of gaming devices. Certainly when you get the interface right, that makes such a huge difference. You are talking about the hardware consequences of the network that you are putting together. There will be hardware consequences and people will innovate, so those things will be developed. What is obvious to me is that the opportunity in having that real-time interactive two-way video is that we shift the paradigm from a screen to a 3-D environment. That is going to be a much friendlier interface than a more mediated concept.

CHAIR: Unless it completely freaks them out!

Mr Treasure : That is right; that is also a possibility.

CHAIR: And that is when you need the human study.

Mr NEVILLE: The supervising nurse would come and say to Mary Brown: 'Mary, you have not taken your tablets today. What is the problem?'

Mr Treasure : Yes. The supervising nurse would appear in 3D form: 'You have not taken your pills today.'

Mr NEVILLE: Would they look at a screen or would they look at an avatar type image?

Mr Treasure : They will not have to look at a screen; it will be through your glasses. That is one possibility; there are probably others—that is just the one I am aware of.

Mrs PRENTICE: A new TV was launched this morning on the news, where the screen follows you into the kitchen so that you do not miss your show while you are cooking dinner. It is just amazing.

Mr Treasure : Screens are 2D largely at the moment. But we can do 3D.

Mrs PRENTICE: I am aware that at the moment there are departments, particularly Health, that are spending millions of dollars actually compacting programs and outreach products to fit down the tube that we have got now because it is so restricted. Are you aware of any of those applications that we can identify, where with NBN we will not have that expense?

Mr Treasure : I am not sure if this is an answer, but the other day I was in a remote area and we had a vehicle problem. We were close enough to a house so that I had access to an internet connection. I am no help fixing the vehicle problem, so I went inside and had a look on the internet. I found a service that is offered by Toyota in America where they make available a mechanic. You write down what the problem is, send it off and a qualified mechanic will have a look at that issue and will reply to you in a short period of time and have a solution to your problem. You pay for that if you use the solution and you are happy with the solution. That is great, but that is working around the constraints of the technology. If you have interactive two-way video then you can be showing him the underside of the car and he can be highlighting the bits that you need to unscrew next so that you can see those—

Mrs PRENTICE: It is not something you could do on an iPad?

Mr Treasure : It would be helpful on an iPad. It would be much more powerful in 3D looking at the actual thing that you are working on rather than something that is a medium.

Mrs PRENTICE: It would be great if the avatar could change the tyre!

Mr SYMON: I would like to go back several subjects to the faster local hosting for websites and ask you whether you could paint a picture for us of how big an industry that could become compared to what it is now for Australia.

Mr Treasure : If I am able to do it I would rather give you a written response to that and do some research in the meantime.

Mr SYMON: Sure. I am happy with that, yes.

CHAIR: It is something we have not had raised with us at all before, so it would be very welcome to have some follow-up.

Mr Treasure : Sure. The other thing that is going to happen in relation to that is the possibility that some of these large cloud hosting services may host in Australia, and the consequence of that will be that our international bandwidth costs will be substantially reduced. When you look at something like Twitter photos they are hosted on S3 by Amazon overseas, so if they had a bank here—and obviously they will make a commercial decision about whether they will do that—then we would not need to use the bandwidth to download those photos every time we look at a photo on Twitter.

Mr SYMON: That is not something anyone has mentioned before. That is quite valuable. I just have to raise another point, because you started off by saying that you have a company called Free Beer, and we have been talking about avatars. I was sitting here listening to that thinking of the Heineken ad, which of course does have avatars in it trying to drink beer. I could not get that one out of my mind. I know that that sort of stuff is not here now; we are making the basis for that to come in. I suppose that is one of the things we are looking at in this inquiry: what are the uses going to be? You have certainly given us something from an extra dimension that we have not looked at so far, and that is probably a good thing. There was another question that I wanted to ask: beside web hosting, what other services does Australia export by default in the web area at the moment that we could gain? You have mentioned having cloud services based here—are there other things beyond that? I ask that because they are real examples, and they are now. They are things that we could use as soon as we have the infrastructure in place. Are there other things that we naturally get done overseas that we should have done here?

Mr NEVILLE: Good question.

Mr Treasure : Off the top of my head, I do not know of any other ones. We have already given some thought to that, and what is obvious to us is hosting. There is obviously a large amount of outsourcing going on all over the world at the moment.

Mrs PRENTICE: Cloud computing or locally provided?

Mr Treasure : Web services generally. There is so much happening in India; in our industry, the local developers' competition is with people in India doing websites at a fraction of the price that people do them for over here. I am not sure how the NBN would help us with that problem.

Mr SYMON: If I can just put this to you: soon you are going to get back to us with some information, so if you could ask your members or think of anything in the meantime we would be most happy to see you include it with that.

Mr Treasure : Yes, I will do that.

CHAIR: I will wrap up the group with one question that has been persistent, about the potential for home based businesses and teleworking. I would imagine that in your industry sector there are quite a lot of people who are working from home based businesses. We had two companies that were software developers present to us in Wollongong. They started out the back in the garage as two-guy outfits which are now employing, I think, 20 to 25 people each, and they have international client bases and so forth. One of the things one guy did say to us was, 'I live three kilometres from the university and I can't get ADSL2. You're lucky I'm still here and I haven't relocated to Silicon Valley,'—that was basically the message. There was another example raised by them with us about a guy in the Wollongong area—my area—who runs an international stock exchange so he can surf during the day—he does the 24-hour northern-southern hemisphere thing. So there are some real opportunities there, but they all complain that it takes 12 hours to upload things on the current infrastructure. I just wonder if from your own membership you get the feeling that we are hitting significant boundaries with the development of that industry and the capacity for those sorts of small start-ups that really get going?

Mr Treasure : Yes. In some areas there will be significant advantages for those people. It takes your ability to compete internationally up to another level. I do not think it will be a benefit across the board, but there will be some people who do things that are time intense; you can imagine someone who is in the buying and selling of stocks industry who may discover that they can do things quicker here than people can in other places. Where there is a response advantage there will be a benefit.

CHAIR: It is just with that northern and southern hemisphere international nature of business now that I wonder if there are any of the other web based businesses in your sector—I am aware of that one from the stock exchange—where there may have been an advantage driven by those issues?

Mr Treasure : I am not aware of any, specifically.

CHAIR: If you find any information it would be interesting. We are talking about becoming a financial hub as a nation, so there is that aspect of it, and maybe there are other sectors where there are some advantages.

Mr Treasure : Yes, I am sure there are. I have done a similar sort of thing. I worked as a virtual world developer for a little while. My client was mostly the University of Chicago. If I had had a faster internet connection there would have been some advantage to me. I kind of think that our opportunities are probably to attract people to this country by virtue of having the fastest internet infrastructure—

CHAIR: Rather than losing them.

Mr Treasure : rather than the other way around, but I am not sure of that.

CHAIR: Given the late notice, thank you very much for your attendance here today. There was some fascinating new evidence.

Mr Treasure : Thank you very much for travelling to Perth as well.

CHAIR: We will send our avatars next time. We will work on that. If you have additional information, just send it through to the secretary as you are able to do it. You will get a copy of the transcript of evidence.

Resolved (on motion by Mr Symon):

That this committee authorises publication, including publication on the parliamentary database, of the transcript of the evidence given before it at public hearing this day.

Committee adjourned at 17:11