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Sneakernet redux

Will Australians, laughing-stock on the world broadband scene, be reduced to moving digital content via iPod?

David Braue

There are times when the tone of Australia's broadband discussions make you want to cry -- this was definitely the case this week.

The story that left me feeling anything but inspired is that by next year, video chain store, Video Ezy, will be offering its own personal video recorder (PVR) with an Ethernet plug and a novel feature: a USB port that can be used to play movies downloaded from the store onto an iPod or other storage device.

Encryption technology from Verimatrix will make sure you can't snoop on the content without paying for it through the set-top box (STB). Content watermarking will allow any leaked copies to be traced back to the customer once the encryption is broken.

What makes this service so interesting is that it grew out of the fact that Australia's broadband -- to put it nicely -- is still very quaint.

Video Ezy local general manager, Andrew Gardiner, was a little more blunt. "For some of our customers, it could be years before the quality of broadband reaches their homes in country areas and allows them to download DVD quality material in a speedy, convenient way," he said. "Downloading movies over broadband in Australia takes some time."

The solution: get customers to carry their own movies home with them. Decades ago, this practice was known as "sneakernet" -- a reference to the practice of copying files to disk and carrying them from one computer to another. Sneakernet was due either to the file being too large, or the company network being too slow, and it rapidly died out with the advent of 100Mbps Fast Ethernet around 10 years ago.

With everything from refrigerators to mobile phones now networked, you'd think things had improved. But Video Ezy's need to incorporate a physical storage device into its content distribution food chain reflects just how far Australian broadband has yet to come.

And it's no longer Australia's dirty little secret. In an earlier conversation with a Verimatrix executive, he referenced as commonly accepted knowledge the perception that Australia's broadband just isn't up to scratch. For all this country's opportunity, expertise and promise, we have become a laughing-stock on the world broadband scene.

This is not to detract from Video Ezy's upcoming solution. Gardiner mentioned, with some pride, that the innovative solution has drawn enquiries from as far afield as Brazil and South Africa, where broadband is equally problematic.

A career politician would point to this as another example of Australian innovation being brought to the world, but as a career telecommunications industry watcher I find it hard to see it as anything more than another scathing indictment of Australia's lagging broadband.

What do you think? Will you be happy to carry movies home on an iPod? Do we have the right to expect more from our broadband? Or are we expecting too much?