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While it may be the better part of a decade before the NBN’s fibre and wireless tendrils provide all Australians with high-speed broadband, the future has a habit of arriving faster than we plan for. So it’s critical today that businesses start thinking about the impact the NBN will have on their marketplace and how they operate.

The NBN represents the acceleration of trends that began in Australia more than 15 years ago when the internet first gained popularity as a business tool. Since then we have seen the internet wreak havoc on the recorded music industry. Now bookstores are staring down a similar fate – and one that is quickly spreading across other retail categories.

We often don’t notice change until after it has happened. Do you remember the last time you had a roll of film developed? Although not directly related to the rise of the internet, the demise of many photo processing stores reflects a basic truth – you are better off predicting and adapting to the march of technology than either fighting or ignoring it.

But for all of the disruption that the internet has wrought, it has presented even more opportunities. A recent report from Deloitte Access Economics and Google puts the value of the internet economy in Australia at $50 billion, or 3.6 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) – that’s equal to the contribution of the retail sector, or of Australia’s iron ore exports.

Countless new companies and jobs exist as a result of the internet, and the sector employs 190,000 people. Search engine optimisers, social media community managers and online video production specialists could never have been imagined before the creation of the internet. And then there’s the dozens of sectors where the internet has opened new opportunities and torn down traditional barriers to entry, such as online retailing.

In researching our book A Faster Future, Janelle Ledwidge and I discovered that while the deployment of high-speed broadband will challenge traditional thinking, it will also open countless new opportunities both for existing businesses to do things differently, and for entirely new models and services to emerge.

Impact could be profound

One of the critical concepts to grasp is that the NBN will raise all Australians who choose to participate to unprecedented levels of both speed and accessibility. The impact of this could be profound. Today web and application developers design services for the lowest common denominator – in some cases still making allowances for those consumers who are on dial-up connections. As the NBN is deployed it will raise the baseline, giving developers unprecedented freedom to incorporate rich media. The most obvious example is the use of video to improve the marketing and presentation of goods online, but this is only the beginning. High-speed broadband improves the experience for two-way video audio and conferencing, rendering it free from the dropouts and stutters that plague services today. The internet is a visual medium – high-speed access enhances this.

Over time developers will be able to harness newer advanced technologies, such as three-dimensional modeling that allows website visitors to manipulate objects in a manner that is similar to how they might do so in a store – virtually picking up objects and turning them end over end. That these new tools will exist is entirely the result of the NBN and other high-speed networks around the world. As more consumers sign up, the potential client pools increase, improving the economics for developers creating new services. If no one moved to higher speeds, there would be no innovation.

Start preparing now

So while the NBN itself may take years to be deployed, it is conceivable that businesses will start to develop multiple versions of their websites, much the same as they might operate multiple channels to market today (internet, telesales, shopfronts). A high-speed version of a website can cater to those consumers who are connected first, and give a business a chance to test out next generation technologies as they become available.

It will be foolish for businesses to only consider servicing their local market. Already approximately half of Australia’s online retail dollars are spent overseas. As the NBN rollout progresses, more Australians will join the online shopping revolution, and be increasingly drawn to overseas sellers. Hence it is crucial that Australian stores be working now to improve their service offerings and presentation. The internet delivers the world’s consumers to your door – it is vital that businesses start learning now how to reach them. Those that do so using broadband tools will be in the box seat as other markets broadband-enable their own populations.

Much of the Government’s discussion of the uses of the NBN has focused on healthcare and education – two sectors that are likely to most immediately benefit.  The investment being made by the Government in online education and healthcare services is likely to create a myriad of new business opportunities in these sectors. In education specifically, someone will need to be out there developing and coordinating online learning materials.

Collaboration and web conferencing

All businesses will benefit from new collaboration tools that evolve as the NBN is deployed. Many would already familiar with Citrix’s GoToMeeting and Cisco’s Webex, and the utility of these tools will improve as bandwidth ceases to be an obstacle. The same is also likely with services such as DropBox, MailChimp and ShoeBoxed. And of course there will also be refinements to cloud computing services. An additional benefit of high-speed broadband is that the delay in loading each page in a web browser (known as the latency) diminishes significantly, so cloud tools such as NetSuite, Xero and Google Docs become even more effective – matching the responsiveness of applications installed directly on a PC.

And while the tools available to businesses on the NBN will evolve and improve, perhaps the biggest changes will occur within broader society. The internet has already made Australia a nation accustomed to instant gratification – if we want to buy something, we want to do so when we want to, regardless of store opening hours. Online consumers have no tolerance for slow-loading pages, complicated checkout systems and obscure shipping details.

Sell 24 hours, worldwide

And if we want help, we are less prepared to wait for store opening hours as well. Businesses will need to start thinking about providing customer service in the hours when online consumers are consuming – even if it means hiring support from markets (and time zones) outside of Australia. An alternative might be to invest in artificial intelligence technology from companies such as MyCyberTwin to keep consumers happy until the human staff arrive at work.

Many of the benefits that business will experience from the NBN are hard to envision today, just as ten years ago it was hard to envision a service that would enable any Australian business to use video to freely promote itself to the world. That service was born in 2005 with the launch of YouTube, which today is used by one in three Australians every month.

The NBN creates a broadband sandbox within which Australian businesses can test out ideas and services, with the audience growing every month as new communities are connected up. The opportunities are there today, the only question remains how long businesses will wait before taking the plunge.

–Brad Howarth is a freelance journalist and co-author of the book A Faster Future: The future of broadband: how it impacts business, society and you.

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Brad Howarth

Brad Howarth

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