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From the Australian Financial Review 11 April 2001
From the Australian Financial Review 11 April 2001

Web hosting operations in Australia and other western countries face a nasty double whammy in coming months. Not only are the various Internet markets in these countries heading towards saturation, but at the same time, many of the national economies are facing a slowdown. Asia on the other hand is, in Internet terms, so massively underdeveloped that any economic hiccups are unlikely to hinder regional web hosting growth prospects.

According to Forrester Research, by 2004 some 99.7% of US small businesses and 83% of America’s medium-sized companies will have some kind of web presence. Australia lags behind the US – but not by much. Although there’s still a long way to go before the saturation point is reached, web hosting operations can see an end to the rapid growth in customers and sites that has characterised their industry until now.

As far as Australian hosts are concerned, there are three likely drivers for further growth. First, there’s the option to sell a broader range of products and services to existing customers. Although there is plenty of scope for offering value-added services, this strategy largely depends on the still unproven ASP business model.

A second option is to expand by acquisition. In global terms the web hosting market could certainly do with a round of industry consolidation. There are currently more than 1000 hosting operations selling to international markets and while the intense competition has delivered low prices and spurred innovation there’s doubt about the long-term viability of many players.

The third option is to expand existing hosting operations into new geographic markets. Given that Europe and North America already have mature web hosting operations, for most Australian companies this means looking north to the Asian market.

Leading the charge is WebCentral. The company is Australia’s leading hosting business with 700 servers and around 40% of the local hosting market.

There’s certainly a strong business case for selling to Asia. According to a report by eMarketer and Dataquest, the Asian Internet market is still in its rapid growth phase. In 2000 there were some 49 million users in the region, by 2004 this will swell to 174 million users – that’s a compound annual growth rate of 38%. During the same period, Asian users will go from being 21% of the global online community to around 27%. More importantly e-commerce revenues are forecast to climb from US$39.4 billion to more than US$338 billion.

This is all very promising, but behind these numbers are even more compelling statistics for would-be Asian hosting operations. By world standards Asia has very low levels of business-to-consumer eCommerce – an area of great interest to web hosting companies. During the four years to 2004 this is set to rise twelve-fold. And according to Ovuum, a European-based research company, only 7% of Asian companies use web-hosting services compared with 37% of European companies.

Australian hosting companies will find the Asian Internet landscape is vastly different from the local scene. For example, compared with Australia, most of Asia has considerably less access to fixed line telephone systems. This means that for many consumers their only practical route to the web is through the wireless telephone networks. And the online experience for wireless users is considerably different to that for users with personal computers, modems and fixed telephone lines.

Another problem for local web hosting companies planning to expand into the region is that, while there is not a strong indigenous hosting industry throughout the region there are pockets of strength. For example, India already has a well-developed hosting market.

What’s more, many of the world’s largest telecommunications and Internet players already have their eyes on the yet to blossom Asian market. For example, last year Japan’s Nippon Telegraph and Telephone announced its intention to dominate the Asian hosting market when it acquired the US-based Verio hosting operation.

In December, France Telecom subsidiary Global One opened a major regional hosting operation in Singapore. This January saw Exodus Communications buy the GlobalCenter web hosting subsidiary from Global Crossing. The two companies formed a joint venture to supply web hosting services to Asia – a business which is expected to generate some US$4 to 5 billion in revenues over the next ten years.

From the Australian Financial Review 11 April 2001

Remember all the talk two or three years ago about how everyone would love broadband? At the time, the industry churned out marketing material gushing about a new technology capable of delivering a whole raft of new and exciting applications that would radically change the way small companies operated.

In many respects broadband has lived up to its promise, but things didn’t quite work out service providers planned.

On the one hand, they actually underestimated small businesses’ appetite for fast Internet. On the other hand, while broadband had changed the way companies operate, they’ve not been as quick to adopt new applications.

Pacific Internet managing director Dennis Muscat says that by July of this year 52 percent or slightly more than half of all Internet-connected companies in Australia had broadband access. Two years ago the number was around 20 percent.

These numbers come from research conducted for Pacific Internet by ACNielsen Consult and published in the company’s Broadband Barometer.

Muscat, who heads the local operation of a regional telecommunications service provider, says many small businesses have purchased residential broadband packages aimed primarily at consumers. This makes sense because many smaller companies operate directly from people’s homes.

Jason Juma-Ross, principal analyst with AMR Interactive says that for small businesses the practical reality of broadband Internet is not that it enables new applications such as video conferencing or voice over IP, but that it allows users to do more of the things they did with dial-up. He says that for many users the always-on nature of broadband is possibly more important than its speed.

Muscat echoes this. He says, “They’re doing much the same as before, but with more intensity.” That means sending and receiving more email, increasing the amount of web browsing for information and doing more with their own web sites. At the same time, companies with broadband links are far more likely to use Internet banking and pay their bills online.

For example, Muscat says people are now sending large complex documents via email that they might have previously couriered or sent via fax. “Broadband increases efficiency and reduces costs. At the end of the day these are what small businesses want from any technology.”

One area that has changed dramatically is remote working. Companies that operate at multiple locations or who employ out-of-town teleworking staff can now give their remote users full, real-time access to internal computer systems.

Muscat says this has had a huge impact on some industries. “In the past if, say, a travel company employee got an out of hours call from a customer who needed to change his itinerary, that employee would have to physically go to the office in order to change the booking. Now they can take the call at home and log on to the travel systems.”

For now, more glamorous broadband applications such as videoconferencing remain well outside the business mainstream. This is despite the increased reluctance for long-distance travel now that airports have additional security procedures.

Likewise, there’s been no rush to voice over IP technology, which allows businesses to cut telephone toll budgets by enabling calls over the Internet. And software companies that have repackaged their applications as pay per use online services are still not getting much traction in the small business sector.

One reason for the slow move to new applications is that companies don’t necessarily see them as relevant. For example, videoconferencing adds little value for many companies, who could just as well get by with ordinary telephone calls.

But there another factor that can be sheeted back to Muscat’s observation about Australian small business using broadband products and services designed for residential customers. These consumer offerings tend to be significantly cheaper, but they are also generally much slower than business services – in most overseas markets anything less than 1.5 Mbps isn’t regarded as true broadband and certainly not adequate for advanced applications involving video or voice.

Moreover, residential broadband doesn’t offer the same service guarantees as commercial products. In other words, it’s not generally as reliable as business-class broadband and that extra consistency is essential for more sophisticate applications.

So what broadband applications are small businesses using? Muscat says that for the moment tools that increase data integrity dominate the market. He says there’s a huge demand for managed firewalls, spam filters, content filtering and other security products and services. “They’re concerned about viruses and hackers and being flooded with spam”.

Muscat says that as they gain experience and confidence with the technology, companies will move beyond what he describes as online hygiene factors and seek a higher grade of data network. “Small businesses know they have to deal with these issues before they can move on to the highfaluting applications.”

First published in The Australian Financial Review 2004

When they want to create something that looks like a grass-roots campaign, but isn’t, big companies use astroturfing.

The Drop the Rate campaign that began yesterday with support from Consumer, Tuanz and 2degrees is a classic example.

At first sight it’s aims are laudable. Lord knows we pay way over the odds for mobile phone services. The campaign aims to put pressure on Vodafone and Telecom to cut the mobile termination rate or MTR. This is the amount one phone company has to pay another when customers call between networks.

Drop the rate mate campaign website

There’s no question New Zealand’s MTRs are high by international standards. That’s only part of the reason mobile phones are far more expensive to run here than in Australia – or just about anywhere else. It is also a major brake on the economy – calls that could be made, possibly should be made, are going unmade because of the high costs involved.

Yet despite it being worthy in principle, there’s something phony (or should that be phoney?) about the Drop the Rate campaign.

For a start, there’s an expensive PR company behind it.

Who is paying Matthew Hooton’s fee? Good on him for getting the job, but you can be sure Exceltium isn’t collecting money from cake stands and sausage sizzles for this work.

Second, 2degrees doesn’t want to talk about the MTRs it pays to Vodafone and Telecom and has gone to extraordinary lengths to make sure grass roots, that’s real grass, not astroturf, New Zealanders don’t get to know the rate.

Of course no-one can blame 2degrees for taking part in this kind of stunt. Telecom and Vodafone play hardball. And both are less than snow-white in their marketing and political lobbying.

Campaign gets wide media coverage

Hooton certainly proved his PR skills. The Kiwi specialist press was full of the story. At The National Business Review Chris Keall expressed some weariness about the campaign in 2degrees again a little sneaky on MTRs at the National Business Review. The story got a good run in the New Zealand Herald and the Dominion Post.

At Computerworld Rob O’Neill seems more willing to take the campaign at face value. His Drop the rate mate’ campaign targets MTRs offers no comment. Paul Clearwater at The Line reports that Vodafone disputes the information on the campaign’s web site in ‘Drop the rate mate’ campaign begins.

Update: Computerworld reports on Hooton’s attack on Telecom and Vodafone in Mobile termination row goes nuclear. The story finishes;

Hooton has words for Telecom, too, as the MTR debate goes white hot.
“Telecom now seems to be saying that it needs to rip off mobile consumers in order to fund more investment in the industry,” he said. “Good luck to Telecom arguing that a cosy duopoly leads to more investment in services and coverage than a more competitive environment.”

My opinion: Hooton proves he is a worthy campaigner against the arrogance of Telecom and Vodafone – clearly he was the right man for the campaign. Despite this, I’m still not comfortable with the astroturfing.

No-one doubts the quantity of information on the internet, what about its quality?

There are millions of websites. Each site can have one page or thousands. Which means there is a lot of information out there – a few gazillion words and pictures.

It’s the kind of resource our ancestors would have killed for. Indeed, in ancient times they fought wars over access to knowledge repositories.

Would they fight the same wars to get net access? Probably. Our ancestors liked a good scrap.

While the modern Internet might be chock-a-block with information, it’s light on knowledge. It is not always the place to seek wisdom.

Let’s face it, how many dead bodies would you walk over to unearth the lyrics of ‘Spice Up Your Life’?

Information but thin on knowledge

Catalogues of high-resolution photographs showing supermodels in bathing costumes might be aesthetically pleasing. But unless you are a rather slow teenage boy wanting to study female anatomy, the knowledge content is slight.

Likewise all those painstakingly collected lists of quotes by The Simpsons characters: entertainment value high, enlightenment quotient low.

Then there are the millions of dumb home pages filled with photos of cuddly animals, basketball stars and soft porn princesses. Adventurous, but unimaginative amateur developers decorate pages with sound clips of heavy metal or rap. Some even craft complex Java scripts that do nothing special.

If you’re brave, you can find some of the most atrocious poetry ever written.

Surf the net at random and you’ll find page after page of pure rubbish, mind-numbing sameness and precious little gold.

Professional rubbish too

Of course, the web isn’t just the domain of gifted (or otherwise) non-professionals. These days commercial sites run by highly trained specialists dominate. Of these, most either sell something directly or people who sell things finance them.

Which dilutes their value as independent information sources. How much credence would you give to free online personal finance advice given to you by a bank?

In engineer-speak, the Internet has a low signal-to-noise ratio.

That is, you have to sort through a great deal of rubbish to find anything worthwhile. But that implies a message is there. There might not be. Even if you know exactly what you are looking for and use the best search tools, you can still come badly unstuck.

A chilling example

A medical doctor recently surveyed 20 websites offering help with self-treatment of common ailments. Each site looked plausible. Yet of the 20 sites, only three offered advice that squared with the accepted medical procedure. A number of the sites offered seriously flawed advice. Some were no more than quackery. We’re not talking about cultural differences; we are talking snake oil. Sooner or later, real people with real health problems are going to roll up at these sites, take the advice at face value and damage themselves.

This isn’t funny.

In my view, the worst aspect of this problem is that the good, well-researched information is drowned out by the sheer volume of trash. Web-boosters used to say users would learn to recognise good information from bad by its brand. So, for example, you might trust a news report from the ABC, BBC or CNN, but not from the National Enquirer. There’s certainly some truth to the idea. But would you know which brand to turn to for medical information or financial advice?