I’ve had the draft of this article kicking around in WordPress for weeks now, and not posted it. I guess I thought it sounded too whiny. Well, yes, it is whiny. What’s more, having just quit my job and decided to go job-hunting overseas again, I now realise that writing this article was all part of my internal process to get to that step.
That doesn’t make it any less true. What’s more, it doesn’t make the problems any better understood by those who aren’t Australian geeks.
Geeks who aren’t Australian, or Australians who aren’t geeks, tend to have a sort of vague idea that things might be a bit awkward on the other side of the world from where all the high-tech action is. However, they usually haven’t thought it through carefully or worked the figures.
So, as a public service, here it is in all its gory detail: why it sucks to be an Australian geek.
Reasons 1-3 now, and some more later if I don’t snap out of my funk and realise it’s all too self-obsessed and angst-ridden to inflict on you any more.
1. Bits are expensive
Anyone in Australia knows that “broadband” is the hot issue right now, in the federal election lead-up. Anyone elsewhere in the world is probably oblivious. Here’s the deal: Australia has crappy Internet access, and it’s outrageously expensive.
> When I moved to Australia, later that year, I had to give up the cheap and nearly limitless bandwidth I’d grown addicted to, settling for lower speeds at higher prices. My dad, at his home outside San Diego, pays $US30 ($A36) a month for service that would cost me $300 here. Australians pay at least 10 times as much for bandwidth as Canadians — and what Telstra fobs off as broadband wouldn’t even be called broadband in Canada. It’s too slow.
Back in the late 90s, Telstra was charging everyone $0.19 per megabyte of data. By the time this reached the consumer, this was typically reflected in dialup Internet access costs of $3-$5/hour. ISPs used complicated, multi-layered proxying to minimise the amount of bandwidth they needed from outside their own networks. Technologies such as rsync were invented by Australians trying to keep their bandwidth bills down.
When “broadband” Internet access — DSL and cable Internet — arrived around 1999, the basic plans cost around $70/month with about a 1GB/month bandwidth limit and punitive charges (35c/MB, if I recall correctly) for going over that.
In 2007, as a highly Internet-literate and market-savvy consumer, I pay $69.95/month for my DSL: 1.5mbps down, 512kbps up, 25GB/month bandwidth cap. It’s enough to let me keep up with my favourite American and UK TV shows, as long as I don’t try to download too much in one hit.
ADSL2+ is our name for DSL up to 20mbps. Unfortunately it’s not available on my exchange, despite the fact that I live about 3km from the centre of Melbourne, a city of 3.5 million people. If it were available on my exchange, I could get that kind of connection, and 150GB of downloads per month, for a similar price to what I’m currently paying. But it’s not.
It’s worse for anyone further out of town than I am. Rural areas have it worst, of course: if I lived outside of a major city, chances are my Internet connection possibilities would be limited to 56.6kbps dialup or satellite — both at punitive rates.
Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned yet that in addition to my $70/month for DSL, I have to pay another $20 just to have a phone line connected for it. I don’t use the line for voice at all.
2. Atoms are expensive too
As if it weren’t enough to be paying almost $100/month for basic DSL, the costs of computer hardware and other physical manifestations of the geek lifestyle are just as expensive.
Let’s take the Apple Macbook as an example. The US price for the base model is $1099. Using simple currency conversion, that’s about $1275. But at the Australian Apple Store, the same hardware costs $1599. That’s about a 25% markup for no particular reason that I can discern.
One friend tells me that her husband, who telecommutes for a US company, receives a laptop allowance of $1100 US — again, that’s $1275 Australian. This price is based on a reasonable model IBM’s Lenovo range. The *low-end* Lenovos available in Australia retail for around that price. If my friend’s husband wants to get a comparable laptop to his US-based colleagues, he’ll be out of pocket several hundred dollars.
But it’s not just hardware. Technical books are also outrageously priced. Let’s look at Ruby programming books, to choose a popular topic more or less at random. Programming Ruby: The Pragmatic Programmers’ Guide, Second Edition by Dave Thomas is $29.67 US dollars (AU $34.41) from Amazon.com with free shipping to the US. The same book at Dymocks, one of Australia’s largest book chains, is $79.95 — more than twice as expensive. Of course, you can order from Amazon, tack on the shipping costs (never trivial), and wait weeks for the book to arrive, but by that point you’ve probably lost the momentum that led you to want to learn Ruby in the first place.
3. Starting an Australian website is harder than it looks
Let’s say you’re an Australian geek and you come up with a great idea for a local web thing. I had such an idea a little while ago: a blog to review local wifi hotspots, including the atmosphere/food/coffee available and so forth. Not earth-shattering, I know, but there isn’t one yet and someone ought to do it, dammit.
So let’s say I want to register a domain like melbournewifi.com.au. Unlike .com, .org, or .net domains, which cost less than $10 US a year, a .com.au will set you back $38 for 2 years. Not quite twice as much, and not that big a deal, but I didn’t mention the catch: first you have to register a business name. This will set you back $77 in Victoria, or differing amounts in other states. So suddenly the cost of your domain registration is over $100.
When it comes to domain hosting, the bandwidth costs outlined in point 1, above, mean that Australian web hosting is typically far more expensive than US hosting. The US-based provider I use, Dreamhost, charges $9.95 US (or less if prepaid) for a level of service that is generally not available to Australian consumers. To get similar features — unlimited domains, many gigabytes of disk space, hundreds of gigabytes of bandwidth per month — would be prohibitively expensive. So any Australian geek with any sense uses an overseas provider.
Well, so what? Here’s the catch: if you register a cheap .com domain and host overseas, how does Google know your site’s Australian? It doesn’t. And since Australian visitors to Google are directed to google.com.au and local links are given priority in search results on that page, chances are that any Australian searching for “melbourne wifi” would never find the hypothetical “melbournewifi” website I described.
So, as you can see, an Australian with a great idea for a website is stuck in a difficult spot: either pay heaps more, or end up with a site that’s all but invisible to potential Australian visitors. When I realised this in relation to the local wifi hotspot reviews, I ended up not bothering at all.