The Tyranny of Distance: Why it sucks to be an Australian geek

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.

Australian Internet Connectivity, Illustrated

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.

Mark Pesce writes, in Why We All Hate Telstra:

> 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.

Macbooks

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.

Laurel Papworth of Online Communities – Australia and Global describes this effect and asks, Why does Google (Australia) hate this blog?

Over on Webmaster World’s Forums, another Australian webmaster beats his head against the same problem.

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.

Related Posts

* Part 2: Timezones, Travel, and more
* Discussion of this post, including ways to get cheaper laptops (if you’re prepared to travel and/or break the law)


17 thoughts on “The Tyranny of Distance: Why it sucks to be an Australian geek

  • Sephyroth

    Hi, I’m reading via the Bumpzee Australian Blogs Community RSS feed. :)

    For what it’s worth, here in the States, ADSL2+ isn’t available anywhere. However, you are definitely right that access is much cheaper here, but it all depends on what speed you get. For example, my connection is a 3M/256k cable connection, and it costs about US$65 per month including the TV package I get. If I didn’t have a package deal, it’d be $40 or so. They also have 5M/512k and 10M/1M packages available for $50 and $60 respectively (if you only sub to the internet). Of course, we also don’t have the ridiculous caps either.

    On point 3, I totally agree that the ABN requirement is, well, silly. However, do .org.au or .net.au domains have the same requirements?

    Sephyroth
    http://www.sephyroth.net

  • Alec Clews

    Another thing that mean the geek world is not flat:

    In Australia and Asia it is much harder to find pools of business funding, legal help and the other things that IT start-ups need, particularly in new areas such as Open Source. In the US it is much easier to find people who have experience and will talk to you about your idea.

  • Mary

    Apple is nothing when it comes to laptop markups. Lenovo’s T and X series cost more than double the US price when purchased in Australia (after conversion of the US price into AUD of course).

  • Skud Post author

    Alec: Yeah, don’t even get me started on that. We’ve got a few startups here who get funding from the US, but there’s no real drive towards innovation.

    Mary: Ow!

  • Jeremy Apthorp

    +1.

    Also, why is there a checkbox called “subscribe,” labelless below this text box?

  • Skud Post author

    Sephyroth: there are similar-but-different requirements for .org.au and .net.au domains; .net.au are the easiest to get, but still not as easy as .com/.org/.net ones.

    Jeremy: Thanks. And, the checkbox is to notify you of any subsequent comments on the post. Didn’t realise it was labelless — as author I see a different view — but I’ll tweak the settings and see what I can do.

  • Sueblimely

    US$65 including a TV Package! Amazing. I pay $75 (US$65) per month at least for my Telstra cable TV plus US$60 for my cable internet (not with Telstra) – with 3 Australian Geeks and 7 networked computers in the house we struggle with the measly download limits.

    Which provider is offering ADSL2+ with 150gb of download? Sounds wonderful – I am told ADSL2 is coming to an exchange near me soon – I am 15k from Melbourne City.

  • Skud Post author

    Sueblimely: I was looking at Craigslist ads recently for share houses in San Francisco. I was seeing things like “Bills are usually $40 a month including power, water, cable TV (all channels), and wired and wireless Internet.” Bastards, the lot of them!

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  • James

    For the domain name, you don’t have to register a business name. You can be a sole trader with an ABN (which are free). The “close and substantial connection” rule is ridicuously easy to satisfy in practice.

  • Glen Turner

    14,000Km of redundant undersea cable is always going to make Australia’s Internet more expensive and slower than US Internet. Sure Telstra are rapacious (the line rental is outrageous and Telstra are one of the most profitable telcos in the world), but Southern Cross Networks is getting 40c of every $1 you spend on Internet access, so spread your love around :-)

    The requirement for an ABN for .com.au allows the consumer protection and taxation agencies to police on-line behaviour of .com.au companies. Is the reduced price of removing the ABN requirement to Australian small business worth the increased phishing of Australian consumers? Why is the requirement that .com.au registrants be companies unreasonable, surely that is the whole point of the domain?

    As far as laptop prices go, the prices from Asia-focussed suppliers like Acer look fine. Suppliers focussed on North America see buyers of their equipment outside of North America as desiring to buy premium kit, and thus they charge premium prices. This isn’t right, but buying from someone else would give them that hint (explaining why Acer’s market share in Australia is so much higher than their market share in North America).

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  • the main gripe

    i have to move to australia. the main gripe about the internet is that there is a set download limit. i have never heard of such BS in my entire life. In the US/Canada/Korea there is no download limit. I can dowload 1000 GB a month and not get charged for it. and for us true geeks who download tv shows and movies and xbox 360 games online, australia is a backward dinosaur.

    This is what happens when you have socialist industry eliminating true competition. Telstra should be done away with. You should have private companies competing to get your business. this way you could have 50 dollar a month cable tv and broadband packages.

    broadband isn’t a matter of how far you are from the rest of the world. i have no problem accessing anything from the US from korea….

    grow up australia.

  • Bob Lawblah

    Too True! Having just relocated to Melbourne from San Francisco (Hardly a cheap city in itself) I am amazed everyday at the outrageous prices Australian consumers are willing to spend on just about everything. Sure it costs more to get things over here, but other items have no justification for their price other than the market will bear it ($30 for a paperback book? Are there no printing presses in Australia?)

    When it comes to internet connections, the options ar frustrating and mind boggling. How can an intangible product such as data cost so much when more of it can be created out of thin air?

    Whats more, the telecoms and government seem determined to let the world advance digitally while the whole of Australia languishing behind dial-up type speeds even over their “broadband” networks.

    I’m not sure why more people aren’t doing something about this. Surely a big telco could come on in and undercut everyone.

    Between the few selections of horrible programming on Television here and the inability to download shows over the intertubes, I’m about ready to turn to hard drug use just to pass the time.

  • Jackie K.

    Can’t agree more, and glad to know that it’s not just me who hates AUS when it comes to anything geeky.

    My solution, if you will, is:

    1. Never buy a book in a local bookstore, just browse the content to decide which one is good, then make the purchase on amazon.com, which saves on average 15-30%, even after shipping and currency conversion charges. (gotta wait 2-4weeks though, but to me it’s worthwhile)

    2. I rarely watch AUS TV programs (they are just too boring), most of the time I just rent DVDs from a local video store that has all the latest US, HK & Janpanese TV dramas.

    3. For gadgets I simply ask friends to buy it from my home country and send them here.

    4. If all of the above tricks fail, I’ll just travel overseas during a vacation to shop for whatever I need.

    Unfortunately for savvy shoppers like us, most of the locals here don’t seem to care about prices, they just accept whatever the dealers give them and pay thru the nose.

    On a side note, I noticed that a bottle of 750ml cola sells for $2.75 to $3.00 here, whereas a 2L bottle sells for about the same or even less, yet thousands of people routinely grab a 750ml cola during their lunch breaks. This makes no sense to me at all, but it does reveal the fact that people sometimes aren’t rational.

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