More rural broadband, less porn in budget

Rudd Labor’s first budget delivered few surprises on the IT front with the Broadband Guarantee extended until 2012 and a fresh raftload of cash to help make the Internet safer (ahem). APC read through the boring bits so you don’t have to: here’s the technology highlights including just how big a flop previous attempts at filtering Internet access have proved to be in practice and why your business software will cost more.

Broadband moves

With funding for the Broadband Guarantee (a rare example of a communications policy from the previous blokes that current minister Senator Stephen Conroy actually seems to like) due to expire mid-year it was no great surprise to see the policy extended until 2012 with $270.7 million in cash.

While the basic program will remain the same the government is keen to encourage a more structured approach to eliminating broadband blackspots. “There will be greater incentives for industry to take a whole-of-region approach to network deployment” Conroy said. “The certainty of funding will also ensure Internet service providers are not hindered from making longer-term plans for building infrastructure.”

The big unanswered question is whether the National Broadband Network – the supposed solution for the 98% of us who don’t live somewhere very remote – will be up and running by the time the money runs out in 2012.

Online protection

Developing a “safer online environment” for families was also a key election promise so the provision of $125.8 million for “cyber-safety measures” was also fairly predictable. (Does anyone actually use the word “cyber” outside of Doctor Who these days by the way?)

“Although the internet has opened up a world of possibilities and benefits to Australian children it has also exposed them to continually emerging and evolving dangers that did not previously exist” Senator Conroy noted in the funding announcement. Obviously he wants to avoid the “wowser” tag that attached to similar Liberal plans.

Mind you the budget details also reveal that the previous attempts to make parents more safety conscious have been a miserable failure. The National Filter Scheme (which offered free Internet content filters for families with children to use on their own PCs) is going to be shut down at the end of the year though the products involved will be supported until 2010. According to Conroy the program had a “very limited take-up”. More damningly only 20% of people who bothered to get the filters have continued to use them.

A tad unexpectedly the biggest chunk of the safety money isn’t going towards the plans for a national ISP filtering scheme (currently on trial in Tasmania with a bigger national trial expected later this year). $49 million has been assigned to the Australian Federal Police’s Child Protection Operations group which will get an additional 91 staff members by 2011.

Other plans for spending the money including enhancing government sites on online safety expanding the current blacklist of banned sites used for filtering purposes and launching a “a dedicated cyber-safety helpline” whatever that means. There’ll also be a Youth Advisory Group to provide a perspective on the issue that is quite likely lacking in Canberra. We look forward to a sullen teenager complaining that their Limewire access has been blocked.

How to fund computers in schools

If there was one topic that got more noise than broadband during the election it was education funding labelled the ‘Digital Education Revolution’ in Rudd-speak a plan which is due to cost $1.2 billion over five years. The spending has already started. By June this year $100 million will have been allocated on improving school access to computers. $100 million will be allocated over the next year to provide fibre connections to Australian schools $32.6 million over two years on the development of online curriculum tools and resources and $10 million over three years to develop school support mechanisms.

But just where will the money come from? One way the government is increasing revenues is by a subtle change in how businesses can depreciate software purchases. Currently software can be written off over a 2.5 year period. New rules will change that period to four years matching it with existing rules for computer hardware. The government hopes to get $1.3 billion in extra revenues from that change over four years which just happens to be enough to nicely cover the digital education plans. Not that we’re complaining; it certainly beats spending money on promoting software filters that no-one has used.

And in the footnotes . . .

A few other notable tech moments from the budget:

* The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) will release a VoIP regulation plan by June 2009. (Wasn’t this supposed to have happened already?) Cost recovery measures for maintaining the Do Not Call register will also be ramped up. We’d have made more of this in the budget announcements quite frankly; sticking it to telemarketers sounds like a guaranteed vote winner.

* There’ll be funding of $37.9 million to assist with the switchover to digital television which is due by December 2013. For the next year this will mostly involve planning the timetable. (Wasn’t this supposed to have happened already?)