Ambitious Brisbane portal yet to make an appearance

Building a big-budget Web site is not all beer and skittles, as the Brisbane City Council (BCC) has discovered.

Ourbrisbane.com, an ambitious Web portal project designed to create a global presence for Brisbane, was supposed to go live several weeks ago, but it has yet to surface for public inspection and officials this week declined to specify a revised launch date.

"As with all Internet projects, we are learning as we progress," said council spokesperson Marina Vit. "We are making sure we have the best possible site when we do go public."

The portal project is meant to produce a one-stop shop for anything to do with the city of Brisbane and its services. It is designed to include online council services, bill paying, virtual store fronts, secure e-commerce support for local businesses, tourist information about the region, and support for online community and interest groups.

The portal is part of a $150 million, three-year BCC scheme to deliver social and economic benefits using an internet platform. Of the $150 million, the BCC is stumping up $11.5 million this year. The rest is meant to come from joint venture partners and small-to-medium businesses that use the portal.

Expenditures on that scale make ourbrisbane.com one of Australia's most ambitious Web sites.

Yet to be revealed is whether the BCC and its partners can avoid the kind of losses that have characterised many private-sector attempts to establish portals. The BCC sees the portal "developing over time into something that covers its own costs", Vit said.

The online industry is adopting a wait-and-see attitude toward the portal, says Australian Interactive Multimedia Industry Association (AIMIA) Queensland president Paul Campbell.

"There has been a lack of consultation with the industry on ourbrisbane.com. To date the council has just been telling us what they are doing and saying that if we are not part of it, then we'll be out of step," Campbell said. "We are waiting to see what is delivered before we take a position on whether it will benefit or harm the industry."

One Web developer who attended an early briefing session on ourbrisbane.com recalls that "it was made clear they were going to own the whole Web portal space in Brisbane and anyone going to compete in that space did so at their peril".

Expressions of interest were first called for the ourbrisbane.com project in March last year. Telstra was selected from more than 100 respondents as the BCC's joint venture partner in November, along with management consultancy DMR.

A council team of up to 80 people has been working on the project under the direction of veteran electricity industry executive Mike Sargent. Formerly chief executive of Transfield Energy Group, Sargent is currently co-chairman of the Australian Government's Electric Energy Industry Export Council and a deputy chancellor of the University of Canberra.

He suggested the portal's revenue models might include provision of Web tools and services to small and medium businesses on a subscription basis. It could also provide a Web-hosting service for large communities of interest.

Sargent rejected suggestions that the project could be regarded by private-sector Web companies as unfair, taxpayer-funded competition. "Our market research shows that businesses in this city feel this is the right thing to do. The portal's basic proposition is to create economic development in Brisbane and you don't do that by monstering small firms" he said.

"The real return lies in boosting Brisbane's economy, not in creating profits for the council."

Brisbane Lord Mayor Jim Soorley has not had a smooth run in his attempts to establish a distinctive Web presence for the city. Several months ago, a World Intellectual Property Organisation tribunal quashed a move to force Adelaide businessman Peter Russ to hand over the domain name brisbane.com.

That decision was reached shortly after another WIPO arbitrator ruled against the BCC in a similar case.

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