Opportunities for the NBN to provide
economic and social benefits
In nbn's 2015-16 Annual Report, the Chairman and Chief Executive
Officer's message stated:
Our purpose remains to connect all Australia and bridge the
digital divide, and at 30 June 2016, 70 per cent of the rollout to date has
non‑metropolitan and regional Australia.
Given the extent of the rollout in regional Australia, and as noted in
Chapter 1, the committee undertook its public hearing program with the specific
intent of taking the inquiry outside of major metropolitan areas and gathering
evidence in regional Australia. During the course of the inquiry, the committee
received evidence of the opportunities the NBN is providing for economic and
social benefits, particularly for communities located outside the major
metropolitan areas. The committee focussed on the potential opportunities in economic
growth and innovation, telehealth, digital inclusion and education.
The committee also received evidence that showed the NBN is delivering a
service of significantly varied quality as a result of the uneven nature of the
multi-technology mix and the apparent over-use of satellite broadband.
Opportunities for economic growth and innovation
The committee received substantial evidence highlighting the importance
of good broadband services in promoting economic growth and innovation in
A number of submissions referred to the contribution of the agricultural
sector to the Australian economy. For example, Better Internet for Rural,
Regional and Remote Australia (BIRRR) noted:
Figures recently released by the Australian Bureau of
Statistics show that, in the three months to December 2016, agriculture
contributed 0.5% to the nation's overall 1.1% economic growth. In addition,
agricultural export earnings are expected to be around $48.7 billion in
2017-18. Considering agriculture experienced 27.6% growth in 2016 (compared
with 4.6% in mining and a decline in both manufacturing and construction) it is
safe to say agriculture is an important sector that continues to underpin the
The submission from the NSW Farmers' Association emphasised the
importance of telecommunications services to farmers:
Access to reliable, affordable, quality telecommunications
underpins the viability of these farming businesses across NSW, allowing
farming families access to the business and education services as well as
social connectivity. Access to improved telecommunications services in
regional, rural and remote Australia is imperative to facilitate economic
growth across agriculture through innovation in production, improved market
access and enhanced consumer connectivity.
Cotton Australia explained the extent to which telecommunications were
essential business activity for their growers:
...on any given day a cotton grower may rely on
telecommunications to communicate with employees, to complete online banking,
to participate in online trading, to monitor weather conditions, to receive
real-time updates from on-farm sensors, to upload aerial drone footage and
data, to remotely monitor and control irrigation systems, to access data from
machinery and so much more.
Submissions and evidence to the committee particularly noted the potential
of precision technologies in agriculture and the importance of internet
services to handle these applications.
At the public hearing in Townsville, Professor Ian Atkinson, of the e-Research
Centre at James Cook University, appeared before the committee in a private
capacity and detailed some of his work in this area:
We have been doing precision agriculture—high precision beef
cattle farming, where animals are tracked and weighed in real time on
properties—and feeding that data back to farmers so that they have decision
support systems and can move animals around these vast cattle stations in
Northern Queensland and north Australia to improve profitability and land
management. We are starting to do work in the cane industry to monitor run-off
of sediments and fertilisers. Even in the wine industry in South Australia,
some of our technology is being used to water and assess individual grapevines.
Professor Atkinson continued, outlining the role of the NBN:
For many of these things, although we have access to very
high bandwidth connections between universities, we are actually getting out
into the real world. I could take you 120 kilometres west of here and it is
really just dirt, and we want to actually take that land and make it productive
for producers. Ubiquitous, accessible internet makes that available in ways
that we simply could not do before. So it is with the NBN that we can start to
imagine a new future for northern agriculture, where food is much more
traceable and safe, and we can actually provide more value back to farmers.
Some of these agricultural applications could be performed with quite
small bandwidth, however, coverage is an issue:
We are dealing in locations which can be a hundred kilometres
away from the nearest Telstra access point or mobile phone access point, so,
although the data rates are quite low, it is actually the coverage and the
ubiquity. In many cases we are putting in an NBN Sky Muster solution and then
building our own networks out over those properties...You can think of them like
a wi-fi network, but it is different technology, so it has a much longer range.
Instead of them being around a house, you can spread them out for maybe 30
Cotton Australia noted, however, that coverage was such an issue, that
some growers were leasing office spaces in local towns to ensure they had
access to reliable telecommunications services to conduct their businesses.
Mr Andrew Cottrill, from the Albury City Council, explained the role
that the NBN had in stimulating regional growth and development:
...I really believe that great broadband speeds and great
broadband services are critical to regional development. We are constantly
behind the eight ball in regional areas, in terms of the tyranny of distance
and access to services. The NBN is...a key facilitator of business investment.
Whenever businesses look to invest in our city, there are always questions
about: what is the broadband speed like; what are the services like; will they
be available in this location? So it is very much front of mind for business
investors in the region and it is critical that we have a great service.
Conversely, Ms Robyn Downham, a representative from the Spencer
community on the Central Coast, described for the committee the impact on that
community of a lack of internet and mobile coverage:
On the business side of things with the area, there is [sic]
hardly any business opportunities. Only a few people operate from home. From a
social aspect, young families who love the area are discouraged to buy in the
area because there is no school, no internet and no mobile coverage. There are
a few people in the older demographics buying in the area because of a tree
change. What we are finding is the community is becoming an ageing population.
The average age is 45 to 50.
The committee heard evidence of a number of examples of businesses based
in regional areas benefiting from the rollout of the NBN and contributing to
economic growth in those areas.
At the public hearing in Townsville, the committee heard evidence from
Mr Luke Anear, Chief Executive Officer, SafetyCulture, about the
establishment and growth of that company and the iAuditor app, which it
SafetyCulture started in 2004 and by 2011 had three staff. Between 2012
and 2017 the number of staff grew from three to 104, with an estimated 150 more
positions to be added over the next 12 months. Mr Anear noted that the 104 jobs
at SafteyCulture were 'high-skilled, high-paying jobs', in the local Townsville
economy and also in other states of Australia.
Mr Anear explained the significance of the NBN to the growth of his
None of what we do would be possible if it were not for the
NBN or a capability like that. Our company simply would not exist. We would not
be able to build the teams and reach the customers we do without it. The
situations we face where we have not had high-speed internet have crippled our
Mr Anear contrasted the operation of SafetyCulture's Townsville office
with the Sydney office:
Our teams consume roughly 80 hours a day of video, calls and
conversations between each other and our customers. That is vital in being able
to build and create teams of people to be able to solve complex problems. We
now even design our offices so that they have single-person phone booth-style
video offices as part of the way our offices are designed. We have spent up to
$40,000 on our Sydney office to get fibre internet because we did not have the
NBN down there although we did have it in Townsville. That would mean our
communications would break down and we were not able to effectively maintain
shared knowledge across teams and work together effectively.
Mr Anear stated that the strengths of the NBN were the bandwidth
available, which allowed for communicating of 'reasonably large amounts' of
information without delay.
While the company's current 100 Mbps connection is currently sufficient,
Mr Anear stated that this would not be enough going forward:
Today we have a business that is built around people entering
information into an app with their fingers, and taking photos. They do that 175
million times every month, and that is doubling every few months. In three
years' time our business will not be that. Our business will be a combination
of manual data entry and sensory data feeds, and combining other data sets that
are coming from external sources, such as the telemetry inside a vehicle or a
truck to know where its location is, or what the temperature is around it if
you are moving produce and all those sorts of factors.
So we need to move today from a fairly simple manual
data-entry business into a much more automated data sensory feed that then has
manual labour over the top of that. Our data requirements are probably less
than five per cent of what they will be over the next three to five years. We
are using 50 to 80 per cent of our hundred-megabit connection today. If we are
not aiming towards 10 times that over the next—and perhaps we are a little on
the extreme side compared to an everyday business—three to five years then we
are going to start running into bottlenecks.
Mr Alan Williams, Chair and Chief Executive Officer of BlinkMobile,
explained the work of his company to the committee:
We are a software company based in Gosford. Just 12 of us
create and sell a software platform that is used to develop and operate mobile
and IOT [Internet of Things] based solutions that integrate into large corporate
systems. So we have about 120 clients, many of which are large corporates
in the government agencies. Agencies such as New South Wales SafeWork and Food
Authority use our software platform to deliver apps to their staff that are
really transforming the way they work....
So how can 12 people based in Gosford compete with the likes
of IBM, SAP, salesforce and other large corporations selling into large
enterprises? The answer is to be specialised and cloud based.
Mr Williams outlined the benefits of 'growing the ecosystem of similar
businesses' on the Central Coast:
Well, it is the Silicon Valley effect. The more good people
you get around, the more good ideas flow around. It is just like an eat street
or Silicon Valley or anything like that. The more businesses of a certain type
you get, you get the foment of ideas that happens. You get people bouncing off
each other. We have a pretty small IT community here. You do not get people
investing in IT. It is not a known place particularly for IT. We are trying to
make it so. Investors follow where the ideas are. Getting start-ups going is
what we need here. Obviously, we would love to have some big companies come
here as well as anchor tenants into the area. We do not have a large IT company
anywhere around here. A large IT company tends to spawn other ideas around it.
People come out of that and do and new and exciting things. We would love that
Mr Williams also flagged speed issues as an impediment to this type of
Transfer speeds are consistently good at about 100 megabits
per second download, although faster rates would be useful at peak demand
periods. So it is good, but we would always use more...
... it is 100 in a company that has 12 active developers and a
multimedia guy doing stuff. So it is easily consumed with that. For an individual
working at home, in our world, where we are moving moderate amounts of data, 20
or 25 is probably okay. For somebody doing multimedia, it would not be okay. So
it depends upon the business. Certainly if you are moving large amounts of
video and things like that around, it would not be okay.
At the committee's public hearing in Launceston, Mr Damien Ivereigh,
Chief Executive Officer, Launtel, a Tasmanian retail service provider, spoke
about the business potential arising from Launtel's gigabit product. Noting
that the product was a business grade product, and not cheap, Mr Ivereigh gave
the example of two local Launceston firms:
...I can talk about ARTAS, a local architecture firm, and Rare
Innovation, an engineering company, who have both used the product. They tell
me that, due to the integration they are able to have with each
other—architects and engineers have to work quite closely together when they're
designing a building, obviously—they have cut their time to work on a building
from about six to eight weeks down to about two weeks, simply because they are
able to work on the same design together using the same software, because
they've both got high-speed connections.
Mr Iverleigh drew on examples from overseas to support his view that a
gigabit product had the potential to attract business to Launceston:
Absolutely I think they are going to come here. In fact, on
the day we launched we had a call from a Singaporean engineering company, who
basically told me that they were thinking of it, and now it's a no-brainer. ...Certainly
the experience in places like Chattanooga, and Dingle in Ireland, is that
within a few months businesses will start to relocate here. As for marketing
this, as for letting the people on the mainland realise that it is available
here, we could always do more. I'm talking to everybody who will listen,
because I believe very much in what Tasmania as a state has to offer both
Australia and the rest of the world. To my mind, this is just yet another
reason why Tasmania is one of the best places in the world to live.
Expanding and developing the delivery of telehealth services
At the committee's public hearing in Redcliffe, Queensland, Dr Anthony
Smith, Associate Professor and Deputy Director, Centre for Online Health,
University of Queensland, outlined the reasons for the potential for telehealth
Telehealth has tremendous opportunities in a country such as
Australia, where distances are tremendous and where we have a health system
that is constructed in such a way that patients have to travel to access
high-quality specialist services, especially if they reside in country areas.
Dr Smith described an example of telehealth being able to bring in
multiple specialists from across Australia:
I have had a child with an oncology condition diagnosed in
Brisbane. I was able to organise three specialists in three different states of
Australia who were able to meet and talk together with the family. That family
would normally have had to spend a lot of money to travel around each of those
areas, and the stress and inconvenience is incredible. However, we were able to
make that happen with a videoconference with each of the specialists, and that
was really good.
Dr Smith agreed that, in the example above, there was the potential to
seek out not only three specialists in Australia, but specialists globally.
However, Dr Smith noted that telehealth is not just videoconferenceing,
there is significant potential for 'store and forward' techniques.
Dr Mohanraj Karunanithi, Group Leader, Australian e-Health Research Centre,
described the 'Remote-I' project as one example of store-and-forward
...we tested our store-and-forward telemedicine platform,
called Remote-I, to close the gap in access to specialist eye care for
Australians living in rural and remote areas. We conducted this study in Far
North Queensland and remote Western Australia, using the Australian government
broadband satellite. During the trial, we demonstrated that this was an
effective and efficient way of providing eyecare services, reducing the number
of patients that needed to be seen when an ophthalmologist visited these
regions, and expediting patient care in critical cases. This also reduces the
need for patients to travel to local health facilities and city hospitals.
Royal Flying Doctor Service
Mr Martin Laverty, Chief Executive Officer of the Royal Flying Doctor
Service of Australia (RFDS), explained initiatives that organisation, which has
telehealth at the core of its services, will be deploying, in partnership with
That RFDS bases and remote area clinics that RFDS visits on a
regular basis, a total of about 300 locations across remote Australia, will be
declared 'public interest premises', which will allow a community services
access rate for the use of Sky Muster satellite services.
The trial of six transportable antennas – four in aircraft and
two in ground vehicles – to access the satellite for the primary health care
services that RFDS provide across Australia.
Exploring the provision of public interest premise concessions to
RFDS medical chest holders,
which would give those medical chest holders access to Sky Muster services and
the potential to conduct video health services with the RFDS.
Mr Laverty noted that these arrangements were still being developed.
Pricing arrangements in relation to the satellite have not yet been settled and
in relation to the transportable antennas, Mr Laverty stated that this was a
At the end of six months I and my colleagues will be looking
at the outcomes to see: have we been able to access better speeds, have we
taken broadband to areas where it has previously not been accessible, is it
reliable, does it work in aircraft? We genuinely have to test the antennas in
our aircraft and the antennas that will be on the roads, and at the moment we
are having challenges around weight. The antennas going into our aircraft weigh
a little more than we would want them to weigh, and we are looking to ensure
that we can find a robust system so those antennas can be sustainably put into
all of our aircraft if the trial proves successful.
Both Mr Laverty and Dr Smith described to the committee a joint project
of their respective organisations:
In partnership with the University of Queensland, through
National Health and Medical Research Council funding, the flying doctor [RFDS]
is undertaking a five-year randomised trial of the use of telehealth for
chronic disease management of patients across 15 across remote communities to
prove the testing and the development of different device uses in management of
chronic illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
Mr Laverty also gave the following example of the direct economic
benefits that the NBN could provide to the RFDS:
In the current financial year we will pay $32,000 for access
to ADSL broadband in Rockhampton. In the next financial year, we expect to
spend $7,000. That is a 78 per cent reduction in our costs at Rockhampton for
accessing broadband services because of the arrival of the NBN at that
location. We are also advised that we will have faster speeds when that service
is deployed at Rockhampton. As we look at being able to expand NBN across
Australia, having flagged that we currently spend $3.7 million per annum on
access to telecommunications services, the potential for savings for
Australia's most reputable charity is significant, and we are looking to
harness those savings to return those revenues to our services.
Bringing healthcare into the home
Dr Smith explained that the opportunities for telehealth were not only
about transferring current model of patient-doctor interaction to an online
I think the preference would be to try to imagine this in
such a way that it is a service we have not seen before. This is not about
trying to improve what we have currently got; it is trying to think about what
this will look like in 10 years. Ideally, the services should be as convenient
as possible, and that is not just in a hub that you have to travel 300 kilometres
to. Ideally, you want services that are available in the home, because it is
not just the interaction that happens between the patient and the clinician but
also what the patient can do for themselves. There is education, support,
accessing information, keeping your own personal records, keeping your own
information, having alerts and having systems monitor and guide you.
In this context, Dr Karunanithi spoke of two projects that his
organisation have undertaken related to using a fast broadband network:
The first project we undertook developed a mobile platform
technology to support older Australians to live longer in their own homes. In
this project, we developed a platform that engages the older person, the family
and the nursing service through an iPad app, an internet portal and sensors in
In the second project we conducted a national home
telemonitoring trial in six sites on the east coast of Australia. The trial was
aimed at seeing if telehealth intervention on older Australians with multiple
chronic disease would reduce hospitalisations and GP visits. The outcome of
this trial allowed a 50 per cent reduction in the rate of admissions to
hospital, and a 46 per cent reduction in the rate of MBS expenditure.
Mr Alan Taylor, of eDevelopment Solutions, highlighted the importance of
the NBN in achieving this care in the home:
One of the main benefits of the NBN will be to deliver high
quality home-based healthcare to Australians independent of where they live.
With the rapidly ageing population, this will represent an increasing focus of
Dr Smith agreed with this point, but indicated that coverage was an
I think the greatest opportunity [for the NBN] is supporting
people in the home. My experience in the last few years is that it has been a
real struggle to connect with families in the home. Some families do have the
NBN, and it works quite well. The majority of the families we deal with do not,
and some of the remote areas that we are trying to connect to have very limited
internet access in their entire town.
Dr Smith explained that, in this context, NBN infrastructure is
particularly important in regional and rural areas:
At the research end we have our own networks. We have
gigabits—and hundreds of gigabits, actually, in some instances—but, where we
are now starting to translate the research into servicing people, that is where
the NBN capability in regional and rural Queensland is absolutely essential.
And it is, of course, more essential, because if you are in Brisbane or Sydney
or Melbourne you can actually, with difficulty maybe, drive to the hospital.
These options just are not available for people in these communities, so the
NBN, as a device or a tool to get to these people, is going to be enormous. I
think the future of telemedicine is critical. Again, we will never have the
money. We will probably have less money to put into health over time. That is
the reality. Telemedicine is a way to compensate and enable people to live in
Dr Smith referred to the delivery of mental health programs as one of
the best examples of how telehealth has applied for patients. Dr Smith provided
the following example of the importance of accessible and affordable internet
connections for these types of programs:
Another more recent program which we have been working with
is called the Grow Program. The Grow Program is a national program that leads
support groups during the recovery stages for, basically, people who have a
mental health disorder. This has been a very successful program. We have been
working with the Grow group in Queensland and looking at how we can extend a
very successful program which is available to Sydney patients and groups to
country environments. The No. 1 problem for us at the moment has been ensuring
that people have access to an internet connection. They just do not have it in
their home. They have given many examples where they have either no internet or
very limited internet and they just cannot afford to get it and then use it for
that particular purpose.
Professor Atkinson outlined a project he is currently discussing with
Queensland Health, but noted the lack of NBN services as a significant
impediment to the project:
The Townsville Hospital takes all neonatal babies from north
of Rockhampton. A lot of the people cannot be with their babies for four
months; they have to go back to their communities and back to work. The
hypothesis is that, if they can see their child in the humidicrib when they
need to, they will bond better with that baby. The international experience is
that they will actually take those babies home earlier, saving in the health
system money and days in hospital. But how do we do that? How do we provide
that real-time video access to that baby without an NBN-type service in these
Dr Smith indicated the data allowances and speeds available on some
services currently mean that some applications are not feasible:
I think the NBN is going to help us reach areas that we
cannot currently reach. There are a lot of places that still require patients
to travel large distances in order to reach their nearest hospital where they
know there is a reliable internet connection. The families and places that we
are trying to connect to in many remote locations may have internet but a very
small amount of internet that costs them a lot of money, so they are reluctant
to use the data for their consultations. They also may not have the speeds that
are required to be able to do an appropriate clinical consultation.
Dr Smith also noted that latency is an issue:
When you are doing a consultation there is nothing more
distracting than having to wait for a minute for your voice to come back and
answer. That is an example and a very important concern...I know historically
when we are dealing with older telecommunications it was a real problem and a
huge distraction for clinicians, who found that very difficult. My thinking is:
is something better than nothing? I think the answer is yes; however, if we are
striving for an excellent network that is going to do what we want to do then I
think we should be aiming for better.
The committee discussed with Dr Smith the possibility of using community
infrastructure, such as a library, as a means of improving access to
I guess a conservative approach would be to say that if, at
the very least, we could get every library connected that would be fine as a
method of, or an avenue for, providing clinical consults. There are some
requirements when providing clinical working areas, and a very important one is
privacy and security.
Improving digital inclusion
Submissions and witnesses referred to Australian Digital Inclusion Index,
which measures digital inclusion in three categories: accessibility,
affordability and ability to use.
The Queensland Government summarised the results from the 2016 Digital
The Australian Digital Inclusion Index 2016 (ADII) report
measures the level of digital inclusion across the Australian population, and
monitors this longitudinally, collecting data for three years to date. The
report provides a view of digital inclusion in Australia regarding access,
affordability and digital ability, providing a national, state, regional and
Overall, the ADII has found that digital inclusion is
improving in Australia however, there is a 'digital divide' between people on
lower incomes, compared to those on higher incomes. Particular communities and
social groups, such as people aged over 65 years, people with a disability,
people with less than secondary education, people not in paid employment or
receiving a lower income, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are the
most digitally excluded.
The report suggests that community-specific initiatives are
required to address digital exclusion alongside measures to improve
The committee received some evidence about some of the groups which were
identified as 'most digitally excluded', namely Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islanders, and people aged over 65 years.
Mr Daniel Featherstone, General Manager, Indigenous Remote
Communications Association (IRCA), spoke of access to government services as
one example of how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, particularly
those living in remote communities, may be digitally excluded:
People are reliant on online government services now. In
particular, myGov and My Health are critical to people getting their community
benefits. A lot of people are not getting those benefits now because there is a
lack of digital literacy and affordability to access online services. Many
people are being breached or are unable to afford to get online to do their
reporting to Centrelink and are therefore missing out on getting their welfare
In its submission, the Northern Territory Government referred to the
potential of broadband connectivity in addressing this exclusion:
Provision of a superior broadband connection in remote
communities will be a significant factor towards closing the gap of Indigenous
disadvantage. It would enable improved well-being for individuals and families
living and working in some of the most remote locations in Australia by improving
access to essential health and education facilities and other online services
provided by the Northern Territory Government which is increasingly delivering
Mr Featherstone also spoke of digital inclusion in the context of
Closing the Gap:
One of the activities that are underway at IRCA, coming out
of the recent Broadband for the Bush forum, is to push for digital inclusion to
be considered a Closing the Gap indicator because it will enable many of the
other Closing the Gap indicators around health, education, employment, housing
and so on. We see digital inclusion helping to leverage a lot more support for
However, Mr Featherstone noted:
To get people connected isn't as simple as giving a
one-size-fits-all model. We need to build on what people are already familiar
with and having relevant applications and information in language or visually
to help get people through their own learning journeys. IRCA's been doing some
work in that with our inDigiMOB digital mentors project, and we have been
trying to encourage a program to employ local people to be the digital mentors,
to support their family and friends through a peer learning model. There is a
range of different components to building digital inclusion, and it is
certainly not just about infrastructure. That is only one part of the puzzle.
Ms Louise Denoon, Executive Director, Regional Access and Public
Libraries, State Library of Queensland, provided the following example of
assistance for older people in Queensland public libraries through a
With the Tech Savvy Seniors Program, often it has been imperatives
like being able to connect with families—how to use Facebook—because they are
missing out on all of these rich family stories that are going on there. It is
understanding what solution they need. We have had stories, particularly of
older couples, where one of them has done all the online banking and all of
that stuff. That person has died and the other person—the widow—has not really
known how to access it and how to pay the bills. Sometimes it is that direct.
Or it could be online shopping.
Often, people come to public libraries—older people—to do
family history. Family history now requires very significant digital skills to
be able to find the information that is wanted. It is also health, knowing how
to access health resources. If your kids are in remote Indigenous communities,
if your kids are at boarding school in Cairns, how do you talk to them? How
could you Skype in? How do you connect in that way? The needs are many and
varied but some are as basic as government services. Others may be that small
businesses want to be able to access information that is only online. That
incubator service supporting entrepreneurs in communities is an emerging trend,
and libraries are looking to meet that demand.
Participation in education and training
Evidence to the committee demonstrated a variety of opportunities that
the NBN may provide for participation in education, from preschool aged
children, right through to training and development for professionals.
Witnesses also shared the challenges that they faced in accessing education
opportunities through NBN and the implications that this had.
At the public hearing on the Central Coast, Mr David Soede, Director of
ICT at Central Coast Grammar School and the Educational Infrastructure
Spokesperson for Managers of IT in Education, provided a number of detailed
examples of how a high quality NBN could benefit students' education. For
What about learning a foreign language using a traditional
classroom setting versus the possibility of a one-to-one video conference
between students in our country and other countries? Think about China or
Japan. You have students who want to learn a foreign language. A lot of the
Asian languages in particular are very heavy on inflexion, so you cannot just
have a single sound phonetically said. The inflexion on that syllable is really
important. You can only get that across a decent connection. High speed, low
latency allows that high audio quality.
At the public hearing in Townsville, Ms Susan Parsons, the Senior Engagement
Officer for Mareeba Shire Council, spoke of the possibility of the NBN bringing
tertiary education opportunities to that shire, which is located west of
The way that education is being delivered these
days—vocational and tertiary—is that you do not actually need to be in the
classroom, because it is live but online. So what I see happening in places
like Mareeba is that they do not need to drive to Mareeba to attend the class;
it can be like in a virtual classroom. Without the capacity or the reliability
of the NBN, they are the types of opportunities that they will miss out on.
At the public hearing in Adelaide, Professor Shane Dawson, Teaching
Innovation Unit, University of South Australia, described how the NBN may
overcome the current limitations to providing tertiary course content via
Internet coverage is pretty good in Australia as it is,
whether it is NBN or down to 4G or 3G networks, satellites and so on, so we get
into remote areas quite well. So, the access at the moment is fine. We can
actually deliver education. The issue...is that it does impede the level of
education that we would like to provide. We have the capacity now around 4K
videos that we would take of geological representations around the Flinders
Ranges that we would like to beam into students. You cannot do that now with
the current internet access standards, which means that they do not see that
same visualisation as on-campus students would see. If we are going to spread
and have greater flexibility and diversity then we need better internet access
speeds. As for how that rolls out across through the NBN, obviously the sooner
the better, I would argue.
At the hearing in Burnie, Mr Chris Walpole, a pharmacist from
Queenstown, described how the NBN might facilitate professional development:
Training and education is a vital component of our pharmacy
business strategy in Queenstown, and we're continually looking at opportunities
to access more efficient training without the distractions and annoyance of the
pixelation and freezing of the images which currently exists. As a pharmacist,
access to national conferences for the purposes of training and CPD [continuing
professional development] is expensive in its current form, as there is the
requirement to find a locum pharmacist, the expense of accommodation and
interstate travel. An NBN connection would enable access to conference webinars
without having to leave the community, which is an overall cost saving to the
pharmacy and the health system. We are hoping, therefore, that the NBN will
enable our business to be more efficient.
Mrs Joanna Gibson, representing the Isolated Children's Parents'
Association (ICPA), explained the importance of a fast, reliable and affordable
internet connection for students undertaking distance education:
Over the years, as the curriculum for the schools of distance
education has moved to an online format, we have become increasingly reliant on
an affordable, reliable and fast internet connection. The legacy nightmare that
was the oversubscribed interim satellite service remains all too vivid in the
memories of many of our members. There is an enormous demand in rural and
remote areas for a reliable and affordable internet service.
Mrs Gibson noted the work her organisation has done with the federal
government and the nbn during the rollout of Sky Muster to address the
requirements of families educating children and home and living in isolated
Mrs Gibson referred to the same challenges with Sky Muster as are canvassed in
Chapter 4 of the committee's report.
However, Mrs Gibson did note the 'huge assistance' that the education port has
provided to distance education students:
The education port comes under one of these PIP [Public
Interest Premises] sites. At the moment, it is just for students studying via
distance education. They have to be signed off by the department of education
and NBN in order to access this port. It is 50 gigabytes per student for up to
three students. So it can be up to 150 gigabytes that you can access for
education and it is a priority signal so it is always at speed; it is not
off-peak and peak.
It is a huge benefit for people studying by distance
education because they are separate from the household and separate from the
business, and they can concentrate on doing everything that their school
curriculum requires of them. If they have to do research or something, they can
watch YouTube or look at lots of articles or whatever without any worry about
Mrs Gibson continued:
The provision of the education port is a huge assistance for
those studying by distance education. However, it does not assist those
studying in a small rural school, students returning home from boarding school
during holiday breaks, or those studying at a tertiary level. These students
still need adequate internet to be able to complete homework and assignments,
do research and watch online lectures.
In its submission, BIRRR argued that there is a need for a tertiary
education port to be established, similar to the distance education port:
Sky Muster customers are limited to one connection per
household/location, which (in many cases) needs to be 'rationed' for business,
health, education and personal needs. As such, there is a huge risk that RRR
[rural, regional and remote] children and tertiary students will be unable to
access the internet adequately for their studies, and will fall behind their
Whilst the development of the educational port for distance
education and home school students using Sky Muster services is a welcome
initiative, it is not accessible to tertiary students or primary and secondary
students in mainstream schools, who also need internet access to complete
homework, research and assignments.
In relation to secondary students in mainstream schools, Ms Lee Longmire
from the Riverina region in New South Wales, spoke of the experience of her
family, who only have access to mobile broadband, which she described as 'very
expensive, a bit unreliable and a bit patchy'.
Ms Longmire's children attend 'an old-school school, where they do not have
laptops for them'.
Ms Longmire described the implications for her children, and particularly her
daughter who is currently studying year 11 as a result of the need to ration
Speak to my children! They get told, even when we have 150
gigabytes of data, that they cannot willy-nilly just go on anything. My
daughter—who is in year 11 and who is doing compressed curriculum HSC, so she
is completing her first three HSC subjects at the moment—has to come and check:
'Mum, is it okay if I go on'—to watch whatever video the class has been told
they need to watch, or download or look up anything. This is a kid trying to
complete her HSC. My son loves it when we go to a hotel somewhere. His first question
is: 'Mum, does it have free wi-fi?' He is like, 'so am I allowed to
watch'—whatever little Minecraft video thingies he wants to watch. Those
rationing things are real.
The committee also heard from Arabella Zocher, a Year 9 student at the
Central Coast Rudolf Steiner School, who explained to the committee that her
school used ADSL wi-fi and that the school does not have access to the NBN.
Arabella described what this meant for her, and her classmates:
...with an increasing workload of over 300 people, the school
is struggling to work efficiently and sometimes struggling to even work at all.
YouTube has many educational platforms. Mathletics is a great way to reinforce
mathematical skills. Both of these take up a large amount of bandwidth. So when
we try to have a Mathletics class, half of the year cannot work, which causes
major disruptions to our education. Apart from being frustrating, it denies us
the opportunity of nurturing a love of maths. The Internet can collapse even
though only 50 people can be using it at a time. At times, streaming websites
have to get blocked because the network cannot handle the traffic.
...it is hard to use online textbooks and things. We are always
using the big heavy textbooks and things. We cannot access the online ones
because they need time to load and they have a lot of information in them.
The rollout of the NBN presents many economic, health and business
opportunities to residents in regional, rural and remote Australia. The
committee received evidence of very positive developments occurring in regional
areas, including: businesses leveraging the capabilities of the NBN; innovation
in agriculture; improved educational opportunities for distance education
students; and initiatives to expand the provision of health services.
The committee understands that there are some concerns in relation to
the limitations of the NBN, particularly in relation to future capacity.
The committee is concerned that NBN is delivering a service of quite
varied quality with the potential to fall short of a ubiquitous network in
which a foundation of reliable, affordable, high-speed internet is available to
the vast majority of households and businesses. The uneven nature of the multi-technology
mix and the apparent over-use of satellite broadband could exacerbate existing
social, economic, and digital inequality.
The committee notes the evidence that it received that accessing
services through a community facility, such as library, may be an option in
some circumstances. In Chapter 4 the committee referred to the merit of nbn
undertaking some analysis about increasing the number of premises in the fixed
wireless footprint. In the committee's view, this analysis should include
prioritising facilities such as libraries, hospitals and community health
services for receiving fixed wireless connections instead of a Sky Muster
In the committee's view, it is important that all Australians are able
to access a high quality NBN service. While the committee is encouraged by the
fact that the rollout is ahead of schedule, it has to be noted that the
quality, ubiquity, and fairness of the NBN is under question.
The committee believes that the current design and rollout of the NBN is
likely to maintain the 'digital divide', which means that particular
communities and social groups will not share in the benefits of broadband
technology, but will instead find themselves further separated in terms of full
social and economic participation in Australian life.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government ensure that
digital inclusion is measured and reported. It has been suggested that the
Productivity Commission assess and report on income and wealth inequality in
Australia, and it may be worth including the measurement and reporting of
digital inequality, as the two areas are likely to be increasingly related.
Hon Sussan Ley MP
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