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National Broadband Network Select Committee

SOEDE, Mr David, ICT Manager, Central Coast Grammar School


CHAIR: I would now like to invite our next witness, Mr David Soede, from the Central Coast Grammar School. Good afternoon, Mr Soede, and welcome to the Senate Select Committee on the National Broadband Network. Do you wish to make a brief opening statement?

Mr Soede : Sure. I represent the Central Coast Grammar School but also, more broadly, MITE, Managers of IT in Education—so, basically, my peers and colleagues on the Central Coast and further afield in New South Wales and Australia.

I made a submission last year about why it would benefit my school and the Central Coast if the NBN were to be rolled out across our region. I do not want to repeat everything I said in that submission, although I am not sure whether you have read my submission or all of the submissions that were made.

I see a number of benefits to my school in particular, and I want to focus on the educational aspect today. The main benefit for me is, first and foremost, the learning experience. Teaching and learning is mainly about communication—and, as we enter the digital era, it is more and more about communication in a digital form. Something like the NBN allows us to scale that to a level that we simply cannot do now.

At my school, as an example, we currently have a 17 megabits per second microwave connection that services 1,150 students and 150 staff. The majority of those staff are teaching staff—about 120 to 130, if you count teachers and learning support staff. You can imagine that, with that many people sharing a 17 megabit per second connection, they all have a very small amount of bandwidth to use for teaching and learning.

If you look at something like a basic video conference, we have a video-conference circuit coming into our school—we are privileged to have that through the AIS. It is a five megabit per second dedicated video conference circuit. It is low latency, which means the time it takes for a packet to go from my school to the network hub and then back to my school is very fast. You need that for video conferences; otherwise, you get that awful lag/latency/drop-out effect where it suddenly cuts out and in—you get that freeze frame effect and suddenly the person appears over there. So, for effective video conferencing, you need low latency as well as high bandwidth.

With that video conference circuit we can host one video conference. That is okay when we are looking at one class. We run over 100 classes simultaneously—all day, every day—so we cannot scale that anymore than for one. It is like an artificial limitation where we are being asked to manage our very small amount of bandwidth, a valuable resource, to schedule one class that can use it but not anybody else. If we had something like the NBN, in the form that I understand was originally mooted—fibre-to-the-premises—and we could look at massive increases in bandwidth, in the order of a gigabit or more, then suddenly we can scale that so that 20, 30, 40 classes can all engage in that type of high-bandwidth, low-latency video conference connection.

That is not the only type of teaching and learning that can go on, but I think it is important to understand that, as education changes and moves away from the teacher in the classroom telling students how something is and you start looking at wider field engagement and interactive collaboration, when you have something like the National Broadband Network, that is when you can get massive economies of scale, huge productivity increases and significant benefits of engagement in learning. For example, if you have students who want to learn a foreign language like Chinese or Japanese, a lot of the Asian languages in particular are very heavy on the inflection, so you cannot just have a single sound phonetically said. The inflection on that syllable is important. You can only get that across a decent connection. If you have a bad connection, if it is high latency and low bandwidth, you end up with a terrible result. So if, for example, we wanted to have 30 of our students speaking and learning Chinese with 30 Chinese students in China, we could do that on a one-to-one basis with high-definition videoconferencing if we had something like the NBN in the form that it was mooted. We cannot technically achieve that at the moment. Students need to be able to see the way the tongue moves in the mouth.

My wife is Japanese. I learned Japanese. They have a very particular sound halfway between an R and an L. That is why Japanese have trouble, saying, 'The capital of England is Rondon,' or, 'The capital of Italy is Lome.' They have halfway between an R and an L. It is a [Japanese language not transcribed] sound. If you want to teach that to a student, they need to have a very good high-definition close-up on the mouth; otherwise, they cannot get the way that the tongue rolls, plus you need to be able to hear it. That is nothing against having a few dedicated Japanese teachers or Chinese teachers coming into our school and teaching in person, but right now it is really hard to get qualified Chinese teachers into our current school system. It is really hard. Whereas, if you had something like the NBN, we would be able to do that. The current tyranny of distance would disappear.

I am also interested in being able to reduce costs and increase benefits from the IT aspect. I am an infrastructure manager. I have had over 20 years in IT in the infrastructure field. My school is very fortunate—privileged. We have a number of servers that are virtualised running on state-of-the-art high-level enterprise equipment. We have UPS and wi-fi gear all through the school and fibre-optic connecting every building. We are very fortunate. But all of that equipment has to be on my school premises at the moment serving my student and teacher needs. I cannot outsource that to a data centre somewhere else because of the latency, the time it takes for a packet to travel from my school to that data centre and back again, whether we are accessing a file and opening it or making a query to a database and returning the result. Whatever the type of data packet is, the time it takes for it to go from my school and come back again is too slow at the moment with existing technology.

If we could have fibre-optic to my school, and at the moment—I do not want to be too diplomatic about this—I can only see fibre-optic as the reasonable alternative for providing the type of performance that we need, then I would be able to off site or outsource my current hardware equipment somewhere else, to another site, whether that is in Wyong, Erina, Sydney or Newcastle. It would lower my costs and it would improve the bang I get for my buck. I could look at infrastructure as a service, IAAS; I could look at platforms as a service, PAAS; I could look at software as a service, SAAS—all as viable alternatives which simply are not available to me at the moment.

So I would strongly recommend that you develop, improve or continue the National Broadband Network along the lines of fibre to the premises and look at prioritising—in my opinion—schools, hospitals, local business centres, government departments and councils. I understand that, politically, it may well be your average person in a home who votes who has some sway in this, but, from the viewpoint of our economy and for the benefit of Australian society and our community, the organisations that benefit most from this type of high-speed bandwidth are your hospitals, schools and local business centres.

A little bit of what was touched on before by Patrick: the problem with an alternative topology design—so moving from fibre to the-premises to fibre to the node, and then, from that node, splaying out into hundreds or thousands of homes—is that your node connection back to your central point might be incredibly high speed—it might be a gigabit—but if you have a thousand homes sharing that gigabit backbone link, they all now have a thousandth of a gigabit and are back to a megabit per second. We may as well be back on ADSL. Even if you made your backbone link 10 gigabits, you are still only looking at 10 megabits per second for each of those homes.

We would like to do all sorts of things with our students where we can provide continual multimedia high-speed streaming and learning opportunities at home so they do not necessarily have to be at school. Students who are off sick or are incapable of being at school would be able to continue their lessons and to learn that way. I can see all sorts of opportunities for them to engage from home. If we are going to be serious about engaging with Asia and having international mutually beneficial relationships, then those types of things like language learning can be moved into public speaking and debating opportunities. You can scale all of that if every premise is connected with high speed and low latency. You cannot do it if it is not. I know it is a lot of money, I am not shying away from that. I hear that it is $50 billion or $60 billion potentially to build such a thing in Australia. My opinion is that, if we look at that over ten years, we are looking at less than two per cent of the Australian government's revenue, and I think that is a very excellent return on investment.

Unlike some of the previous contributors you have had, I will make the claim that, if you build this type of high-speed, low-latency, state-of-the-art fibre-optic network, it will last us 50 to 100 years. The benefit you get with fibre optic is that it is virtually unlimited—they have not yet found any technical limitation to how much data you can pump down that fibre—and the scalability is enormous. Once they had that fibre-optic connection, they started with a single frequency of light, and then they discovered that they could put two frequencies of light down the same cable and they would not interfere with each other, so that doubled your speed. Then they had switching equipment that enabled 10 frequencies, and then 100, and then 1,000, and now they are putting petabytes across the single fibre-optic cable across the ocean connecting us to America. I am not saying that that is what we should end up with for every home in Australia, but if you put this fibre optic across our nation and connect every premises, it is going to allow incredible future growth and I think it is worthwhile spending the money and doing it properly.

Senator CONROY: That was a compelling presentation. I thank you and congratulate you on that. I do want to tease you out on a couple of points, but firstly can I assure you, notwithstanding the claims you might hear of $50 billion, $60 billion or $70 billion, that the actual cost is nothing like that. The manky, second-rate network—as you would understand—that is being created is going to cost over $40 billion, and the numbers for the pure fibre-to-the-premises network are still, notwithstanding claims, around $40 billion. You might wonder why you would spend $40 billion building a second-rate network, but that is a broader question I will not ask you to comment on.

I want to take you to the changing teaching methods that you referred to, and that probably goes to the heart of why you want to go for the model. I was particularly interested when you talked about trying to scale it, and then right there at the end you mentioned the issue I really want to tease out with you. Having fibre to the premises allows students who are not there—not just sick ones but those doing their homework in the evening—to be able to collaborate with a class around the world and learn when school hours are not between nine and three or four. It is that change in the way that education is starting to happen because of this capacity. I am interested in your thoughts. A sick kid at home can still join the class. A girl in my daughter's class is off school with chickenpox at the moment, so by definition she will be missing the class, but if she had fibre to the home she would still be able to participate and be involved without giving any of the other kids chickenpox, which I would be very grateful for. It is that changing teaching model on which I really want to tease out whether you have any thoughts—not just video upscaling but the whole way information is now available outside the school gate.

Mr Soede : At the moment you have universities moving a lot of their course content online, and I think that that is potentially going to continue to flow down into the lower schools, the secondary and primary schools. Something that we should certainly look at, and one of the things that my school is doing, is moving to what we call a 16/5, because we deliberately do not want a 24/7 environment; we want to encourage the students to have good sleep patterns and a life outside school. But we are moving to 16/5 availability. It has to be a 24/7 actual backbone of that type of learning capability. So at the moment teachers are already recording their lessons with both video and audio and then having that available for any student that is in the class to look at so they can review it. We are currently working out whether we can make that available to other students. Sometimes at our school we have course clashes, so if a student wants to do physics, chemistry and biology sometimes they can only choose two of the three streams, simply because of the way our classroom and our timetable have to happen.

Senator CONROY: The availability of teachers.

Mr Soede : Yes. You move to that type of platform where your content is now made available 24/7, and you remove that restriction, so now students can engage that way, or you can simply say, 'Our school will concentrate on physics and chemistry and another school that we partner with can concentrate on biology,' and you can do an exchange program where you are exchanging that. You can get that type of school collaboration and student collaboration if you have the bandwidth to support it. You cannot do it without it.

One of the things that concern me—certainly not with you, Senators; please do not take it that way—is that, in the wider media and sometimes in the community as I move around, people seem to be trying to find something specific right now on which they can say: 'If we had the NBN, we could do this, and this is valuable; we can put X dollars on it. Therefore, from a cost-benefit analysis, it's going to be worthwhile doing.' I am saying that I can see hundreds of potential opportunities for us to use this type of network. It is hard in education to quantify that precisely at the moment, other than to say that every teaching expert I know says it would be an enormous lift and a huge improvement. They just cannot quantify exactly how much.

I also think there will be massive opportunities that come along after we have got it. People simply will not see some of these things. I know that right now there are some students in Europe who, for their music, can play in online bands. They can do that because they have very low latency and high bandwidth. You can have that view that it is just fun, consumer-style jamming. You get one guy with an electric guitar, another who is a drummer, a keyboardist and a vocalist, and the four of them can get together. If they have low enough latency, they can have their little webcam interface and come up with a band that sounds reasonable. That is fine. From an educational perspective, I am talking about how we might not be able to offer every student in our school teaching on every instrument but other schools might have experts on the saxophone, the trombone, the violin or something that we do not, and so we can exchange that and then the students can collaborate. If you want to do a string quartet or a woodwind section where you do not have some instruments in your school, you can do that if you go back to low-latency, high-bandwidth internet connections, which we cannot do now. Once you have that type of collaboration with the students, they are far more engaged and they learn far more easily than if they have to practise in isolation and, once a fortnight, travel somewhere to do that. You are really removing the tyranny of distance, which I think is one of Australia's biggest handicaps or at least has been until now. Now we have the opportunity to remove that, and I think we should take it.

CHAIR: What can I say?

Senator CONROY: Thank you.

Senator O'NEILL: You have articulated a powerful vision for new learners in the 21st century, learners who are going home and trying to teach themselves all sorts of things because information is out there. But in terms of organising a curriculum, students and teachers need access to this. You have made a great argument for why it should go to schools and you even articulated prioritisation of getting fibre-to-the-premise to schools, hospitals and sites where businesses cluster. But in essence when you talk about students being able to access that kind of learning at home and at times it suits, we need to think about the broader community. What I would want to be really clear about is: the only way in which the vision that you have articulated today can occur is if fibre-to-the-premise is rolled out to all of the people who want to use it where they are. Is that correct?

Mr Soede : I would totally agree. I did not mean to say it any other way. I was merely saying that prioritising the schools, hospitals and local business centres first is going to give you that biggest uplift most quickly. Long-term, you simply have to have every premise or the overwhelming majority of premises connected if you want to get that benefit across the community. There is not much point our school having a massive bandwidth connectivity and offering all sorts of learning opportunities online, our lessons in multimedia hi def content that can be looked at whenever if those students at home do not have the bandwidth to be able to view it that way.

I heard the previous witness being asked if 25 down and five megabits per second up was the type of bandwidth we can look at being suitable for a household. I appreciate the diplomacy in his answer. I want to go on record and say it is not adequate, not good enough. It simply does not scale. We do know right now what we are going to need in the future. If you have to accept some type of limitation of those numbers then what you are saying is you cannot have the type of communication that you would if there was not a limit, if it was much greater. You would be saying that in a household of two adults and three kids that only one of them can go online and have a video conference at one time, not all of them. That is the type of thing that I think is unacceptable and that we should be working to overcome. That means spending the money to do so but I think it is justified and warranted.

Earlier I heard you took talking about a digital divide. I think absolutely that one of the great things about Australia is we are egalitarian. This is a levelling of the playing field that should be made available to all Australians. I know there might be some 500,000-hectare properties in the middle of Australia where it is simply not financially feasible to run a fibre-optic connection. But I have read that NBN Co initially stated they could get over 95 per cent of premises connected. I think that is an overwhelming pickup or statistic. You can really get the overwhelming majority of Australia. You will do so much to remove current limitations to socio-economically disadvantaged areas if you have this type of thing available. To me it is the equivalent of literacy in the 1800s. This is a form of digital literacy. It was not acceptable in the 1800s to sit back and say we were not going to allow the socio economically disadvantaged classes to persist in that area nor that we were not going to teach them or make books available. We should be doing exactly the same thing with technology through the NBN because a broadband network that is low latency and high speed is how you would do it. It is about communication and about delivering that; it is not just about the gadget in your hand but about being connected.

Senator O'NEILL: Dr Swikowski said in Sydney that he could not guarantee the delivery of 25 down and five up. What is your response to that?

Mr Soede : I do not even think 25 down and five up is sufficient to start with.

Senator O'NEILL: So anything less than that?

Mr Soede : It is unacceptable.

Senator CONROY: It is only a $40 billion price tag for that!

Senator O'NEILL: I think they call it buying a lemon, don't they?

Senator CONROY: Stop trying to lead the witnesses!

Senator O'NEILL: Sorry!

Mr Soede : I am only a humble IT infrastructure manager in a school. But, from where I sit, the type of money we are talking about—and my understanding is that it is around two per cent of the revenue that goes to the Australian government—over six, eight or 10 years is incredibly justified for the returned that you get. I know that you have to balance it up with our expenditure on defence, health care and education more broadly, but this project has a 100-year significance, not a five- or 10-year significance. It is far more significant than an improvement in our national road infrastructure. I have heard people refer to it as 'the railroad of the 21st century'. I think it is far more significant than that. If you do it properly, with fibre to the premise, then I think you are going to get a 50- to 100-year lifespan out of this product. You can go around and upgrade the switches at either end as the technology improves and get more and more bandwidth. Once you have got a gigabit or 10 gigabits, I think that is plenty for your average household to handle. Certainly for a school or a hospital that does a lot of high resolution digital imaging, you would need more than that. But let us get what we have currently in place and a massive improvement that would benefit us.

CHAIR: Can you tell the committee a little more about the organisation Managers of IT in Education?

Mr Soede : MITE is basically a peer collection of managers of IT in schools, predominantly. I think we do have a few contributors from universities, but it is predominantly schools. And it is predominantly private schools because most public schools do not seem to have the type of IT infrastructure environment that needs an IT manager, nor the budget for one. We do have some contributions from public sector IT people but the majority is from the private schools. We get together online and collaborate daily but we also meet regularly. We have in person meetings once a term and video conferences more regularly than that. Once a year we get together physically in the same place and discuss these types of issues—how we are going to improve education through technology. I can assure you that the NBN is one of the most important topics for us; we discuss it a lot.

CHAIR: Is it fair to say that MITE believes the NBN is the right answer? Are your comments today reflective of that organisation?

Mr Soede : I do not have an official capacity with MITE. Their committee has a president, a chairman and a secretary. I can certainly say that I speak on behalf of them. I would say we are unanimous in the belief that the NBN would provide an enormous benefit to schools and give us a massive return on investment, and we are all extremely keen for that to happen.

Senator CONROY: Do you mind if the committee plagiarises every single word you have just said? I know I intend to!

CHAIR: It will not be plagiarising; it will be using the evidence.

Senator CONROY: Mr Soede, I personally seek your permission to plagiarise every word you have said!

Mr Soede : I am happy for you to repeat it.

CHAIR: Mr Soede, thank you very much for your presentation today. It was of the highest quality.