Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
ENVIRONMENT AND COMMUNICATIONS LEGISLATION COMMITTEE
04/03/2011
National Broadband Network Companies Bill 2011; Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (National Broadband Network Measures—Access Arrangements) Bill 2011

CHAIR —I welcome the Group of Eight, Digital Futures Group, thank you for taking the time to come and talk to us today. Do you wish to make a brief opening statement before we go to questions?

Prof. Stanton —Yes. I brought along a printed version of our statement for tabling. If it works this way, we will just speak to this document and they are available to you to have a deeper look at.

CHAIR —That is very helpful. We will table that document.

Prof. Stanton —Can I begin by thanking the committee for inviting the Go8 to present to you. The Go8 universities have a critical interest in an NBN style fabric, mainly from the perspective of the research and innovation agendas of the Go8. Because of that, we would like to present on how important it is to us, without really understanding deeply how the bills you are looking into play out in some aspects of it. So our presentation is about the research and innovation enabled by the bills you are considering.

Over past decades broadband has driven enduring change in our academic methods and the vision we have is of even greater change to come in the future. Because of that, we remain energetic creators and adopters of these technologies and services. So the decision that has led to NBN—which is, in summary from our perspective, to provide homes and workplaces with ready access to affordable broadband services—is greatly welcomed by the group.

The NBN will broaden and strengthen our research and education capabilities. More generally we also welcome the attention being paid to opportunities to address cultural and social equity issues promised by the NBN. They play out in our university interests in ways you would be familiar with.

Throughout the world, research communities enjoy broadband connectivity through coupled national research and education networks—they are called NRENs; no doubt you have come across them and that jargon. NRENs are very important to us internationally. We have created a global archipelago of universities, institutes and facilities where we live and support our collaboration through broadband services.

These archipelagos are often platforms upon which innovative applications of broadband are first proven. Increasingly, that archipelago like structure is also linked to research related sites such as hospitals, archives, sensor networks and the like, though typically, and often frustratingly, special arrangements have to be put in place for those extensions. We see the NBN as facilitating such extensions and enabling in the process a wide range of research and innovation. As we see it, the extensions to workplaces will facilitate collaborations with industry, commerce and governments. Extensions into homes will enable R&D into a range of online services, the delivery of health services being a very good example. That observation—that health services are a good example—has led to my two colleagues coming along today to talk briefly about the work they are doing.

On the home front, symmetric broadband communications also will do much to overcome time and location difficulties associated with participation in distributed research teams, especially international teams. As you would know, research, particularly in science and technologies, is increasingly international and increasingly team based. There is a smart infrastructure perspective that we are interested in that also offers a general view for us on the value to research and innovation of an NBN-style fabric. Linking home environments with the national information infrastructure, for example, allows us to deploy sensor networks which can be used for monitoring wanted and unwanted states in ways that allow them to support both management objectives and our research aspirations.

To assist the committee with more concrete examples and with a focus on health services, I will ask my two colleagues to speak very briefly about their programs and then we will leave it open for questions.

Prof. Glasgow —There are some specific examples in the document that has been tabled, but I will not just speak directly to those; I will speak to the overarching concept around those, if I may. The Group of Eight medical deans believe strongly that the international trend towards academic health science centres and academic health science systems is really important to achieving a common mission: better health outcomes for patients and the populations that are served by these structures.

Essentially, an academic health science system is one that brings the three functions of clinical service delivery, education and training, and research together in an integrated way and brings those different areas of expertise to bear on the problem of health. We need to deliver quality health services today. That is why we have doctors, nurses, allied health professionals and all the supports that go into it. We need to train a workforce for tomorrow. That is why we have education and training. And we need to constantly ask the question: can we do it better. That is where research and innovation comes in. It is clear that, if you bring these three functions together, that is how you develop a self-improving and sustainable health system.

So the Group of Eight are very keen to see the National Broadband Network as a critical piece of infrastructure that underpins such systems—an infrastructure that does not just allow a health system to concentrate, say, on a high-end tertiary hospital but actually makes connections between hospital services and primary healthcare services in outer metropolitan, regional and rural Australia. So the broadband network becomes this vital infrastructure to allow those three functions of clinical service delivery, education and training, and research to be built.

I will give you just one example from each of those three things. First I will give you an example of clinical service delivery being enhanced. If we think about greater access and equity to health care, high-speed broadband network provides the capacity for distant doctors or patients—or midwives for that matter—to have real-time interactions with specialist colleagues in an urban setting if they need it. The consequence of that is an enhanced capacity to keep people in their own communities while delivering the care they need. High-speed broadband allows for observations to be made through high-fidelity images in real time. That means you can not only hear what a patient says or see what a record looks like but you can actually see the patients themselves. That helps you make judgments about what is going on. That is a clinical example.

Next I will give you an educational example. Say a rural doctor or health professional sends a patient in for care at their regional hospital. Very often they do not know what happens next, because discharge summaries are late in coming. Broadband connectivity allows clinicians, wherever they are, to engage in things like grand rounds—when patients of interest are discussed in teaching hospitals, people who are not physically in that building can connect in real time and participate in the questions and answers. You get continuing professional development and education as part of what is built in. So the workforce is being sustained, feels connected, feels less isolated and continues to operate in those rural and regional settings.

Finally, an example of the research potential. There is research that you would now be able to conduct because you have the connectivity of a whole region or population through high-speed broadband. You can gather meaningful epidemiological and sentinel data across that platform. Importantly, you can also start researching the applications that can be deployed on that infrastructure. You can do research about high-fidelity applications that might sit in a patient’s home or in a general practice remotely—what difference they make. You could then make discriminatory choices about which ones should go forward for further development and which ones should stop because it is demonstrated they are not achieving much in the way of improved outcomes. So there is a new area of research activity that critically asks the question: ‘What kinds of applications actually add value to achieving health outcomes?’—but you do that in a robust and scientific way across that academic health science system infrastructure.

Prof. Griffiths —I think there is another aspect, too, that people sometimes forget and that is the issue of self-care and prevention. Broadband internet is an ideal opportunity to provide services of both types. If I said to you, ‘Imagine you are a 25-year-old male in a rural area and you have depression—what do you do?’ Going to your doctor is probably not the first thing you do and, if you did go to your doctor, it is likely that the doctor might offer you antidepressants, but you probably would not want them. It is unlikely that the doctor would be able to send you to a therapist who can provide evidence based mental health care that is not antidepressant related.

With broadband internet you can provide automated therapy programs—no person involved—that work. In other words, that 25-year-old man can go online, type in—in our case, we have produced various programs—‘mood gym’ and do a program that will reduce their depressive symptoms, decrease their level of stigma and increase their knowledge of mental health. That is a really powerful use of the internet. The other powerful use is prevention. We have shown that if you give that sort of a program to adolescents in schools then, for every 14 kids you give it to, you can prevent one new case of depression in the future over a six-month period. That is very powerful, too. But you need to have a system that is responsive, reliable and so forth—a system that fosters interactivity. Those are two very important things.

Another thing, which Nick raised, is that you can do research. We have done many large numbers of trials looking at these sorts of programs and how they work using gold standard methods. Unlike face-to-face research, you can actually do it with thousands of people. It can take years to get thousands of people in a normal randomised control trial. We can do online automated randomised control trials with people in their houses in a few months. I think that is another very important aspect of this sort of technology.

CHAIR —Thanks very much, Professor. There is such a wide range of issues that you have raised, and we thank you for that. I will move to some of these issues on a point-by-point basis. You talk about the global archipelago—and I must say that sounds fascinating—but we need a national archipelago as well. I am wondering about this, given that the Group of Eight are probably the best resourced and the wealthiest universities in the country. I have an interest in the University of New England and in the University of Western Sydney. How do they fit into the global archipelago and then the international archipelago? I am not sure if you can answer that question. Perhaps we need to ask them, although I am sure you would have an idea.

Prof. Stanton —I might be able to. At that level—the level of interconnectivity and broadband services—my comments about Go8 universities can be made about the university system as a whole. As a group of universities we formed a buying club in the nineties. That was to get some basic connectivity services underway. Over time that organisation evolved into a company called AARNet, which you know about. AARNet has every university as its client base. Through public policy settings and through contributions from universities, the resources have been put in place to ensure that every university has comparable connectivity and a comparable participation in the one fabric of broadband. So we have got a national archipelago that all universities and researchers, to a first proximation, live within, whether it is James Cook or even Charles Darwin now—we had some difficulties there for a while, as we did with Tasmania in getting across Bass Strait. It is now fair to say that the structure is ubiquitous across universities. It is archipelago like in the sense that, although academics and researchers live in that space, increasingly, as they build and want to build collaborative arrangements—with hospitals and other places and with other sites; archives and the like—arrangements have to be put in place to go from the AARNet national base through other service providers to try to create something that has uniformity and consistency and is seamless and so on. The expectation, the hope or the vision is that an NBN-style fabric for this country will enable those kinds of much broader collaborative research and innovation opportunities. We have focused a bit on health here. We thought it would help to focus on one particular area to see the way in which research, innovation and service delivery coexist or can be brought together in a fabric of that kind. It is very important not just for the Go8 but for the innovation network universities; to all universities it is very important. So I do not think of myself as speaking just for the Go8. The Go8 was invited here but I think you will find that the things I am talking about are true of all universities.

CHAIR —That is a good explanation. I have heard on a number of occasions that universities do not need broadband because they have their own services; universities have high-speed internet. Is this the counterargument for that—that you need NBN to get not an archipelago-like approach but a proper archipelago approach?

Prof. Stanton —Absolutely. The archipelago is a constraint; it does not let us respond to some of the things we need to do that are community based. Urban environments of the future can sometimes be talked about in terms of these network fabrics as being able to instrument and monitor what is going on, transport, energy, fresh water and so on—a stocks-and-flows kind of view. I come from the ANU, and a particular ANU perspective on that is a social sciences perspective, where how people behave, where they are and what they are enabled to do is part of a communications fabric. That is just as important. You need a communications fabric. We heard from Kathy and Nick about the importance of information being available. That is one dimension. The other dimension is the interactivity from direct engagement with behaviours.

Senator FISHER —On the point about the sufficiency of what universities already have, I would like to put to you a couple of points from a recent report on iTWire, because I am sure you have a view and I would like to hear it. On 5 August iTWire reported:

Universities for example are linked by AARNet—

Australia’s Academic and Research Network—

which already delivers broadband speeds considerably faster than those promised by the NBN.

Is that factual, in your view?

Prof. Stanton —Can I respond to that question by referring to quite special applications and needs. The astronomers, for example, are at Siding Spring and at Stromlo. So we—not AARNet but the university in this case—built fibre networks there. You then gather together the requirements for that part of the infrastructure to interoperate with Hawaii or Chile, and the NRENs do deals to help us link that through. Connections into the ANU are currently 10 gigabits. Why is that? It is an aggregation of all kinds of needs. It is true that AARNet provides the universities with services that we cannot otherwise readily get and speeds that will sound very, very impressive compared with—

Senator FISHER —Ten gigs is 10 times the NBN speed—that is right, isn’t it?

Prof. Stanton —Yes, and there is 40 gigs in prospect, and there is optical, but they are for special aggregated advanced research needs. I am not sure I am answering your question very well.

Senator FISHER —You are getting there—keep going. What do you mean by specialised needs. Could you expand, please.

Prof. Stanton —There is such an intensity of needs that, when you add them all, you get a big number. If you have 100, each of which can justify and use a gigabit, you are looking for 100 gigabits. That is an aggregated notion. It is not attached to a particular class of applications. It is the sum of lots of applications.

Senator FISHER —The 10 gigs?

Prof. Stanton —The 10 gigabit. When you have that capacity you can move, for example, a major data set that might be couple of terabytes. I am just making this up but I can give you some real examples. Let us say you wanted to move the IPCC database from the US. You can move large amounts of data very quickly. The wall clock time can be reduced if you have much broader bandwidths. To go back to what I heard in your question—that is, ‘We do not need the NBN because we have got something else’—

Senator FISHER —Because you have already got something considerably faster. You have said if it is 10 gigabits then it is 10 times faster.

Prof. Stanton —That 10 times faster is between this site and that site, and not out in the community more generally or not out where we can build collaborative ventures with industry, and with the education and health systems.

Senator FISHER —You still have gaps, do you?

Prof. Stanton —We do not have the capability of connecting, for example, all of the hospital and medical facilities back into that strong structure that we have built. I called it an archipelago, but that was just a metaphor to try to give a sense—

CHAIR —A good metaphor.

Prof. Stanton —We can sometimes bring bits of the world onto that archipelago and experiment with it. But the NBN offers us what we want—we want to stretch out and be able to form these more broadly based teams and collaborations. We cannot do that just because we happen to have a 10 gigabit connection between Sydney and Canberra.

Senator FISHER —Mr Sherlock, the CIO of the University of South Australia, was quoted as saying that:

… the research and education sector is, in terms of telecommunications, very much in advance of what business has and needs.

I presume that you would not add to what you have already said, other than to say, ‘It may well be, but we still need the NBN.’

Prof. Stanton —We need the NBN to stretch out to places that we are not now connected to at a broadband level. The fabric that moves away from the spine, as it were, out into community institutions and so on is what the NBN promises. Going out into workplaces and further out into homes has advantages. I think I made a couple of notes there about how we would value those.

Senator FISHER —I will look at it another way. Ten gigabits, for example, may well be so but it is a red herring or distraction to the extent to which you would argue universities would benefit from the NBN?

Prof. Stanton —The benefit from the NBN is additive.

Senator WORTLEY —Given that high-speed broadband is of benefit for hospitals and clinics, extending it to homes and into the community will have obvious benefits. Professor Griffiths, you spoke about one in relation to mental health and depression with the MoodGYM. What would be the benefits for in-home health monitoring?

Prof. Glasgow —I think there are existing applications for hospitals and homes which tend to be around monitoring doses of drugs like chemotherapeutic agents that might be used in hospital settings. But I think the infrastructure provides a platform where new applications can be thought about. I could illustrate with an example from palliative care. We know that Australia has got an ageing demographic. We quite rightly imagine the needs for palliative care services are going to increase substantially over the next few years. Like many areas in health, the workforce and facilities needed to provide those services in the traditional way that we have provided them are going to be under great stress.

In the home environment, a high speed application can allow a palliative care physician remote from the community where the person is being cared for at home to support the family and perhaps the local nurse or doctor in those difficult times of terminal illness. It might be the family’s first experience of someone actually dying, and for the doctor it might be one every year or something like that. A remote doctor actually having the capacity with high fidelity and real time to get a sense of what is happening, see the patient, hear the family’s questions and say no, that is expected, that is normal, this is what you do, that kind of thing, could be enormously valuable to securing people being relaxed and comfortable about being managed for palliative care needs at home. You could imagine applications like that being portable—they would be deployed for a purpose, for a period of time, and then maybe relocated to a different person who needs them.

That is just an illustration. One of the problems we have is that clinicians across the board are so busy doing what they have always done that they do not have time to think about doing things differently. The NBN platform provides us with the opportunity to think differently about lots of things that we have done in one way—how might we do it differently—and if we bring the research element into that we do not just think about it and do it but we actually ask critical questions about whether what we are doing works, and if it does not work or it is not worth it, stop it and do something else.

Senator WORTLEY —In relation to the specific example you just gave, would that enable people to stay at home rather than move out of their community and travel long distances to hospitals or be in high dependency aged care and those sorts of things?

Prof. Glasgow —Exactly. Residential aged care would be another example of where you might do that. It is exactly that sort of thing.

CHAIR —We could have spent much longer on this but we have gone over time. It was fascinating to see the benefits that NBN will bring. If there are any written submissions you would like to put in, in addition to what you have told us today, that maybe helpful. I thank you for your time here, and I understand you have also attended the committee in the other place—probably not as exciting as here. We thank you for your efforts in appearing before two committees in one day.

I also indicate for the record that Mr Geoff Dawson, the Principal Research Officer for this committee and a person who has spent 20 years assisting the Senate committee structure, is moving on within government. He will be a great loss to Senate committees. I think he will be finished up before we meet again, so I place on record the committee’s appreciation for the exemplary and professional work Mr Dawson has done for Senate committees over many years. We will miss him; if he wants to come back he can come back any time. He has been a great help to me as chair of this committee and also to Senator Fisher in her role as chair of the references committee. I place on record our utmost appreciation of the work he has done and we wish him well in his future endeavours within government. He is going to PMC—maybe that is a demotion but I am sure it is not.

This concludes today’s proceedings. I thank all witnesses for their informative presentations. Thanks to Hansard, Broadcasting and the secretariat for the work they have done.

Committee adjourned at 4.04 pm