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Joint Standing Committee on the National Broadband Network
Rollout of the National Broadband Network

NICHOLLS, Mr Paul, Director, Strategic Projects, Curtin University

WYATT, Mr Jim, Strategic Project Officer, Curtin University


ACTING CHAIR: I now welcome Mr Paul Nicholls and Mr Jim Wyatt from the Office of Research and Development at Curtin University. Information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you. Thank you for coming along today. I apologise for the slight delay. I invite you each to make a brief opening statement, and we'll then move to questions from the committee.

Mr Nicholls : Thank you very much for the opportunity to present to the committee. I have an opening statement. I'll be about five minutes, and then I'll hand to my colleague, who may have some additional remarks. Jim's key role is working within Innovation Central Perth, which is a partnership between Curtin University, Woodside Energy and Cisco, established to help organisations to respond to increasing digital disruption across all sectors. It's a $35 million partnership over five years between those three organisations.

In today's submission, we'd like to focus on the importance that digitisation and access to high-speed broadband will have in providing access to improved global and local products and services and the role that universities can play in ensuring the rollout opportunities and challenges are well understood and independently assessed. We're living in a digitally disrupted world where business models are changing. There's increasing access to new products and services as never before, and the rate of change is accelerating. We've heard some of that today, no doubt.

On our own doorsteps, the Australian and WA governments have invested in a project that is not only stretching the understanding of what is possible but also pushing the capability of existing technologies. The Square Kilometre Array, or SKA, is one of the world's largest 'internet of things' projects, a range of sensors, high-speed networks, supercomputing and smart people that are now sifting through petabytes of data to find out things like the origin of the universe and what is the role of dark matter in space.

Although these things are fascinating for astronomers, industry can see the analogies to real-world problems—remote operations, automation, digitisation, data analytics and cybersecurity. Already we've established a 100-gigabit-per-second link between Boolardy and Curtin University to test end technologies. We heard earlier on 100-gigabits per month; we're talking about per-second fibre networks running 700 kilometres at the moment. These are potentially the future technologies that will sit on the ends of NBN.

In the past 18 months the Cisco Innovation Centre at Curtin has met 175 companies and government agencies, all who either have a data science problem or an opportunity as a result of increased digitisation while, alternatively, have a new technology or data science solution. So the university, alongside Cisco and Woodside, is providing a sandbox for companies and government agencies to try and build new solutions in a fast and low-cost environment that is critical with this increase in pace of change. This is changing the way that universities are supporting industry and government.

Not only is the university providing an opportunity for companies and government agencies to better understand digitisation; it is also being disrupted itself—with 116 acres of assets, the university is doing its own proof-of-concept work to identify new solutions to parking, security, identity, control and facility management. The more we can reduce our costs in optimising the use of our facilities, the more we can focus on the real business of universities, creating new knowledge and the training of the future workforce—one that will have many more working options and will work in multiple jobs quite often in parallel in multiple locations in multiple businesses across the world.

However, the operation of universities is also changing. With increasing access to high-quality broadband technologies, students from around the world are able to access our content and participate in collaborative learning environments from the comfort of their own homes. But this also means Australian students can access content from all around the world as well.

The future of universities in this context is changing with the delivery of massive online open courses—otherwise known as MOOCs—that enable people to build knowledge without paying cent for their education, even picking the best parts of courses from multiple institutions around the world to build their expertise. But what credentials or degrees will such a student of the future have? Will an employer be looking for a degree from Harvard or a degree from Curtin; or would they be looking at a degree that's made up of courses from 20 different universities? This is the sort of question that universities are tackling as they map out the future of their own businesses as a result of digital disruption.

But back to the SKA: this massive project is currently looking to develop new technologies that will increase the volume of data that can be pushed across networks. Such developments may become the future technologies of the NBN, making high-quality data and bandwidth scalable. This will make access to technologies such as 3D printing in the home, global businesses and virtual-reality tourism a reality. Imagine being able to print 3D body parts or 3D pieces for equipment that you might be operating a business by downloading these large files from the cloud servers.

So how can universities help in understanding and supporting the uptake of NBN? A recent funding initiative, the Smart Cities and Suburbs Program out of the Department of the Premier and Cabinet provided an opportunity for local governments to submit applications that will drive innovation and adoption of solutions. Although universities could participate, there would seem to be an opportunity to encourage greater engagement by universities who not only have the assets to use as test beds for local government but also the smarts to drive true innovation, using emerging technology trends. Curtin is involved in two such projects: one a trial of a driverless bus on the Curtin University campus; and the second is the trialling of a solar battery storage housing development where tenants can share electricity and trade electricity, using blockchain technologies.

Similarly, universities can also provide a rich testing ground for the multitude of new solutions that are being developed by companies to provide communities and individuals improved access to new-edge technologies such as low-power radio and LTE, where 4G network access is not commercially viable. Such technologies will have an important role in the future of agriculture, mining, home health solutions and remote community access.

Curtin University would therefore encourage the Australian government to increase the level of support for programs that build partnerships between industry, government and universities to realise the true value of the NBN. Thank you.

Mr Wyatt : I would just like to reinforce Paul's comment with respect to the place of universities in relationship to the NBN. One of those projects that Paul referred to, the SKA—what we see there is that the ability to move the data from basically the middle of nowhere in Western Australia at the Murchison radio observatory down here to Perth for researchers to study is tantamount to the similar sorts of issues that you've heard about probably around all sorts of remote and regional communities. But there's another important point that needs to be made there—that is, the level of data that we have to move means that we have to actually create technology that doesn't exist today. The creation of the technology is largely being driven by people who reside within our universities. Many of the other problems that we see facing a project like the NBN are looked at and understood and worked on by people across our university sector. Yet, there is very little in the way of actual indication or evidence that there has been a strong link between the university and research sector and this project, and that is something that we would like to encourage much more into the future.

ACTING CHAIR: I'm fascinated to hear what you have said about the SKA, and to hear of a fibre connection that is delivering 100 gig per second is remarkable. There are people now who have fibre to the premises who talk about one gig per second and they regard themselves as having the highest, gold-plated standard of broadband connection. So to think that you would get something 100 times as fast is really remarkable. It goes to the issue that you mentioned about the importance of ultrafast internet across all aspects of society and the fact that the rate of change is accelerating. So it goes to that issue of what will high-speed mean and what is a fit-for-purpose, adequate broadband infrastructure network Australia wide? I'm sorry to hear from Mr Wyatt that perhaps there hasn't been enough interaction between universities or from universities with NBN Co or government on that issue. Could you say something about the network, as it's planned, in terms of it being fit for purpose, particularly with the kind of technology like fibre to the node which seem to have fairly firm upper speed limit caps.

Mr Wyatt : We'll go back to the SKA project. Paul mentioned the 100 gigabits per second link and we're very proud of that, yet it's important to note that the top speed of modern data switches is around the 400 to 600 gigabit per second. So the capacity to get to that sort of speed is possible. But what will be needed to make a fully functioning SKA work is terabits per second. So we now need a jump in technology. This is part of what the environment of universities and research organisations bring to the table with respect to pushing that forward.

To answer your question, it's not a matter of what a household needs today and what a household needs tomorrow; it's really a matter of saying, 'How can we best ensure that the network infrastructure advances as far as possible.' If you put very large switches into your back wall area of your network, you can move a lot more bandwidth or a lot more capacity across a distributed group of connections. That is where a project like the SKA will very significantly add value to a project like the NBN. In achieving the ability to move the data from the Murchison down here to Perth at the rates that will be needed based on the collection of that data, the technology that will effectively revolutionise the way that the NBN works right across the country and will open up a lot more capacity and take away a lot of restrictions.

ACTING CHAIR: That is a fantastic prospect and I understand of course that the terabit per second needs of very high-end scientific operations like the SKA can't be compared to the needs of households or even small businesses. But it seems to me that the key to that is a fibre network. In the case of the connection between Curtin and the SKA, it's based on fibre. We have had a shift in the multitechnology mix and we're not going to see fibre being the large part of the network; it's really going to be a small part of the network. Do you think there is a risk that, rather than them doing it once and doing it right, as a number of people have said to this committee, we are going to get through the second half of this rollout, get to 2020, and find that the network, which will only be in small part a fibre network, isn't actually going to deal with that accelerating rate of change?

Mr Nicholls : The cost of building a 100-gigabit link between Perth and Boolardy is very expensive. We cannot realistically expect the Australian government to fund that level of infrastructure right now to every household and business in Australia. It would be cost prohibitive. But what we can do is commit our country to putting in place programs that will support the ongoing evaluation and development of new technologies and, when they are affordable, we can start delivering those types of services in the future.

One of the things that I want to acknowledge is the bipartisan support of the investment in the SKA not just because of the value of radio astronomy but because it is going drive these new technologies. Wi-fi is the classic example of radio astronomers creating a new technology to solve a communications problem. I think creating those types of soft infrastructure for research and development between industry and government will enable those new technologies to be developed in the future. Although the demand will drive where we end up with solutions, we have got to have those support mechanisms in place to enable that.

ACTING CHAIR: In addition to the specialist work, which is very high-end work on projects like the SKA, does Curtin take a broader view of the way that the NBN will work across the community and, in a way, assess Australia's capacity to make use of it in terms of its economic activity and social and digital inclusion, which we have heard of before? One of the things that we are trying to do in this committee is obviously provide a report that will give some guidance as to the way forward. We have heard that, since 2015, Australia has dropped from 47th to 50th in the world. We had some representatives from Chorus in New Zealand talk about the fact that it is a fibre-to-the-premises network across that country, where 90 per cent of the newly activated services are 100 megabits-per-second services and 70 per cent of the newly activated premises are taking unlimited data plans. Does Curtin have a view, even if it just looks at the local Western Australian context, of how we are going to be positioned as a community—households and businesses—in three years time when this rollout is complete?

Mr Nicholls : There are a number of research groups within the institution and there is also access to education services. With the education services, we talked about the online courses. Open Universities Australia is a consortia that delivers courses digitally. We are constantly re-evaluating the delivery and quality of those courses. The national standards require that the quality of those services meet the quality of those that are provided face-to-face. The other thing is that we have a couple of research institutes. One is the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, which is federally funded out of the Department of Education, and a number of the research programs there are looking at access. The previous speaker, Mr Featherstone, was talking about what is 'inclusivity'. That access—financial, educational and technological—is critically important in those programs. Jim, is there anything you want to add?

Mr Wyatt : What I would say to your question is that in 20 years of broadband we have had a number of technologies that have been described in that fashion, and a number of those technologies have had limitations and impediments to the concept of always wanting to push the technology further and further. The role of an organisation like Curtin and other universities is to explore all the possibilities. So it is difficult to say from Curtin's perspective: do we think that every property should have fibre; should it have fibre to the node?

What we can say is that, when faced with economic, infrastructure, engineering type limitations, an organisation like Curtin and other organisations with a research capability—rather than from a point of view of whether we are putting in the right infrastructure or denying ourselves the right infrastructure—can look at how we address those issues, for whatever the reasons are that those choices have been made around the engineering. How do we make fibre to the node do more than what fibre to the node can do? How do we make wireless do more than what wireless can do? How do we address those questions around digital inclusion? How do we look to the concept of digital literacy and digital awareness and so bring more value out of what is going on rather than necessarily just look at whether or not we think fibre would be the best way? Anybody would tell you that if we can build the best possible technology and afford the best possible technology, that is the way to go, but sometimes you cannot always achieve that outcome. But there are many ways that you can mitigate the impacts of that.

Mr Nicholls : I would briefly add that there are approximately 40 universities across Australia. We have CSIRO and we have Data61. These organisations build up relationships with local communities and have expertise. For Western Australia, the problems that we might be facing in our regional and remote communities might be totally different to those found in the north of Queensland. So there is this opportunity to engage universities across Australia in helping to maximise the benefits of the investment in the NBN.

Mr BRIAN MITCHELL: I want to come back to the deputy chair's question about the upgrading. You mentioned 100 gigabits. Would it not be fair to say that we are more likely to get to 100 gigabits with fibre-to-the-premises connections more widespread than with fibre to the node? To what extent would it cost less to upgrade from a fibre-to-the-premises connection in place to get to 100 gigabits rather than having fibre to the node and then having to redo it? What is your opinion there?

Mr Nicholls : I will let Jim answer that question.

Mr Wyatt : From an engineering point of view, the single biggest limitation on the NBN is not necessarily what we call the edge or the last mile, where we are debating about fibre to the premises versus fibre to the node. The single biggest limitation is on what we call the core network or the backhaul network. So, when you aggregate 100 or 1,000 people to a node—that is bringing them all together to that point and then putting them on one piece of infrastructure to go back into the network—it is the capacity of that piece of infrastructure that can largely be the problem, that can largely result in the issues. Your previous representative talked about spot beams in regard to satellite. It is not actually the endpoint that is the problem. When you aggregate all those people up in a single spot beam, what is the capacity of that spot beam?

Mr BRIAN MITCHELL: Are you suggesting that if there were essentially more fibre in the node, and going back to whatever those points are called, it would speed things up considerably? My understanding is that you can only get so much speed on a copper network. It is a one-lane road, and no matter how much of it you have got you can only get one car on there, one bit of data on there. That, to me, would seem to be significant.

Mr Wyatt : That is correct, but, as I said earlier, over 20 years broadband has had limitations. This limitation I am talking about already exists today with our ADSL technology.

Mr BRIAN MITCHELL: Is it fair to say that we are building in limitation rather than expanding opportunity with the current rollout?

Mr Wyatt : Certain technologies at the edge will certainly allow you to get greater capacity, but what I am trying to say is that, if you do not extend that capacity all the way through the whole network, that capacity lasts until you get to your point of interconnect, and if the applications and the services that you are trying to deliver do not plug into the point of interconnect then the speed from the home or the business to the point of interconnect is largely immaterial, because if it is limited or throttled, as we say, or contended from the point of interconnect onwards, then that becomes the limiting factor, not the actual speed.

Mr BRIAN MITCHELL: Do you have no opinion as to whether fibre to the premises is a superior technological rollout to fibre to the node, and if you accept that it is superior technologically how convinced are you by arguments that it is unaffordable?

Mr Wyatt : Certainly it's the superior technology. I won't deny that whatsoever. The question of affordability is a really good question that could be put to someone at a university to have some—

Mr BRIAN MITCHELL: Have you done work on it yourselves?

Mr Wyatt : No, but we've never been asked. There's a lot of debate around it, but there's very little evidence to say that proper economic rationale has been applied.

Mr BRIAN MITCHELL: A lot of evidence suggests that the fibre-to-the-premises rollout would have been, on the whole, more affordable over the medium to long run.

Senator O'NEILL: What research question do you need us to ask you to provide as with the best information we need to go forward? Have you given any thought to the sort of research that you need to do, particularly in terms of equity?

Mr Wyatt : We would stand to look at the questions that society asks about this project and bring together capability to be able to directly address them. I'm not trying to obfuscate your question, but it could just be as easy as: is fibre to the node affordable within a set of contexts? It just as easily could be a question of: is fibre to the premise not that far from a reality? All these questions can bring value and insight.

Mr Nicholls : I would prefer to flip the question to the demand. What are the potential services that we might require in a regional and remote community or what does the future of health services look like? What does the future of robotics look like? What is the future of 3-D printing? Then we need to work our way back from those types of services that could be delivered, the what-ifs and what is possible, and look at what would be needed and what the road map looks like to get us to that point. At the moment, there are countries around the world that have, because of their geographical circumstances, very high-speed broadband services. When you look at those countries and the types of products and services that are available in health and education, for instance, and even in industry, you can start seeing what that—

Senator O'NEILL: Global reach for their markets, innovation capacity and all those things.

Mr Wyatt : Correct, particularly in some of the European countries where we see amazing innovation happening in manufacturing and health care delivery because they have a service to the node, but it's affordable within a geographical country that is built in that way.

ACTING CHAIR: Could I pick up on that? Senator O'Neill raised a good question. As a university, you can take stock of certain things. Your university has certain broadband capacity at physical locations. Your staff rely on that in their workplace and also in their homes, and your student body relies on that. Then you explore the other high-end technical things, like the partnership with the SKA. Surely a university in the 21st century can take stock of its relative position as a university in Australia versus universities elsewhere, and that is partly what you have just spoken about. The interesting thing is that you talk about the geographical circumstance and the reality is that 90 per cent of the Australian population and all of the big universities exist in cities. We are a big continent, but, geographically, as far as the infrastructure is concerned, there is no particular difference between Perth and Copenhagen. They're both cities. We probably have a bigger footprint in Perth. Are we selling ourselves a bit short if we keep accepting that we're the 12th largest economy in the world and we've got the 50th best or worst broadband, depending on how you want to look at it? Is there really any reason for that to be the case? If we don't do something meaningful about it across the board, does it mean that universities like Curtin aren't able to help Australia and Australians participate fully the 21st century? We're almost one-fifth of the way into it.

Mr Nicholls : You're right that there is very good quality access to broadband technologies, potentially for the majority of our population. We work very closely with our communities and the local governments to explore what those opportunities are. We've opened up our own campus for local governments to trial new technologies to understand how they might benefit their local communities. I think that is true. I am not sure that we are solving some of the problems or envisaging what some of the futures might look like in our regional and remote communities.

Senator O'NEILL: One of the concerns that continues to be raised is that, rather than bridging the digital divide—which was one of the outset goals of the NBN project—we have in fact seen the delivery of a mishmash of technologies and a failure, in the last kilometre in particular, that has now established increasing digital inequality across the country. Do you have a view about that, given what you heard Mr Featherstone say about people not being able to even engage with the government on the most basic level to advise—

Mr Nicholls : I wouldn't say we are increasing the digital divide; I would say that the digital divide is being highlighted. I think the opportunity is there for us to still reduce that, and I think universities have a role to play in trying to solve some of those problems and in understanding what that divide is now and what it might look like in the future.

Mr BRIAN MITCHELL: You don't believe we are increasing the digital divide, only highlighting an existing problem. The original intention of the NBN was to deliver to 93 per cent of households fibre to the premises with fixed wireless, with only a small percentage on satellite. But now we are hearing evidence that more and more communities are getting satellite and we are hearing evidence that people can't even access myGov and my health—basic government infrastructure. City based universities and businesses—those who can afford to do so—are getting the absolute best-in-the-world technology, but remote communities, and particularly Indigenous remote communities, are getting next to nothing. How can you say that is not an increasing divide, when the original intent of the NBN was to get a more equitable distribution of technology?

Mr Nicholls : I don't think there is empirical evidence of that at this point in time. I think there needs to be some analysis of that.

Mr Wyatt : Speaking on behalf of Curtin University, that is where we are looking and where we are coming from—is there sufficient evidence and is there sufficient inquiry into those sorts of questions, and has that been established?

Senator O'NEILL: I guess we are the inquiry, and we are finding it pretty well everywhere we go. Certainly that is the evidence that we are receiving. People are increasingly frustrated, even within suburbs. We were just looking at a site earlier today, regarding the proximity to the node: you can see a node across the street, but you are actually plugged into one that is 800 metres away. At the very basic level, this is building in a level of inequality within a street, let alone across a country.

Mr Nicholls : The mishmash of technologies is being borne out, particularly in regional Western Australia. We are seeing a range of providers now looking to provide services into farming communities, onto farms, to actually start drawing off the farms the data that is being collected by instruments but not going anywhere. We are seeing that as a particularly interesting space, which is particularly active at the moment, and we don't think there is any good analysis of what will work, what is not going to work and what is needed.

Mr Wyatt : Anecdotally, if you take the pastor, the nurse and the teacher out of the typical country town, the rest of the country town largely—particularly in agriculture based towns—is made of people who run businesses. There is no evidence to show that the NBN has a business or enterprise grade solution that it is delivering into regional areas. This is probably the biggest example—irrespective of what you talk about with regard to the delivery of technology—where the lack of awareness, understanding, thought and focus has taken place in looking at the market and what the market needs.

Senator O'NEILL: The market keeps telling us that they have massive data inadequacy problems, and they also have technology problems related to cloud fade et cetera with Sky Muster. They were excited momentarily by the arrival of something where there was nothing, but its unreliability is a pressing concern going forward. Are you doing any work with regard to the satellite technology and its limitations that are now manifest?

Mr Nicholls : No, not as far as I'm aware.

Senator O'NEILL: Finally, because I'm not from Western Australia—and I'd love a copy of your opening statement, Mr Nicholls—in your evidence you talked about a distance of 700 kilometres. Could you expand a little on that for me, and then I might have a couple of questions.

Mr Nicholls : Sure. At the moment, the SKA, because it's a radio telescope, needs to work somewhere where it's radio quiet—that is, there are not many radio signals being produced. It's actually been established. CSIRO has a site called Boolardy, and the Murchison radio observatory—that's about 700 kilometres north-east of Perth. It's a very quiet area. There are two pathfinder telescopes. One is called the ASKAP—Australian SKA Pathfinder—which is a project run by CSIRO, and the other is a project called the Murchison Widefield Array, which is led by Curtin on behalf of six other countries. Those two pathfinder telescopes are basically passive sensors that are collecting data. That data is then being aggregated at a correlator facility on the Murchison radio observatory and it is then being pushed down fibre that is being built from Boolardy out to Geraldton and then back down through to Perth, where it terminates in the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre, which is funded by the federal government and the University of Western Australia and CSIRO, and it is also coming directly into the Curtin premise. One of the things we're doing there is looking at how we can build software correlators that can sit on the end. Earlier on, we talked about the fibre being the important backbone, but what you put on the ends is what gives you the speed.

Senator O'NEILL: Which is why we proposed fibre, so that the technology that could renew at either end was still going to have massive capacity. But the fibre would provide, as you said, the backbone.

Mr Nicholls : Correct.

Senator O'NEILL: What was the cost of that investment, and what would be possible if you hadn't made that investment?

Mr Nicholls : I would have to take the question on notice because it's actually a mix of fibre that is provided by AARNet, which is a research network. They are swapping with—who's the fibre carrier up through to Geraldton?

Mr Wyatt : It uses the Nextgen blackspots backhaul fibre from Perth to Geraldton. Then there was fibre built from Geraldton out to Boolardy, which was a partnership between the Western Australian government and CSIRO. That was effectively leased to AARNet to provide the connectivity.

Mr Nicholls : In terms of the second part of your question—what would be possible if not—what would be possible is you'd be collecting data on discs and then sticking them in a vehicle and travelling to Perth, where they would be analysed.

Senator O'NEILL: It would be a severe capacity constraint, wouldn't it?

Mr Nicholls : Absolutely.

Senator O'NEILL: Yet that capacity constraint is what we're having documented here today from the local government association, from Mr Featherstone representing the Indigenous community, and no doubt the communities that live around the facility that you have made capable of participating in international research at an innovative edge. What connection and responsibility does the university and its partners have to the communities that are proximate to where that access is provided? What social responsibility are you undertaking to make up the ground where communities can't get what they need?

Mr Nicholls : Into Geraldton or into the Murchison?

Senator O'NEILL: I don't know the geography, so you need to answer that question the best way you can. Where's the greatest need?

Mr Wyatt : Probably the best way to answer that is, as far as Curtin University, we're part of a consortium of research organisations associated with the project. What I can tell you is that when that cable was installed, part of the engineering of that cable was that—a requirement of fibre-optic is you can only put a signal so far across it before you have to repeat that signal. Two of those repeater sites were located on pastoral leases leading into Boolardy, so both of those pastoral leases in essence have fibre to the pastoral lease. They were able to get for the first time a reasonable broadband connection. That was dropped off.

Senator O'NEILL: Are they individuals or are they communities that benefit from that?

Mr Wyatt : No, they're just individuals. As we moved back along that cable back towards Geraldton, there was one Indigenous community where capacity was provided to that Indigenous community. Then the community of Mullewa was actually provided, through a relationship with the local council, out-connectivity so that they were able to connect the Mullewa environment back to the actual Geraldton community and boost services into that particular area. Now that was the only community per se that the fibre passed through as it was coming back from Murchison.

Senator O'NEILL: So there are no other communities you could serve with the technology as it exists at the moment?

Mr Wyatt : Along that route, no—not from Mullewa through to Geraldton. Geraldton was one of the initial fibre-to-the-premise locations on the NBN so it got quite a substantial—

Mr Nicholls : Which included, I think, a tail out to the industrial park.

Mr Wyatt : Yes, a tail dropped off that fibre to the industrial park.

Senator O'NEILL: On reflection, after this, if there is any information you could provide with regard to that, that would be quite interesting. Have you had the chance to read the article in today's West Australian by Gary Adshead about the NBN failing and becoming a threat to lives and economy?

Mr Nicholls : While you were talking to the last witness, I did have a quick look at the article. I think it is very interesting. Any technology that provides communications has the risk of dropping out or changing. That is the nature of the technology so there are always going to be risks associated with telecommunications. It is the role of organisations like universities to help industry and government understand what those risks are.

Senator O'NEILL: Rather than asking for an opinion, I am going to make a comment and invite you to respond. Australians required the government to invest in technology that enabled every Australian to get a telephone line and have some security and also some equity in their capacity, regardless of where they live, to participate in the national and indeed the international economy. The state of the NBN rollout at the moment does not meet those lived experience and expectations of Australians, in my view. Australians are very uncertain and very anxious about the loss of ubiquity in equity and equitable access to the new technology to enable them to do their business, to seek education, to seek health. Your organisation is clearly future focused. Do you have any research, do you have any indications, does the university have any position with regard to addressing that social inequity that is now evident across the country?

Mr Wyatt : I would say that we do not have that. But what I could point out is that Western Australia has led Australia with respect to the recent improvement in mobile coverage across this country. The benefits and value that have derived from improvements of mobile coverage in rural and regional areas are undeniable and very self evident. From that point of view, we would look at the question of equity that has been achieved through improved mobile coverage as being a very good indicator to what obviously an equitable approach to the delivery of broadband should also achieve.

Senator O'NEILL: It may have been Mr Featherstone who spoke about next gen backhaul, terrestrial delivery and failure to use current technologies to really invest in proper backhaul. Do you have any view of that? You spoke about how important the backhaul capacity is in your evidence.

Mr Wyatt : The question of backhaul is an economic question; it is a pricing question. My experience in 20 years of working in and around telecommunications policy and strategy in Australia is that there is not a failure of infrastructure. There may be a failure of access to that infrastructure or a failure of the ability to provide equitable access to that infrastructure but there is not a failure of the infrastructure; the infrastructure exists. Western Australia is a really good example of very sophisticated operations occurring in the Pilbara, in the Kimberley, in the midwest, as we demonstrated with SKA. There is an ability to actually operate anywhere in this country with the right infrastructure. That is possible but it is a question of—

Senator O'NEILL: That is for those who have the money to invest in it. But for those who do not yet have the money but might have the business acumen if they got access to the technology, the gap remains, doesn't it?

Mr Wyatt : It is no different to the ability of organisations like Curtin, which, like other research organisations, is always looking to answer a whole raft of questions through its research. The question was asked about the fact that, of the 49 universities, the majority exist in urban areas, but a lot of the questions that we're looking to answer are about things that actually go on right across this continent. The research is often carried out in some of the most remote and rural areas, particularly things we're doing in agriculture and energy. These aren't necessarily always confined to where we are at Bentley. The exploration, the experimentation and the generation and creation of the knowledge often come from what we can actually derive and understand out on the ground, and that's where our own limitations occur when we have insufficient capacity and insufficient digital capability. So we could share that experience with any of the private sector or any of the business community, including farmers and people of that ilk.

So we are as eager as anybody to see the best possible services deployed. Where it's a project like SKA, that means we can actually put that infrastructure in ourselves. That's fantastic and, as Paul has said, that's not viable to do for every single site across the country, but that's where we know that it's not just a 'one size fits all' approach. The reason we're sharing with you those connections across that fibre is that very concept that, where somebody goes with a piece of infrastructure from one place to another, they'll always pass somebody along the way. It's a question of: have we really explored the best possible way to actually serve those people in doing that? That's something we certainly look to with our own infrastructure, and that's something that AARNet is doing now in exploring its ability to leverage its infrastructure for other purposes as well.

Senator O'NEILL: On notice, could I ask you to provide us with information about students who are commencing undergraduate studies—across Western Australia in particular—what facilities you provide for them to be able to study in place and how you assess the validity of their capacity to study, with regard to technology and access. Where that's not there, how do you mediate that? Thanks.

ACTING CHAIR: I am conscious that we have fallen behind the clock. Not having been given any indication that people have other questions, I thank Mr Nicholls and Mr Wyatt for appearing before us today and for your evidence, particularly about the SKA. The information you provide is very interesting. Again, thank you for your time.