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Joint Committee on the National Broadband Network - 27/07/2011 - Rollout of the National Broadband Network

WILSON, Mr Michael Robert Henry, Director, M&S Consultants Pty Ltd

CHAIR: I now welcome the representative of the New South Wales and Northern Territory School of the Air. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I advise you that these hearings are formal proceedings of the parliament and warrant the same respect as proceedings of the respective houses. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of parliament. The evidence given today will be recorded by Hansard and attracts parliamentary privilege. Mr Wilson, do you have a submission you would like to provide the committee?

Mr Wilson : Thank you. I have a written submission that I have provided and I would like to work through it a little bit later, and I have a few words that I would like to say before that.

CHAIR: And that was my next question: would you like to make an opening statement?

Mr Wilson : Thank you, I would. I am a consultant to the Northern Territory Education Department. I cannot speak on behalf of the Northern Territory Education Department as I do not have that authority, but I have been involved in the School of the Air for quite a long period of time. I am designing the network and software that runs over the School of the Air.

Firstly, I would like to thank you directly. I believe that my appearance here would not be possible without your direct intervention. I would also like to acknowledge Mr Paul Fletcher who has taken a big interest in this area.

I would like to get technical for a brief moment. It is imperative that I do this, and I promise not to talk about bits and bytes or the speed of light. When we send information around the internet, we do it in little packets. These little packets are just like little parcels with the data inside. We have an address on the front; we have the sender's name on the back and, just like the parcels, we attach stamps. Some may remember attaching airmail stamps to letters, because if you did not attach the stamp the parcel would go by sea or by road and it could take a very long time to arrive. An IP packet is exactly the same; it has stamps in it. The stamp is called a 'type of a service' or, in NBN parlance, a 'traffic class'. Just like in the post office, each network component—the routers, the satellite equipment et cetera—inspects the packet to determine what priority to give the packet: should I deal with the packet straightaway, or can I leave it in the queue and deal with it when I get to it?

I have given you a document and I would like to draw your attention to it. It is the NBN PowerPoint presentation entitled Traffic Classes. It goes through four types of traffic class. The NBN have identified real time traffic, which is traffic class 1; interactive traffic, which is traffic class 3; and best efforts, which is traffic class 4. You might think of traffic class 1 as the airmail sticker on an envelope: send this straight away; I need this to go straight away. NBN have identified that as your IP phone service. So when you pick up your phone, the packets that are generated by that phone will be stamped with traffic class 1, and the routers and the associated equipment will know to deal with that immediately and, importantly, deal with it without jitter, which is a word I should not have mentioned.

You will see that they have identified traffic class 2, which they call 'interactive video'. This is in fact video conferencing. This is distance learning: the School of the Air. They have then identified traffic class 3, which is basically VPN. I am sure you have VPNed into your respective offices. What we have tried to do with that is get your keystrokes there as quickly as possible. Then there is traffic class 4, which is web browsing: YouTube, Google, email and other traffic like that. On the software program, when I write videoconferencing software and I have to mark the audio and video packets with a stamp that marks the packet as an audio or video pack, I do not mark the packets that are chat or PowerPoint packets, because we do not need the chat or PowerPoint packets to get there immediately. If they were there in 10 milliseconds, 100 milliseconds, 300 milliseconds or a second later, it would not affect the communication. But we must have our audio and video packets arrive on time. If we do not have it, the voice becomes broken, the video becomes pixilated and it is not worth watching, to be frank.

I have another document, which is the NBN Corporate Plan. At page 93, you will see that they have basically done the same diagram identifying the four classes of traffic. You will see that they have identified the four types of traffic. They then go on at 8.3 to talk about the fibre product, and you will see on the following page that they specify in diagram 8.5 that fibre will have the four classes of traffic on it. It will have voice over IP, traffic class 2, traffic class 3 and traffic class 4. On the next page they talk about the wireless product, and you will notice that in the wireless product they only prioritise one traffic class, voice over IP. They do not prioritise video conferencing and they do not prioritise any other audio applications—just the voice over IP.

On the next page and the page after they then go on to describe their satellite product. Once again, we have the same situation, where they only prioritise voice over IP. Everything else, videoconferencing et cetera, goes in the also ran department. I can assure you as an engineer—I have great experience in this; I was a senior engineer in Optus before my present position—that this is not acceptable on a network that is a shared resource, such as a wireless tower or a satellite hub. On your own physical connection, you have the opportunity to stop everything else while you do your video conferencing. For example, if I were on my ADSL or fibre at home and there were a problem with this, I would just stop doing everything else and just do my video conference, and then there is really no need to prioritise the packets, because those packets will have priority. However, when you deal with a shared resource like a wireless tower or a satellite hub, you are dealing with lots of other users, and those users can be going as quickly as they can downloading movies or any other web traffic that they may do, and your video packets or audio packets will have no priority at all, and your stream will at times be completely unusable.

There is an interesting note on the bottom of the satellite thing. They say that over time the product will evolve into including four classes, as the fibre product does. They have no timetable; they have no data rates. An NBN employee was questioned at the Australian distance education conference last week in Hobart, and he stated that that referred to a government and corporate service that the NBN planned to provide in about four years time. I find that quite amusing, because the idea that the government would provide students with a satellite service in order to get their distance education raises some questions for me. Are NBN going to put two satellite dishes in the front of the house, one for the NBN internet residential service and one for the School of the Air service? I doubt that would be the result.

In a joint media release, of which I have included a copy there, the Hon. Peter Garrett, Chris Evans and Stephen Conroy obviously had different thoughts from what we have seen in the NBN. Senator Conroy says:

"The NBN will support the delivery of online learning through the video and web-conferencing platforms needed for 21st century education, training and skills development," …

A bit further on, the release says:

"We will look at innovative education and training projects, which have the potential to deliver high quality, accessible and sustainable online tools to Australian schools, TAFEs, universities, workplaces and homes" …

That was Minister Chris Evans.

"The program will focus on projects which help Australians to study, learn and develop skills no matter where they live or work around Australia."

I have a written submission that I would like to work through if that is how you would like to deal with this now.

CHAIR: Yes, sure.

Mr Wilson : No questions so far?

CHAIR: We will ask questions at the end. I am conscious of time. We have till 1.45, and I am sure there will be lots of questions, so it is up to you how much of an opening statement you want to make.

Mr Wilson : That is my opening statement.

CHAIR: Okay. Do you need to work through this paper?

Mr Wilson : I would like to do it, but—

CHAIR: It is up to you how you use your time.

Mr Wilson : It is just an overview. The currently proposed and offered NBN satellite solution does not support distance education, as it does not support video conferencing or have a multicast functionality. I did uncover that, but I think I do not need to do that. They quite plainly state that it does not support multicast. The schools of the air in the Northern Territory have been successfully delivering ideal lessons to their students using technology that does support video conference.

Mr TURNBULL: Can I interrupt you, Mr Wilson, and just ask you: what do you mean by multicast functionality?

Mr Wilson : I will give you an example of how we use multicast functionality now. We have, for example, a classroom in the Katherine School of the Air. At that School of the Air, we bundle the audio packets up and send them up to the satellite as an IP packet called a multicast packet. It is effectively no different to any other IP packet, except that the address on it says, 'Send this to everyone in the neighbourhood; don't send it to an individual computer.' A multicast packet can be received by anyone who chooses to. It is like a broadcast. When you turn on the TV to Channel 9, you have joined a multicast stream.

Mr TURNBULL: Hang on. This is the source of my confusion. So does 'multicast' mean the same as 'broadcast'?

Mr Wilson : You could think of it that way. Technically—

Mr TURNBULL: But surely the NBN would enable you to stream or send. You are effectively having a conference call with a large number of people on the conference, right?

Mr Wilson : Yes, exactly.

Mr TURNBULL: Why can't it enable you to do that?

Mr Wilson : Because they do not enable multicast on the satellite or wireless network.

Mr TURNBULL: They have said that, have they?

Mr Wilson : Absolutely. I can point to it in this document. You can read about it—

Mr TURNBULL: Is there any technical reason why they can't do that?

Mr Wilson : No, not at all. There is no technical reason.

Mr TURNBULL: Have you asked them why they can't do that?

Mr Wilson : I used to work with Bob Murray, who is the head of satellite at NBN Co. I worked for him at one time, and recently I did a consultancy with the Fiji education department. I have approached him since he took up his new position, and I get no reply. This is the corporate plan. It says no multicast and no videoconferencing.

Mr TURNBULL: I have got the corporate plan with me here. What page are you looking at?

Mr Wilson : It is from page 93 onwards. It is the final corporate plan. I think it is from November 2011. It is very hard. If I was an engineer and I had to work to a specification—this specification says no videoconferencing. So, If I was Bob Murray and I was in charge of the satellite network and I had to do what the plan said, I would not do videoconferencing. The corporate plan says no videoconferencing and no multicast.

Mr TURNBULL: Is that an actual quote? I can see that at page 94 it says: 'NBN Co. will provide multicast functionality for the provision of IPTV services over the broadband network.'

Mr Wilson : Over the fibre network. On the next page it goes to wireless.

Mr TURNBULL: Does it actually say it will not provide multicasting?

Mr Wilson : I have it in writing that it will not provide multicasting over satellite.

Mr TURNBULL: It does not actually say that here. Anyway, it is a valid point and we will ask NBN Co. to give us an explanation.

Mr Wilson : It is a very important point for us. On Friday morning assembly, Katherine School of the Air sends up one one-megabit stream which contains all the audio and video for that class and it is received by 75 or more students in 75 different locations around the Northern Territory. So it is a very efficient use of bandwidth. We can send one stream and we can contact literally tens of thousands of recipients through that one stream.

CHAIR: Mr Wilson, you said you have that in writing?

Mr Wilson : I do have it. I may not have it with me at this very moment, but I will find it.

CHAIR: Was that in correspondence with NBN Co.?

Mr Wilson : Yes, with Jim Hassell.

CHAIR: We received some correspondence from NBN Co. overnight, which every committee member has just been given at lunchtime. I do not know if they have written this trying to pre-empt your evidence, but I will quote the final paragraph from it. I apologise, but you have not seen this. We only received it at one o'clock. It says:

The long-term satellite upload speeds provide sufficient bandwidth to deliver standard definition video. It is expected that the satellite services will support videoconferencing and some e-health services.

We need to clarify what 'some' means. But it does seem to suggest they are indicating satellite services will support videoconferencing.

Mr Wilson : Is that in the long-term plan that they are saying that?

Senator STEPHENS: Yes.

Mr Wilson : I questioned them on the long term. It is very nebulous. They are not tied down. They do not make any commitments, certainly not to me. The time scale of it is nebulous too.

CHAIR: It is important evidence, and we will pursue it, as Malcolm indicated. So please continue with your evidence. I am sure we will have a lot of questions.

Senator STEPHENS: Chair, in this piece of information we have just received, there is a paragraph that goes specifically to the point Mr Wilson makes in his submission.

CHAIR: Where is that?

Senator STEPHENS: It is three paragraphs from the bottom. It says:

As part of its long-term satellite solution NBN Co. will deploy two KA band satellites to provide access to the NBN outside the fibre and wireless footprint. These satellites will provide better quality services than those currently available via existing satellites in metro comparable ADSL.

Mr Wilson, isn't that exactly what you claim in your submission is not going to happen?

Mr Wilson : I am saying that it is not happening now and any evidence that they have here says in the long term. I do not have the material to say, but we are talking at least five years out here; we are not talking about now—

CHAIR: So it is a transitional issue in particular—is that the concern? You have got a service established—

Mr Wilson : Yes.

CHAIR: and as this is built out, you are worried that there is going to be a downgrading of that service on the way through, or that the end product—

Mr Wilson : The endpoint is very interesting. I do not want to diverge again, but Ka band is a frequency way above Ku band. We presently use Ku band. Ka band is not recommended for tropical areas. It cannot penetrate rain, so basically anyone above Townsville—draw the line from Townsville up—will find that their service is up and down constantly. The moment it looks like raining, Ka suffers severely from rain. We call it 'rain fade'. They raise more questions than they answer, but I do take the point and I appreciate that.

I would like to qualify something I said. I did say that when the NBN representative was approached in Hobart about the long-term plans, he indicated that those services would be available in the long term to government agencies or enterprises. His information was that those services would not be available to the residential person. That is why I bring up the point: are we going to have two satellite dishes in the front yard, one for the government service into your house where you can see your doctor or take your lessons, and one for your regular residential internet connection? I appreciate what you are saying. They are rolling out a service now that does not do what we are presently doing.

The NBN proposed satellite solution is inferior and inadequate to service the needs of the students receiving their education by satellite. If the proposed NBN satellite solution is rolled out in its present format, as they have presently indicated it will be, students will be severely disadvantaged and be forced to take a retrograde step in the receipt of education.

I just make a point here that on 5 July in this committee, you, Mr Oakeshott, raised with Mr Michael Quigley concerns that there could be a loss of videoconferencing capability as a result of the proposed upgrade in the NBN satellite services. Mr Quigley was puzzled as to what would be downgraded. It is very concerning that the NBN CEO is oblivious of the requirements and the impact on such an important and growing sector of the community.

I would like to go on here little bit, because the point that I am making is that right now the federal government has removed all funding for carriage services. If you make your application to the federal government now, they say that carriage services will be conducted through the NBN infrastructure. About 60 years ago the School of the Air in the Northern Territory started using HCF radio to do their lessons.

CHAIR: Are you aware how much funding that is?

Mr Wilson : I will go through that if you like; I have it in the document. In 2002 and 2003, School of the Air moved to interactive distance learning technology as a model to deliver lessons to remote students. This facilitated using computer technology and a software program called One Touch. This provided two-way audio and one-way video, enabling the students to see their teacher for the first time. In 2006 IDL moved to a different program, which I will not talk about because it is mine—I wrote it—employing more up-to-date technology that provides multiway audio and video which permits the students to see the teachers and the teachers to see the students, just as if they were in the same room.

In 2007 as a result of $4.5 million federal funding, along with $8.6 million contributed by the Northern Territory government under the Clever Networks program, the STARS project built a new satellite network in Darwin which provided increased bandwidth for the delivery of education and learning services to remote communities and homesteads in the NT. This was a significant improvement in the delivery of IDL at the School of the Air and online education to over 200 urban regional and regional remote schools. The new STARS network has enabled an increase in the number and variety of education programs available and is providing superior audio and video interaction capability.

As a result of the capabilities now afforded by the network and software, in 2009 the School of the Air started delivering lessons to middle years. Students in years 7, 8 and 9 for the very first time could get their education over the air. This was a significant milestone, in that remote students who once would have had to go to boarding school—and imagine sending your 11- or 12-year-old to Adelaide for boarding school—for their education could now stay at home with their families for those tender years. The benefits to the student and the family as a whole cannot be underestimated, considering that remote students experience isolation on a daily basis. The success of the project has seen other government agencies jump on board, and what started at six megahertz a measure has grown to 36 megahertz, a sixfold increase. We have now reached the maximum capacity of our transponder, the bandwidth we have available.

Initially we had six venues, or classrooms, as you might think of them. Now we have 72 venues or classrooms almost all running at the same time. Not only do School of the Air and schools have an improved service but other stakeholders have active involvement through access to the network and software. Examples include the Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children, who sit in Sydney and deliver aid or lessons to students with disabilities right through Arnhem Land. I note that, in the NBN brochure, it claims that that will all possible in the future; well, we have been doing it for quite a while. The Richmond Football Club have a studio in Melbourne, and they put their stars in front of the camera and talk to Aboriginal students in Arnhem Land and around Alice Springs, which has been great for bringing kids to school. The Isolated Children's Parents Association hold their meetings over the network, along with parent and teacher meetings, citizen groups et cetera. These all take place without people needing to leave their homes and travel possibly hundreds of kilometres, often on dirt roads, to access these services or attend meetings.

People in remote areas of Australia and, in this case, the NT were promised that the rollout of the NBN from July 2011 would provide them with communications superior to what they are currently experiencing. However, under the current NBN models—let us say, for the next five years—that will not be the case. In fact, what is offered is not even comparable to what currently exists.

I would like to talk about a few issues here. We have already discussed videoconferencing; I hope you have understood that. I am not sure whether they have come back and giving you some more detail on the type of service but, quite clearly, it is important. By the way, my interest is in satellite, but from researching this I see wireless is exactly the same—and, in fact, while they do say they will improve the satellite over time, they do not say they will improve the wireless over time. Videoconferencing through the software, as used by the School of the Air and other schools delivering distance education to remote students, whether in their homes or communities, will not be provided. To deliberately not provide a videoconferencing capability to education institutions, whether private or government run, as part of the interim solution is unconscionable given the chosen architecture's capability. Multicast functionality is an efficient, effective means of data transmission, and it is inconceivable that the interim solution does not provide for this, particularly when NBN is espousing a dynamic, leading-edge technology that will revolutionise communications in Australia.

CHAIR: Can I just cut in. I am conscious that we have only about seven minutes left of your allocated time. This will be a submission—so, if it is a case of getting this tabled, you can be confident that is in.

Mr Wilson : Okay. Thank you.

CHAIR: I think there will be some questions that should be answered—

Mr Wilson : I give up! I give over, sorry.

CHAIR: Okay. My only question is: in your view, what is the answer?

Mr Wilson : The equipment they are using, the satellite hub they are using, is exactly the hub they tendered to the New South Wales education department recently for interactive distance learning. The equipment is capable of doing everything we want to do. Unfortunately, it is not part of their corporate plan. I believe they basically want to address the residential market—the Australian broadband guarantee, if you like. They want to cover the Australian broadband guarantee. But, unfortunately, the funding has been removed from government schools of the air and the like, based on the fact that NBN can now supply the carriage.

CHAIR: I see. So, at least for a transition period and under an option such as a USO or another means, you would like to see a broadband guarantee or something that does not mean you have to disable what is already in place to enable NBN Co. into the future.

Mr Wilson : We have an issue in that we run out of capacity. We have been lumped with trades training centres—I should not say the word 'lumped'. They have been very successful, but we are getting something like 30 very, very shortly. We do not have the capacity to service them. Our capacity—our present satellite network—is full. It is working very, very well. It is full, and there is no more funding, because the equipment is to come from the NBN. The NBN could provision that—I can tell you absolutely as an engineer that they could—but the corporate plan says 'traffic class 1' and 'traffic class 4'.

Mrs D'ATH: That is certainly the most important question. Really what you are seeking is some guarantee that the service will remain as is or will get better, but you will not lose any service as far as the schools' distance education is concerned. I understand that position. In relation to the NBN footprint for the 93 per cent and the fibre delivery, have you overlapped that with your distance education and identified whether there are areas that now have access only through wireless or satellite but would be getting access through fibre? I am just wondering if there is any overlap.

Mr Wilson : There is a very small percentage of the Northern Territory that is getting fibre. Probably 50 per cent of our population will be served by satellite or wireless. About 125,000 people live in metropolitan areas that we might call fibre related areas of the Northern Territory; the other half do not. So, as a rough estimate, 50 per cent of the Northern Territory will be satellite or wireless.

Senator STEPHENS: I take your point about the fact that the satellite capacity now is eaten and that you do not have any capacity to do anything else. But, in terms of e-learning innovation, are there projects in the pipeline for the School of the Air that cannot go ahead given your concerns about—

Mr Wilson : What we will be doing now is that, because of the trade training centres and the 20 towns that the Northern Territory government has identified to be built up, we will have to withdraw services from School of the Air. We have only x amount of services. We are at our limit now if we want to service more, which we have to. We have long been waiting for the NBN and have been refused funding based on the NBN rollout.

Senator STEPHENS: On the point that you make about being bundled with the trade training centres and the 20 growth towns, how have you been put into that same category?

Mr Wilson : We as an education department—I should not say 'we'—

Senator STEPHENS: Exactly.

Mr Wilson : But I have to provide the solution. The solution is that we are out of bandwidth and out of facilities, so we must withdraw them from somewhere to accommodate the tens of millions of dollars that are going into trade training centres. We have been waiting for the NBN. We would dearly like to deliver lessons to residents anywhere in the Northern Territory, whether it is VET or School of the Air. School of the Air should be looked at as distance education. It is the ultimate distance education. There are a lot of lessons to be learnt from the School of the Air. It bugs me that there has been $27 million set aside to look at projects on how to do distance education. Come and look at the School of the Air. Other countries do. We have just rolled out two networks in Fiji to cover the Pacific using the same technology that is used in the School of the Air, but people in Canberra have to put $20 million out to try and find out how to do that.

Senator STEPHENS: Thank you.

Mr TURNBULL: You have suffered from 'not invented here' syndrome!

CHAIR: Mr Wilson, are you happy for your submissions—I think there are two of them—to be made public documents and put on the web as part of your evidence today?

Mr Wilson : Definitely. Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you. This is the final question from me: when we approach NBN Co. about this, what, in your view, are they going to say to us?

Mr Wilson : I have no idea what they have said to you. I know what they have said to me: 'Look at the corporate plan.'

CHAIR: And, in your view, what will the Northern Territory education department say to us?

Mr Wilson : 'We'll bungle on. We've been good at that for the last 15 years. We'll make do. But please don't hold out that you are doing us favours, because you aren't.'

CHAIR: We really appreciate your evidence.

Mr Wilson : And I appreciate your time specifically very much.

CHAIR: Thank you for coming to Broken Hill today. If you have been asked to provide additional information—and there may be some questions that come back from us as well—could you please forward that to the secretariat by 8 August. That is the deadline we are putting on ourselves. Thank you for coming today.