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Standing Committee on Infrastructure and Communications
10/03/2011
Role and potential of the National Broadband Network

CHAIR —Welcome. The committee does not require you to give evidence under oath. However, I should advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and has the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. We have received a written submission to the inquiry from RDA Tasmania. If you want to make some opening statements, that would be fine. As you have probably seen, the committee is keen to ask questions, so if you could keep those to a constrained time period that would be great.

Mr Perkins —You can ask the questions. Let’s go straight to it.

CHAIR —You are happy to go straight to questions? Fantastic. Thanks very much for your submission and for your time today. I will open with a question that you may have heard me ask the previous witness towards the end of his evidence. It is something that has been brought to my attention by the tourism industry in my own area—and I know how important tourism is in Tasmania. It is about the capacity to provide fast broadband not only for the advertising and publicising of facilities and venues—I know a lot of travellers these days are not so keen on making bookings if they cannot look at good quality video beforehand—but also for people whilst they are travelling in Tasmania. Has RDA Tasmania had some information on that and would you like to make some comment on that aspect of industry?

Mr Perkins —The first comment I will make is that NBN and the use of technology as a business tool is something new to all businesses. The tourism industry is a good example of where investing in training and skilling small businesses in how to maximise the use of technology is important. Brigid has probably got some better knowledge than I do about the usage broadly.

Mrs Rawlings —There are databases available. Tourism Tasmania has the TigerTOUR database. It enables businesses to provide details relating to their product whereby it is stored in one place and is accessible to multiple distribution channels, whether that is Tourism Tasmania or travel agents et cetera, and then feeds into a national database. I think generally tourism is a lot further advanced in terms of having that resource available. I think that tourism businesses historically have not been as open to getting online, whether it be a website or it be having their details stored in this database. A lot of tourism businesses are bed and breakfasts or semi-retired type arrangements, so they are happy with the status quo and they are not as interested in growing their businesses. Therefore they do not see the need to get online or to open up to multiple distribution channels.

Mr Perkins —I think you get two levels of businesses: those that actually know their industry and sector and are really connected to it, which would be connected to the use of IT now, and those other ones that, as Brigid just spoke about, have chosen to be there for another reason but will still now need to be competitive in the international market with the changing consumer behaviour about the way they seek information.

Mrs Rawlings —Historically Tasmania has had a lot of federal funding around IT and the tourism industry has benefited from that in terms of trying to educate businesses, but unfortunately that has not led to a lot of uptake across the industry. As Craig said, you probably do get the two levels. There are the major players and innovators that want to become part of that digital economy as opposed to the lower scale.

CHAIR —What about—and I do not know whether you would hold data on this—the other side of it with people actually saying that the experience of visiting was affected by the lack of availability of fast broadband to stay connected and whether that would affect them revisiting or recommending to anyone else?

Mr Perkins —I do not know of any data that would demonstrate that. I would say that, for people who want access to broadband as they travel Tasmania, it has improved significantly over the last five or 10 years as technology has improved both in terms of wireless connections through Telstra connections or whatever else it might be. I do not know that accessing basic internet connections would be a problem generally if you are with Telstra. Some of the other networks, like Vodafone and Optus, are probably starting to spread out a bit, so that has improved somewhat. Access from that point of view has improved I would have thought.

Mr NEVILLE —You mentioned in your opening comments, Brigid, that the tourist industry was not embracing e-technology as well as it might. Are you talking in terms of them marketing themselves—marketing groups of particular motels or resorts or whatever it might be—or are you talking about them not engaging with various e-services like Wotif and so on? I would have thought that with so much of the booking technology spinning around various forms of computer connections and e-activity that a tourist operator could not afford not to be in it.

Mrs Rawlings —I agree with that, but I do not know whether—

Mr NEVILLE —You say they are still holding back.

Mrs Rawlings —It is probably also a bit overwhelming for them. A small business might have only a couple of rooms for example yet they now have so many options in terms of distribution channels, more so around the electronic site. It is also making the decision as to how they manually manage all of that because it is not automated at the moment—you have to manually manage your own infantry management system on top of logging into Wotif. Also there is the issue of potential double bookings between those times.

Mr NEVILLE —Are you talking more about small motels, B&Bs, those sort of people?

Mrs Rawlings —Yes. It is a key component in any tourism industry.

Mr NEVILLE —Isn’t there a B&B site now?

Mrs Rawlings —I believe there is, yes. That is probably just an example.

Mr Perkins —My perception of it is that the Tasmanian tourism industry from the late nineties through to the last few years had a good growth cycle and the growth cycle was particularly from domestic tourism, although there was some international. When you are in that sort of growth cycle you are probably required therefore to be as focused on the key connectors that are going to pull your customers in through the door when generally they were coming. Having said that, Tourism Tasmania have, for a number of years now, have been communicating the fact that visitor behaviour—the way they book and look—is changing significantly and businesses need to adapt.

Mr NEVILLE —In fact, I would have thought after the Gold Coast, Whitsundays and Cairns that Tasmania would have been the most switched on part of Australia. Before I got into politics I ran a tourist region and was always envious of Tasmania. I used to come down here and market where the RACT and people like that because I felt Tasmania was very switched on to tourism.

Mr Perkins —I would have thought—Brigid would probably have better knowledge of this—back in those times when booking was done through Tasmania’s Temptations and wholesale bookings that those networks were really strong and worked pretty well.

Mrs Rawlings —Yes. I know that has changed with the closure of—

Mr NEVILLE —Do you think Tasmania has let it slip a bit?

Mrs Rawlings —Yes. I believe that has been confirmed through the parting comments of the former CEO who said that the numbers of tourism businesses online was quite disappointing.

Mr NEVILLE —You gave a road introductory comment about how all important higher speeds of internet is going to be for business. Can you give me some examples of things which have changed or are undergoing change as a result of the NBN—the types of business or a particular business which has changed dramatically because of the speeds of the NBN?

Mr Perkins —Probably not. I am trying to think of one off the top of my head.

Mrs Rawlings —The way it has been explained to us is that faster speeds mean more time to be productive so that you are not waiting for things to download. That period of time has reduced and that, therefore, allows you to do other things.

Mr Perkins —We are still waiting to see the effect on the community of Tasmania as a whole of higher broadband speeds. Those things are evolving. We were talking about this earlier regarding business growth and how business can take advantage of high-speed broadband.

Mr NEVILLE —I have asked other witnesses this: what is your take on why 70 per cent of people have boxes connected to their houses but only 15 per cent are now taking up high-speed broadband?

Mrs Rawlings —Because I do not think it has been communicated well as to what benefits there are, that it is all futuristic.

Mr NEVILLE —So business would not have this picture just yet?

Mrs Rawlings —No.

Mr NEVILLE —Unless they particularly went out after this information themselves?

Mrs Rawlings —And sought it, yes.

Mr NEVILLE —I see. Thanks for that.

Mrs PRENTICE —Following on from that question exactly, whose role do you see it is to educate and promote it? Quite frankly, if the government is going to put $41 billion into it, can we not think that perhaps local chambers of commerce and other authorities would be promoting it?

Mrs Rawlings —Yes absolutely.

Mr Perkins —There are a couple of things there. One is whose responsibility it is. We are all paying for the infrastructure, so we all have responsibility for using it. I suspect that in some regards businesses will adapt and identify how to use new technologies in their business and how they will be used over time. I think we will look back and say, ‘Wow, look at what they’ve done,’ as opposed to trying to look forward to say, ‘Wow, this is what they can do.’ There will be some of that evolution in innovation in the business that does it. I think that better connection will enable certainly stronger business efficiency and cost reduction. There is the capacity for business to business high data transfer and business to government with government changing the way that they interact with businesses to reduce the costs. You should be able to get some seamless transactions and interactivity. I do not know what they are, but there should be advantages there.

Mrs PRENTICE —I know there are a lot of advantages, particularly for small business. As someone who was in small business for 20 years, I never had time to look at what the advantages were of doing anything differently. How do we get that message out?

Mrs Rawlings —I think it is, as you said, about educating the chambers of commerce because, unfortunately, there are industry bodies that represent members but are not necessarily savvy in IT, applications or things like that. They are the conduit by which you can get the message out. I do not know whether there is an overarching entity at the moment that is playing that role to filter information that is applicable to each of those different industries and their bodies.

Mr Perkins —I think the timing of that communication is really important too. The Tasmanian government tried to jump in quickly and fill that space and it did not work. I think that is fair to say. People wanted to know about when the cable was going down their street as opposed to how they could use it for their business. There would probably be a lesson there in how or when the message is delivered to businesses and maybe it should be sectorally based.

CHAIR —You have just encapsulated the dilemma of this inquiry. In some places that we go to that is exactly the conversation we get. It is still about the rollout and construction as opposed to the utilisation.

Mrs Rawlings —Yes. I do not think anyone has really come out and said: ‘These are the players in this program. If you want to know something about this, this is who is responsible.’ I do not think the Tasmanian government did that. We have sort of been in the NBN space as well, having identified it as a priority, so we have been out there listening.

CHAIR —Part of the dilemma with the timing is that if something is not available, the conversation is theoretical to people until the infrastructure is there and available. What is your experience with that timing issue, which I think is a really important thing for us?

Mr Perkins —I do not know the answer to that one. The question is how you do that timing. It would be good to have a conversation with some of the organisations that ran it out. The Tasmanian government funded it. We could find out what they learned from that.

Mrs Rawlings —I think you need to have things done in parallel. You have to present the value proposition for people to understand the reasons to take up the technology but they still do want to know the information about the rollout.

Mr Perkins —And there is the quality of the message provided. You do not want necessarily the message of how broadband can suit your business to be delivered by tech heads and application developers although they have a role to play. They see it from a different point of view. That is not to say that they are not important.

CHAIR —It is a different task.

Mrs PRENTICE —I have one other question. Given that it is going to take 20 years to roll out NBN across the whole of Australia, are there parts of Tasmania that you think need it ahead of others?

Mr Perkins —That is a good question. We certainly have a view that if you are in areas of towns where there is the possibility of business jumping into it and heavy data transfer users then you should do that. Bell Bay was a good example of that.

Mrs Rawlings —Or the west coast.

Mr Perkins —Or if you were running past a town with an industrial estate, it would be good to consider whether there were opportunities to efficiently run it into there. It would be a shame to service that town and then have to come back three or four years later to redo that part of the town when you could have probably done it quite simply when you were there the first time. I like to think, too, that in the initial rollout of the NBN in Tasmania that lesson has been learnt a little bit; that they learn as they do it.

Mr FLETCHER —In your submission you have given us a range of benefits, which you say would follow from the National Broadband Network. Can you tell us how you arrived at that list?

Mr Perkins —Through consultation. Brigid, in particular, has spent a lot of time talking to organisations, institutions and local government about what broadband might do. That is how we have brought that together: here are some opportunities that would seem obvious; through better use of technology and transferring data you can do things better and save costs, whether it be a business cost or a service delivery cost in terms of government.

CHAIR —Could you briefly give us an idea of the consultation process that fed into your paper.

Mrs Rawlings —The Department of Health and Human Services, the department of economic development—state government departments—and the University of Tasmania.

Mr Perkins —We ran a small survey that got a small response from local government.

Mrs Rawlings —Yes, local government.

Mr FLETCHER —That was a survey that went out to councils?

Mr Perkins —We have a database of about 1,500 organised stakeholders around Tasmania. They all had the opportunity to provide—

Mr FLETCHER —How many responded?

Mr Perkins —It wasn’t many.

Mr FLETCHER —How many?

Mrs Rawlings —Two!

CHAIR —Two councils or two out 1,500?

Mrs Rawlings —Two out of the 1,500.

Mr Perkins —You shouldn’t have asked the question.

Mrs Rawlings —It is unfortunate—these surveys.

Mr Perkins —I think that comes back to the earlier dilemma. If we had said, ‘We want to roll out in your town,’ we probably would have got 1,500 responses because at this point people are interested in cabling as opposed to application. But having said that, I think there are some really good opportunities to embed the use of broadband in institutions—

Mr FLETCHER —Sure. But is it fair to say that essentially what you have put to us is really based upon desk research as to what are the accepted kinds of things that businesses might be able to do if broadband infrastructure were improved?

Mr Perkins —It is not just desk research. We have spoken face to face with people and businesses that use IT.

CHAIR —The survey had only two responses. The consultation was broadly based?

Mrs Rawlings —Yes, absolutely.

Mr Perkins —We had meetings with local government economic development officers at both ends of the state. We would do community forums as an RDA committee where we might have a discussion with people around—

Mr FLETCHER —Let me put the question another way: how many businesses can you specifically identify—I am not asking for their names but the number of businesses—that you have spoken to in the last six months who have identified things that they are planning to do with an improved broadband network infrastructure?

Mr Perkins —I could not give you an answer.

Mr FLETCHER —Can you just remind us of who you represent and how you are funded and so on.

Mr Perkins —We are an RDA committee, a not-for-profit organisation. So we are an independent organisation with the committee appointed by Minister Simon Crean.

Mr FLETCHER —So your funding is from the Commonwealth government.

Mr Perkins —We are funded from the Commonwealth government through the RDA network. But our charter has us operating as an independent organisation, and we do that.

Mr FLETCHER —I am just trying to make sure that I have got this straight in my mind. Effectively, what we are doing is hearing from an agency of the Commonwealth government about the merits of the Commonwealth government’s policy on the National Broadband Network.

CHAIR —I think that would be very unfair to RDAs, Paul.

Mr Perkins —I am happy to respond to it. One of the things that we are strong in doing is protecting our apolitical nature. I have got some criticisms as well as some compliments.

Mr FLETCHER —In relation to the NBN?

Mr Perkins —The NBN—

Mr FLETCHER —And what would they be?

Mr Perkins —and other government programs from time to time.

Mr FLETCHER —You mentioned you had some criticisms of the NBN.

Mrs Rawlings —Which we have mentioned, about the lack of communication and lack of engagement.

Mr FLETCHER —If I understand your submission correctly, you are saying as a general principle you think there are a range of benefits that flow from an improved broadband infrastructure. Are you putting a specific view as to speeds or technologies?

Mr Perkins —No. We are not technical experts and we cannot make comment on the technical nature of the NBN, but we can tell you from our research that, with the use of high-speed broadband, there are significant benefits to be made, however that is delivered. But we are no technical experts.

Mr SYMON —My question touches on the role of the RDA. Although it is government that has put in to build the NBN, we have heard from a few people, not only today but previously, about getting the message out—actually looking at what it does and getting people to understand what it does and how it can be of benefit to them, their business, their education or whatever the case may be. Do you see a wider role for the RDA in a process like that?

Mr Perkins —Yes, and we have been doing it, in terms of trying to share the message. The might include organising a forum and getting someone that is using it to come along. For example, we got Darren Alexander from Autech, who uses IT and understands how it benefits his business, to come along and practically show that message. We have also organised for people in the e-health area who can explain e-health better than I ever knew about it to explain how you can get significant benefits in health delivery through e-health. So that is the role that I see us playing—trying to identify where those gaps in knowledge are in the key areas. We are not necessarily going to go into homes or to the consumer on the street, but I think there are some targeted areas where we know we can get significant benefits, so where we can help in that area we will do it.

Mrs Rawlings —We also hope to transfer our learnings from the process to the other RDAs across Australia as the NBN rolls out. We have an existing relationship with RDA Hunter, where we have been sharing information about what we have been doing and vice versa.

Mr SYMON —I am sure my Eastern Melbourne RDA would like to hear that too. My next question runs along the same lines, and that is, as an RDA, what types of resources are you able to put towards that task?

Mr Perkins —If you are asking, ‘Do we need some more money?’ the answer would be, ‘Yes; it would be wonderful.’

Mr SYMON —I didn’t quite put it that way!

Mr Perkins —So, when you’re talking to Simon, you can pass that on! We have got an operational funding budget and it is a limited pool of funds. We do what we can within that. We could do more if we had the opportunity and resources to do it. Brigid has been terrific and she has done lot of work in liaising with key stakeholders—local government and the people that have connections in communities and so forth—around that. We have been fortunate to be in a position over the last six months to do that. I do not know whether we can continue that. I hope we can, but our role is going to get busier, as of last week, in a different area. We will continue to prosecute how to make the best use of this infrastructure rollout.

Mr SYMON —So, at the moment, your role is really a facilitating role?

Mr Perkins —Yes.

Mr SYMON —But the type of set-up that I am aware of for RDAs would actually be a good regional role for getting that message out, as I said, about what can be used and how it can be done on a level that people and businesses can understand.

Mr Perkins —That is right. If we cannot understand the message coming out, it is unlikely that the people with whom we communicate are going to understand it. It is a good filter to say that we need to straighten the message up or to do something differently and help in that regard. It is one tool that has the potential to drive innovation, particularly in regional communities. That is good regional development policy, so we will be there to help.

Mr SYMON —Putting it in plain English, taking away jargon and acronyms and being able to explain exactly what it does is something that you are already doing, and you are hopefully going to pass those examples on, as you said, to RDAs elsewhere.

Mr Perkins —That is right, yes.

Mr NEVILLE —Leading off from Paul Fletcher’s question, in your objectives for Tasmania you talk about agriculture, primary industries, automation of agricultural machinery and so on. I suppose that leads into the next witnesses. But can I take it from that that a lot of things in agriculture are not happening because of low internet speeds?

Mrs Rawlings —Yes.

Mr NEVILLE —What sorts of things? Would laser levelling be going on in Tasmania?

Mr Perkins —I think that question might be better put to the next witnesses.

Mr NEVILLE —Yes, but you have mentioned it three or four times. What are these deficiencies, in agriculture and primary industries in the use of equipment, that are coming through? Can you give us a feel for that?

Mr Perkins —There are opportunities for localised climatic controlling and data knowledge. They even talk about using it for the satellite controlling of robotic machinery, as you say. You would not necessarily be able to do that at this point—

Mrs Rawlings —Because of the lack of coverage.

Mr Perkins —I think what it does is to provide opportunities for greater innovation and investment in farming and in that sector.

Mr NEVILLE —It is obviously of some concern to you, since you have mentioned it so many times.

Mrs Rawlings —Yes.

Mr Perkins —Yes, that is right. And that is a key area: the agricultural sector—farming, dairying. Getting better use out of the land is key to keeping that area of the Tasmanian economy growing.

Mr NEVILLE —Thank you.

CHAIR —Thanks very much.

Mr Perkins —Could I sum up on a couple of points?

CHAIR —Yes, you could make some closing comments.

Mr Perkins —I want to make some points on health and education. There is significant investment in infrastructure—$35 billion is a big spend. Look at the demographic and the ageing population. In that regard we have probably got the worst in Tasmania; our regional plan probably picks that up. But in Australia generally there will be a significant amount of pressure on the health spend and the education spend over the next few years. I do not understand why we do not put greater emphasis on requiring that the funding that is provided to the providers should be linked to using the infrastructure that is laid out.

We know that, through e-health in particular, there can be savings. One of the reports I read said there could be $10 billion in health savings. Even if it were only $2 billion, that would be a significant amount of money in savings in health delivery. There is some money out there at the moment that could be used for personally controlled health records, not necessarily shared ones. There are other ways—in-house monitoring and telehealth—of just being better and more efficient in what we do. There could be reduction of errors in the health system. That could save a lot of money. It would be really good to say, ‘Now that we have invested, and as we invest, in this technology, we require—as opposed to jurisdictions applying for money to use that—you to start focusing on how you use this technology to better deliver health services.’

CHAIR —So you are talking about linking that to recurrent funding allocations by the federal government to the health and education sectors and, as a requirement of that, having a plan for implementation and uptake of national broadband?

Mr Perkins —Absolutely. To look at Tasmania from an educational point of view: particularly outside of the three or four key regional areas, there are no high schools. Make the education department, in some way, think about how they deliver education into regional communities. Innovation drives local economic growth. If people start to have access to education that they may otherwise have struggled to access, then all of a sudden you change the dynamics of your community. If you have healthy communities in regional areas, you get people staying there longer, and the Scottsdales and the likes of this area get a whole new economic base within them and you get significant savings across the health system. And the health system is obviously going to put significant stress on national and state budgets over the coming year.

I think there is a real big opportunity there to think about how that happens, whether you link it to the Medicare Locals and it is a KPI for them in terms of delivery—they have to focus on how they do it—or driving the use of technology. I think there is a big opportunity there for us. I do not necessarily see it. I see investment and opportunities for people to take advantage of it, but not necessarily leadership as strong as it can be from the top level.

CHAIR —A few more thumbscrews as well!

Mr Perkins —I think there is a great opportunity there. I just do not understand why—maybe because it is early on and it will come—you do not see it at the moment.

CHAIR —That is good, thank you. Thank you for your attendance here today. If you have been asked to provide any additional information, you can forward it through to the secretary. You will be sent a copy of the transcript of your evidence. Thank you for your participation.

Mr Perkins —Thank you.

[4.01 pm]