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STANDING COMMITTEE ON INFRASTRUCTURE AND COMMUNICATIONS
11/03/2011
Role and potential of the National Broadband Network

CHAIR —I welcome the representative of the Tasmanian Electronic Commerce Centre to today’s hearing. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I advise you that the hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. We have a written submission to the inquiry from you. Would you like to make some opening statements to that submission? As you have probably noticed, we are pretty keen to ask questions.

Mr McCann —I am interested in these proceedings as well and listening to the other groups that are presenting. We are a unique organisation. TECC has effectively been around for 12 years. We are half-owned by the University of Tasmania and half-owned by the state government. We are a not-for-profit organisation. Our early set up was to overcome the disparity between regional and metropolitan users of information technology and telecommunications and the marriage between those two. Our focus over more recent years, the last six years, has been more around telecommunications, and I will talk about that a little later.

We were originally set up under the Telstra 1 and Telstra 2 sales, Networking the Nation, to work with traditional Tasmanian businesses to show them the benefits of going online. During that period we established about 200 projects at both enterprise and sector levels. We worked with technologies as carriers of ADSL, basic copper, fibre and wireless, so we have had exposure to all of those areas.

We have tried to foster projects encouraging private sector investment, which we have been quite successful at. We have had seed funding from the government to conduct trials to demonstrate the benefits of adopting new technologies and moving to smarter business, household and community practices. Some of those trials have been around the technical side of implementation and the learnings that have been generated by those, and I will cover that a little bit later as well briefly.

We have put together several publications. Pulling Together the Threads that we did with Dandolo Partners was about the effect of telecommunications in the regional sectors. We did a broadband aggregation manual for the former department of communications and ran regional broadband forums around the country for DCITA, as it was then.

So we have been part of the journey here in Tasmania since it had a very low uptake of electronic commerce practices, 12 years ago. The key form of electronic commerce in the state, along with most other regional locations in the country, was the fax machine. There was a low usage of PCs and not many PCs were actually connected to the internet. We have been part of a process where, when we first turned up and established in 1998, the biggest issue with lots of regional bodies and communities seemed to be poor mobile phone coverage and the fact that they had to pay trunk phone charges when calling between districts.

Within six years of establishing the TECC, I have noticed how quickly the debate has moved. Now you have regional organisations and chambers of commerce turning up and talking about teleworking, the cloud and e-health, with examples, and they are now becoming quite aggressive customers as to what they want to see in their various regions. They see it as a competitive advantage—or a competitive disadvantage not to have it. Twelve years in some areas is a long time, but the changes we have noticed through our organisation in the sophistication of the marketplace, even though it is still an emerging cycle, have been quite significant.

There are two projects I would like to mention that have been quite formative to our strategy. The TasCOLT project, which we started in 2004, was a fibre-to-the-home trial across brownfield sites in three areas of Tasmania. We covered about 1,500 premises. The learnings that were generated from that project contributed to the state government submission to the NBN funding round, so we are quite pleased with that project and the learnings from it and feel we are well placed to have a working knowledge in this area. Previously the TECC had worked very closely with a range of businesses and associations to raise awareness about electronic commerce, and we built a suite of products and services that we felt were getting results, and we quite happily license some of those programs and materials to other regions around Australia.

The change in the TECC came when those amounts of government funding were reduced. We could no longer run those services. But I believe they had run their time. Other organisations were moving into website awareness and doing that stuff, so the board moved us to the more leading edge of: what was the major barrier to doing business in regional locations? It was a lack of competition at the wholesale telecommunications level. What was the next telecommunication going to be? Could we be part of the investment and not follow behind or tag along behind? So, quite bravely, the board made the decision, and we sourced partners and conducted the TasCOLT trial with the support of the state government and approximately $8 million of private sector investment.

We have been there from the start and we have seen a lot of the changes. I love to hear the debate and the questions and the rigorous nature of it, but I still cannot believe how quickly we have moved. I know there are issues along the way and it bumps along, and that is the way it should be with such a big project overall nationally, but still, from my point of view, we have made amazing progress rapidly to date and we are on the right path to effectively assist the development of business, households, communities and government services.

CHAIR —That is great. Thanks, John. I just want to explore that point with you a bit, because you have been right at that interface point. It seems from some of the evidence and the discussions that one of the dilemmas is about trying to maximise the uptake and utilisation of an infrastructure that is being rolled out, and yet in Scottsdale you say we had evidence of people saying, ‘Look, we still can’t even get mobile phone coverage.’ In some ways, from what you are describing to me, it is almost as if there is a quantum leap. People are saying: ‘All right, we’ve been struggling along, not even having what is considered current day technology. Now we know what’s out there; just move us on to that.’ But, at the same time, that would be perhaps those who are well connected and informed around the area. On the other side of it you have people who have no idea what this is going to be and what it can provide or will not provide, whether it is business or domestic users. I am interested, from your direct experience of the project with the 1,500 homes, in what sorts of lessons you might have learnt from that that actually made it meaningful for people.

Mr McCann —The last part of your question is easy to answer, but I think you raised a lot of issues in the first part of the question as well. Could I maybe just address those?

CHAIR —That is fine.

Mr McCann —It was a complicated question. There are two levels around this. While you were asking that question, I thought about the level of understanding that people have, their uncertainty about what it will mean for them and how long before it starts to have any impact on them, and how they can make sure they do not miss out. In general terms, even if people are not technically minded, there is an enormous amount of goodwill towards a project that stands to provide ubiquity of service levels and maybe take them to a new generation of household services, business opportunities, government services, health and education. So even if people did not understand it, around the time of the last election and the last few years there has probably been a sense that this is something that is happening. They do not really understand it, but it is an enormous opportunity.

That is where people become a little bit confused by mixed messages. There are people out there who, for a number of reasons, are drumming up support and enthusiasm around the NBN, but they are not really sure what the next step is. That comes down to a question of the processes around this project, not so much the project itself, because of the heavy media influence, the size of the investment and people seeing opportunities—IT companies, regional bodies, chambers of commerce. They all want to be part of it, but there is uncertainty: where do we pick it up, what is our role and how do we fit in, what is the overall master plan and strategy? I think that addresses part of your question.

CHAIR —Yes.

Mr McCann —If I have not answered, please go back to the specifics that I have not answered. We started the TasCOLT project in 2004. It was a passive optical network trial. We were using equipment from companies such as Hitachi and CEOS. Intel were involved, and a range of 10 or so other providers have provided bits of the network. Locally, a party to the project was Aurora, and obviously access to their poles and network was very important. The lessons from the trial range from raising awareness of the trial itself, dealing with the footprint and issues of competitors in incumbent carriers, who are not necessarily keen on other competitive trials taking place with their traditional customers. But the main lessons were around the technical build and rollout.

It was not set up to trial a lot of services and applications, because they did not exist at that time. But there is no doubt that the lessons from the TasCOLT trial were worth a lot, both for the feedback we gave to the federal government and also for the basic understanding and trialling of things such as the G3 cabling that came from Corning. It was the first time it had been used outside America and it was used in Tasmania. For the lay person, it is essentially a plug and play technology. Rather than having optical splicing take place out in the field, you cut the cable to size at the factory. It has connections that drop from a junction that contains ports that you use to connect the drop cables to the houses. So it reduces the labour requirements. It was the first time that this system had been deployed outside the US.

So significant technical, build and regulatory issues were confronted during the trial, such as connecting ONUs or external units to Natural Trust listed houses and dealing with councils about access to street furniture such as telegraph poles, light fittings, when you go above ground, when you go below ground and backhaul. There were a range of issues confronted and resolved. It was a valuable project and it gave us some indication of the process around encouraging uptake from households passed who did not initially opt to take the service.

CHAIR —That is what I am trying to get my head around. If you put these connections in, what service was offered to people and what were they—

Mr McCann —Essentially we were looking at trialling just increased internet speeds. There are some lessons there. We started this project five or six years ago and it was mainly the technical build rollout and whether there was an interest in the community. One of the suburbs that we rolled the project out in had been carpet bombed by an incumbent carrier with special offers for the life of our trial. But we still had a 50-plus per cent interest in the trial and in receiving the drop cable.

CHAIR —It is interesting because we had that evidence in Scottsdale—that part of the slow retail signup was that there had been a fairly aggressive marketing campaign there beforehand, so people are now locked into contracts. You had a similar experience?

Mr McCann —That happens. Before it happened it was obviously a major concern, but I was amazed, considering what we were offering and the suburb that was chosen. It was metropolitan by Tasmanian standards, but it was not the North Shore of Sydney or somewhere you would think the greatest uptake would be. There was not a particularly high proportion of units and flats or student accommodation involved but we had a great deal of interest and a fairly strong initial response.

CHAIR —Did you drill down into why people were interested and what they were looking to utilise it for? Did you get anything on that?

Mr McCann —I think a lot of it was that people were keen to be part of something. Initially there was no charge associated with it. The other thing was that if you had someone analyse it from the market point of view, there might have been a bit of a protest vote about lack of competition. Also, there were a certain number of people who were keen to see what ‘faster speed’ meant, being frustrated by the lack of speed they were receiving over a copper or ADSL2 service.

Mr NEVILLE —I have just a few questions on that. You say in your submission 600 homes and 1,500 people. Was that it? I thought you said 1,500 homes.

Mr McCann —Fifteen hundred homes passed.

Mr NEVILLE —But 600 connected.

Mr McCann —Yes.

Mr NEVILLE —Did you use similar technology to what has been rolled out in Scottsdale, for example?

Mr McCann —It was an earlier style of technology, but it was a passive optic network.

Mr NEVILLE —Did you go aerially?

Mr McCann —We were using the Aurora resources with telegraph poles. The reason we did that was that it was the most cost effective way of conducting a trial.

Mr NEVILLE —Were the junction boxes to the houses free?

Mr McCann —Yes. It was a trial.

Mr NEVILLE —Did you have four ports—

Mr McCann —No, the ONUs at the time used two ports, but they were capable of gigabit speeds if required. They were the CEOS boxes.

Mr NEVILLE —What ISPs cooperated with the trial?

Mr McCann —We were using Aurora and their partner, TasTel, at the time.

Mr NEVILLE —They were the only ones who were selling retail services?

Mr McCann —Yes. It was a trial more of the technology and the rollout than service levels and service provided.

Mr NEVILLE —What sorts of speeds were you getting?

Mr McCann —That is another aspect of the trial at the stage.

Mr NEVILLE —In round figures.

Mr McCann —We could have had a gigabit if required or 25 megabits, but essentially the service offering for the initial trial was choked to around about four megabits.

Mr NEVILLE —What would be the advantage in that, though? Good ADSL2 would be going closer, wouldn’t it?

Mr McCann —Not really, and the speeds even at peak for ADSL2 were not achieving that. There was a decision made that the first offering of the speed would be at around four because of the service offerings that were around at the same time in other trials compared to the broadband over power line trials at the time. That was a decision that was made by Aurora.

Mr NEVILLE —Have those people stayed connected?

Mr McCann —A lot of them are still connected, yes, and that network has been passed on to the TasTel network. Since then the speeds have been, and can be, increased. It just depends. Essentially, if your question is: can this architecture be used to deliver speeds comparable to the NBN and what is being talked about, the answer is yes.

Mr NEVILLE —What was the feedback from the 600?

Mr McCann —There was a range of feedback.

Mr NEVILLE —Let me come at it in another way. We had evidence yesterday that the NBN has, effectively, gone past 70 per cent of homes. They have accepted the boxes; yet only 15 per cent have taken up the actual retail application of it and become fully connected. What was your experience and can you offer an explanation as to why that uptake would be so low?

Mr McCann —Our experience was that probably 50 per cent accepted the drop cable. We were pleased with those results at the time, because that was in 2006. We did door-to-door knocking and spoke to people. We had quite a substantial build-up to it. Of that 50 per cent, 50 per cent took a service. So we are down to about 25 per cent taking a service, which, once again, for the purposes of the trial we were quite happy with. You have asked me the question about the levels of uptake in the current three sites in Tasmania.

Mr NEVILLE —What were those sites, as a matter of interest?

Mr McCann —Our sites were New Town in southern Tasmania, South Hobart, which is also a second release site down here for the NBN, and Devonport. There is only a very small footprint in Devonport, but basically what I do is—

Mr NEVILLE —Test a provincial city.

Mr McCann —Yes, test a provincial city, but also test the trunk network. We were quite early. At the stage we were at it was all leading edge.

Mr NEVILLE —What were your ISPs charging per month?

Mr McCann —The trial was free.

Mr NEVILLE —For how long? Are they paying now for—

Mr McCann —It was about 18 months. Now that service is provided by Tastel. I do not have the figures as to what they are charging their customers.

Mr NEVILLE —Is it more or less than NBN?

Mr McCann —I think it would be comparable. If not comparable with NBN then it would certainly be comparable with the current market rates.

Mr NEVILLE —From that trial we have also had evidence that the tourist industry, albeit a lot of them are small, mum-and-dad shows, have not engaged very much with e-commerce. From your experience of the ones connected to your trial, did you notice any material gain in the businesses that did connect?

Mr McCann —We had positive feedback from businesses who had experienced frustration before with poor speeds. There were one or two organisations that, post the trial, then opted to use those connections for higher speeds. So your question was: was there an increase in electronic commerce activity?

Mr NEVILLE —Yes.

Mr McCann —Essentially, if you use the broad term of electronic commerce, there were people using it for home entertainment and movies and to have the capacity for more than one user in the household to be on it.

Mr NEVILLE —Were there any schools or hospitals that had joined up?

Mr McCann —There were two hospital campuses connected in parallel with this trial that, because of the amount of data that they were moving, entered into a commercial relationship with the carrier because it was not appropriate that those sort of organisations have access to a—

Mr NEVILLE —So they worked in parallel but not strictly within the—

Mr McCann —They used the infrastructure and they were shifting significant amounts of data between their campuses. I imagine it was to do with the range of data that hospitals have but also with imaging and bodies of material like that.

Mrs PRENTICE —You mentioned that you ran a series of broadband information seminars to the regions.

Mr McCann —That is right.

Mrs PRENTICE —And yet the Tasmanian chamber of commerce said before that they felt there was an incredible lack of knowledge and understanding. Do you believe that?

Mr McCann —I did manage to hear Robert when he was speaking. I think he was saying that there is a great lack of understanding about the process around this major infrastructure project, which I think could be an issue too but I do not put it at the feet of NBN Co. It is a major infrastructure project and their job is to build the infrastructure. What it points to and what Robert is saying is that there is a need for parallel awareness raising, which could be quite modest and not necessarily costly, that goes to the areas of general awareness raising and demystifying what NBN is all about. I have, given my background, quite a strategy on how that should be done and how it could be done cost-effectively to demonstrate the benefits of NBN.

CHAIR —Do you want to reflect on who you think should be doing that and where it could be done usefully?

Mr McCann —That is a good question. I do have an opinion on that.

Mr NEVILLE —Have you written a paper on your view?

Mr McCann —No. The view I am being asked about now is—

Mr NEVILLE —Will you provide the committee with your view?

Mr McCann —I will more than happily do that. If I can just speak at a higher level to answer your question now, a lot of sentiment has been stirred up and there is a lot of activity and a lot of goodwill around the major infrastructure project and the difference it can make, particularly for regional Australia—and for everybody else—to the nature of competition at the wholesale level. I believe there are significant channels out there that are trusted organisations, whether they are associations or regional development bodies, who can assist. A lesson of the past, of 10 years ago when we were demystifying and raising awareness about electronic commerce, is that the main thing that gets people, organisations and communities over the line is actually seeing it being used by someone and seeing it provide a fundamental service that has changed the way they go about doing business, their household or the community. To give an example, when we started in electronic commerce it was in its early days, yet that was only 12 years ago. I work with it every day, so I should be pretty numb to it, but I am still amazed at the change in the level of debate and what people now see as the potential through telecommunications. When we initially talked to Tasmanian businesses, we found there was a real enthusiasm about NBN as it is much the same as around the rest of regional Australia, but there is a real appetite in Tasmania to trial and develop things and to grasp opportunities.

The electronic commerce models that were being touted when I turned up were, ‘Why don’t you adopt electronic commerce? Amazon do it and John Deere tractors do it.’ They are major organisations and, while people are keen about it, they cannot really see how that applies to their Tasmanian business. In the first two or so rounds of funding with the TECC we worked with some icon companies go here such as Blundstone’s, Tasmanian Apple and Pear Growers Association and the Rock Lobster Association, and we solved some of their problems, even if was just around active websites, bar coding, real-time logistics and getting them used to EC on the infrastructure at the time. When people saw the business leaders of Tasmania embracing it, if you could put a name of a business close to you using it, the level of uptake was quite significant. Remember we started with the main level of electronic commerce being the fax. This was 1997-98, so not that long ago. We did several exercises raising awareness and getting to the point of making people aware of what their customers were requiring and also what their suppliers were doing. So you get that business supply chain effect of the carrot and the stick of the opportunities and also the compliance issue of putting things like returns and banking online. So that got a critical mass of people moving to what we now consider basic electronic commerce but 10 years ago it was just starting to  happen.

CHAIR —So you back up what Robert said to us about demonstrator models?

Mr McCann —Demonstrations are the way to go, but I also think that it needs to be done in a way, if you are talking about the NBN, that protects the brand of the NBN. It is not about trials on the network and everybody having a go; it is by choosing some major areas. The ones I do not have a problem with and think are quite logical are the e-health, in-home health trials, the connected classroom type model and for businesses videoconferencing and the reduction in travel times and those sorts of exercises. That is a good logical way of doing it. We do not need a layer of 120 organisations around the country doing it but we do need a central view on the best strategy for conducting formal trials and demonstration projects, and have those lessons disseminated through the whole network through these channels—not necessarily everybody having a go at running an NBN project. That has a counter-productive effect. The lessons from electronic commerce we did 12 years ago I think very much apply to where we are at with the NBN project or, if you like, the digital transformation of Australia. If you say ‘NBN’, people get confused about the actual job of the company and the process surrounding it.

Mrs PRENTICE —You mentioned some trials you did. Were you hanging optic fibre?

Mr McCann —Yes, that was the TasCOLT project.

Mrs PRENTICE —Do you support the idea that we roll a duplicate over the top or do you think we should be connecting into that existing one?

Mr McCann —That is an interesting one. Both have their pros and cons. That is the question I would really have to refer to the engineers at NBN Co. and Aurora. This was a small trial of 1,500 homes passed. I know as part of the network that has been designed in Tasmania the Tasmanian government backbone is being used to connect major regions and there is no doubt this network that has been structured, even though it has now been handed to the Tastel company in Tasmania, the actual cabling going down the streets is the G3 cabling that is being used, as I understand it, for the major rollout. Obviously our trial was designed six years earlier so we are using different ONUs in the premises. It was set up with a different model by being a closed trial, having a head end for video production and pushing content out from a central head end instead of being open to the whole internet. As a small trial it might make some sense to use it where appropriate but it is small beer in terms of the national rollout of a major project like the NBN.

Mr FLETCHER —Can you remind us roughly what is the number of premises in Tasmania and the number of premises that are taking a broadband service?

Mr McCann —I would not like to mislead the group here. I understand that the figure being used for the number of premises in Tasmania counts everything from small businesses in sheds up to houses, and there are about 200,000 premises in Tasmania. I think that is how many Aurora connect power to. That implies that they are households or businesses. At the end of stage 2 and 3 rollout of NBN, I think the projection is to cover 100,000 of those premises. They are the figures that I know. Who is currently connected with what was loosely called broadband in the past I do not know. I have a rough idea, but I would not like to mislead you on those figures.

Mr FLETCHER —Is there a broad figure as to the percentage of households in Tasmania today that take a broadband service?

Mr McCann —There would be, and I will undertake to find that figure out for you. It depends, once again, on what your definition of broadband is, so I shy away from some sort of universal figure on that. With the stage 2 and 3 rollout and the 100,000 premises, having attended on occasion and having quite a strong network from being in this field for 12 years and having worked with Telstra, Optus, Primus and a whole range of carriers and IT companies, and being aware of what is going on in other states—you get a network of people that work in the state governments around the country—I would put a strong case that the best place in a regional location to do a demonstration of this for the national benefit is Tasmania, because we have the government assets that were part of the Tasmanian contribution to the project and because the rollout has commenced down here.

As I understand it, the architecture is exactly compatible with what is being rolled out on the mainland, and in the next two to three years a lot of the strategies should be organised in parallel around the migration of government business, what the household of the future will look like and what the business of the future will look like. There is a benefit in starting in a location like Tasmania that is on the bottom of the pile with regard to current utilisation and uptake of internet services and having a state government involved in making an application to the NBN. Obviously a state government has its own health system, education system, police and emergency services, and, in the next two or three years, Tasmania should have a high percentage of its population covered in the NBN rollout and may be the best place to conduct intensive trials and get learnings. There is a benefit to being first from that point of view, in that it builds up an infrastructure of research. We have had Paddy Nixon here today, and it obviously ties in with some of the work being done by groups such as IBES in Melbourne and NICTA and those sorts of organisations.

Mr FLETCHER —Thanks for that. If I can just build on the question, what are the drivers of take-up for households?

Mr McCann —Obviously the inhabitants of the households—and that has to depend on the demographics. It was interesting when I looked at some material that showed that the smart house of the future, described in 2007, was looking at a two-megabit connection providing all the things you required. In 2011 we are looking at a 50-megabit provision of the demand just being placed by things like in-home video, environmental monitoring, children requiring education connectivity, government services and things like health ideally moving towards in-home health care and those sorts of services. I think the drivers for it are going to be the growing sophistication of the population and the fact that real efficiencies can be achieved in providing government services to a sophisticated population requiring and seeking retail experience at home and the requirement of people to remain connected. I hope that answers your question.

Mr FLETCHER —How important do you think price is as a factor for households determining whether or not to take up a broadband service?

Mr McCann —I would be silly if I did not say I thought it was important, but price for what? It does not compare to anything we are doing at the moment in terms of telecommunications services, because we are moving into a whole new period of service provision. So, yes, price is an issue. And the area at the moment, I guess, is the service for the price that NBN will be providing access to RSPs for in the future. But that is what you actually receive for that price going forward, which is a very different scenario to what we currently think of as our voice and data connections and the other services that are being provided. So it depends on what is being offered and the cost efficiencies that come from government services, health services and education being provided into the home. Naturally if it is a wholly competitive area there will be those market forces behind the drive for customers. It does not overly concern me at this stage.

Mr FLETCHER —Thinking about the 70 per cent penetration figure that NBN Co. is using in its corporate plan, I am interested in knowing how that compares with current broadband penetration in Tasmania. My impression is that it is somewhat higher than current penetration levels. I am also interested in your views as to what needs to be done to achieve that kind of penetration level in Tasmania specifically.

Mr McCann —They are three good points that we should obviously talk about. I notice with the NBN Co. corporate plan that they are going to update it within a 12-month period. So it is obviously a fluid and flexible document, which make sense. I go back to the point I made before that the level of penetration at the moment is probably typical of regional Australia. On a state basis it suffers because we do not have the big population centres of the major states. But I still think we are not talking about the same thing. Getting to this debate about price and speed is not relevant to what the future holds in terms of what services there will be, the efficiencies that will come from that and having a mass ubiquitous rollout where things delivered in one state can then be delivered across the whole nation using the same fundamental layer of technology in telecommunications. Besides that, I have to say it is very exciting.

The situation is that services have not been available to warrant people taking up a broadband connection in the future. However, by the nature of it and the general interest we are seeing from associations, regional bodies and groups making submissions to panels such as this, there is now a groundswell of interest in broadband connection. But there has to be something there for the buyers to purchase to justify it. No doubt a generational change will come and I would have thought that 70 per cent penetration, given my exposure to and understanding of some of the services that will be provided, would be achievable. It depends on the time frame and how active the next layer becomes, which are the RSPs.

One thing I am curious about is why there is not more service delivery development and trialling. That is why a good network in Tasmania would be a great place for that to happen, using the services such as those of the university, which I believe you covered with Professor Nixon this morning. The fact that there is a broadband enabled society group at Melbourne university, NICTA and these sorts of bodies, as well as the CSIRO, means that we should be looking at what these services will be in partnership with the RSPs.

Mr FLETCHER —Was your organisation involved in any work done, for example, by the Tasmanian government on projecting demand levels for broadband services prior to TNBN Co. or NBN Co. being announced?

Mr McCann —I believe those surveys were produced but they were probably undertaken by an arm of government. We are separate to government. We were doing other elements of the TasCOLT trial. I understand those surveys were undertaken using one of the departments or maybe they were conducted through their partner at the time, Aurora. Obviously, the Tasmanian government submission had several partners at the time. So there is no doubt that there would have been the rigour of both the public sector application to the federal government and that of their private sector partners. There is no doubt that a certain amount of research was done.

Mr SYMON —I would like to ask you a couple of questions about an area we have not really spoken about so far. It goes to one of the terms of reference about the management of Australia’s built and natural resources and environmental sustainability. You have a short section in your submission to the committee that particularly touches on environmental monitoring and remote sensing. I would like to ask what the difference would be between an NBN fibre network in place and what is available now. Is this a case of speed or reach or a bit of both?

Mr McCann —I think there is a benefit to having a ubiquitous service as a minimum standard right across Australia. I think it is about 12 megabits when you take in the wireless proposal at the moment. This means that innovators and people who are responsible for monitoring natural assets can start to develop innovative tools, knowing that there is a minimum base standard right across Australia. Rather than setting the bar low we are setting the bar at a reasonable level for that sort of exercise. A lot of the stuff we are talking about with environmental monitoring can be done at the sensor level using the wireless network. Given the nature of a lot of remote stuff it will probably be in the six per cent or seven per cent or whatever is covered by wireless or satellite.

A good wireless network, however, does need a good backbone and backhaul. The beauty of it being part of an overall national network is that that information can be sent back real time, whether it is emergency, disaster awareness, warning systems, tsunamis—you name it. A system that allows that material, however it is detected and monitored, to be sent back in real time through a strong network—using that cloud principle again, I suppose, of remote sensors to central areas—is no doubt empowered by a strong fibre network.

Mr SYMON —You go on in your submission to talk about community and social benefits. In particular, you mention a paper by Dr Tim Williams, who I had the pleasure of seeing up in Canberra a little while ago at the Press Club. I found that quite fascinating because he did not speak about the technical side of broadband but about social inclusion and social exclusion because of the digital divide. I would like to ask your opinion on that paper, as far as you have seen it, in terms of how the application to Australia in many ways, as I saw it, would be similar to what was written about in Britain.

Mr McCann —What it does show is that the discussion around social inclusion is obviously not an issue that we are paddling alone on; it has been dealt with in other centres. For your reference, that is actually part of a book, which you may have seen, that was put out by Huawei, who I think sponsored Dr Williams. I think there are lots of good learnings there. We are all aware of these issues, but it is important to show the issues of social inclusion and the issue of the digital divide, which was talked about when we had one of President Clinton’s advisers, Mr Larry Irvins, out here in the early 2000s—the issue of connecting communities, the social aspects and being aware of it as a tool for social inclusion. We have heard about in-home health care and the effect that has. The fact that people want to remain connected—I am sure you have heard several examples of that—is a major social positive to this whole exercise and has been mentioned. I do not have the figures, but I am sure it has an impact on the cost of health and health services, and on the wellbeing of the community.

It is a great paper and a very useful point. With groups such as the Institute for a Broadband-Enabled Society, a national body based in Melbourne, this sort of survey and developing upon it in the Australian context is a significant area that should be looked at.

Mr SYMON —In a Tasmanian context, in particular, I am more interested in the fact that we heard evidence today and yesterday about people who did not take up the option of connection to the National Broadband Network. My question relates to social exclusion for people such as those who, as more and more services are moved to an online sphere, will become more and more remote, even though they may live quite close. Is there a way that you see your organisation can have a role in trying to get that connection happening with people who are at risk of social exclusion, even though they might not be at the moment, because they are not taking up a new technology?

Mr McCann —That is an interesting point, and if I had the complete answer to that—

Mr SYMON —I haven’t!

Mr McCann —I would be a very competent and capable person, wouldn’t I. There is awareness around the way that information is going to be handled and delivered in the future and the opportunity and the ease with which it can be done. The digital switch-over task force, which has been talking about the move from analog to digital television—it is quite a severe change; analog will be switched off—is a process that I think has been handled very well. It had a task force dedicated to it.

This is where it comes back to the overall sense of community—the involvement of regional development organisations and community awareness, even at street level, of how it impacts on the community. It is a major issue that needs to be factored into, almost, systems in parallel. I am sure there is no idea that all government services and health services are going to be switched directly to an online service. But whether people connect at the household level, or whether certain people are reluctant to or will not connect, is also through community services. We have seen online access centres been quite successful in regional communities for a long time. So if people are not doing it at the household level they are still having the benefit and the effect of the digitisation of services and online community through other mechanisms.

But I agree that is an area that needs to be part of the digital transformation processes that state governments, local governments and community groups need to be aware of. I think that the paper that Dr Williams has produced is a very handy starting point for that.

CHAIR —Thank you very much for that and thank you for your attendance here today. If you have been asked to provide any additional information, please forward it to the secretariat. You will be sent a copy of the transcript of your evidence, to which you can make corrections of grammar and fact. Thanks very much again. It was very useful information for us, so we appreciate it.

[11.36 am]