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STANDING COMMITTEE ON INFRASTRUCTURE AND COMMUNICATIONS
17/03/2011
Role and potential of the National Broadband Network

CHAIR —Welcome. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should 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 do not have a written submission from you to the inquiry. I noticed that you were watching the previous session and would note that members are very interested in asking questions. Would you like to make a five-minute opening statement, Helen, and then we will have a question-and-answer session?

Dr Thompson —Firstly, thank you for the opportunity to come along today and present. The centre at which I am a director at the University of Ballarat has been around for a long time. It is a very successful centre. Probably from our initiation, back in 1998, the internet and community use of the internet to make a difference, whether it is in business, in social or in economic life, in a regional context primarily, has been our mission. While we now work across Australia, that is still a large part of what our centre is about. Enabling communities, not-for-profit organisations and government to understand where technology can make a difference is something we are very passionate about.

In this particular region we played a significant role in the strategic planning. As you have already heard, there are things like the ICT 2030 strategy, which underpins Ballarat ICT Ltd, the Central Highlands regional ICT study and the Wimmera Southern Mallee study. We are also working with communities around Warrnambool, the five local government areas around Warrnambool, and also in the Yarra Ranges in eastern metropolitan Melbourne. We hope that we can help communities discover the opportunities that are most relevant to them. They can use technology in all its forms and whatever they have available now, plus whatever can come in the future, to leverage up the competitive advantages that they already have—to build upon what they are already renowned for.

If we are talking about the south-west, dairying is an area of competitive advantage where technology can support further advances in that sector. Today we have already heard about the importance of education and health and how, as an enabler, ICT can add value and improve service delivery in those areas. From our centre’s perspective, from the university’s perspective but also from that learning and teaching perspective at the university we see significant opportunities for next-generation broadband telecommunications and web based technologies.

CHAIR —Thank you. Can you just give me a sense then what your centre would do, if it were requested, as you have mentioned, by the small group of councils around a dairying region? You would go in and do an assessment of what their competitive advantage is and then talk to them? I am just trying to picture exactly how you would do something like that.

Dr Thompson —We might take a specific example of how we helped the Moorabool Shire. There would be a combination of activities. Some of it involves engagement with local government. Some of it involves engagement with businesses through face-to-face consultation and through case studies.  Some of it involves engagement of businesses and community members through surveys either paper based or hard copy.

CHAIR —I just want to take you one step back. Does your centre decide to do this or does somebody come and say, ‘We’d like this done’? Could you take us through what actually happens?

Dr Thompson —I think as you have already picked up we are in a pretty proactive region in this space, communities tend to look over the fence and that is definitely what has happened. Ballarat has a significant ICT sector in its own right. It has an industry focus as well as that enabling focus for ICT. If you have that industry capability then there is more opportunity for that to stretch beyond the municipal boundaries and so in a high-growth, young population such as the Moorabool shire with lots of young people, lots of ageing people, and lots of different issues. I think in that case they had a CEO who was very keen to explore—

CHAIR —Right, so it was actually the council itself that approached your centre?

Dr Thompson —The council would have initiated it. Then when this council presented to the broader group of councils they would have then said, ‘I think this is something that has broader value, let’s chip in and do something for the wider region.’

CHAIR —They then jointly fund a study that your centre does for them?

Dr Thompson —Yes, and we do that in partnership with Lateral Plains which is a business that is also presenting at this forum today.

CHAIR —Okay. So do you then go in and do, as you described, the surveys and the consultation meetings across the sector of the region you are covering to identify their strengths and opportunities?

Dr Thompson —Yes, and some of it is actually bringing information to those regions, so bringing NBN Co., bringing the Department of Broadband, Communications and Digital Economy representatives, state government representatives into key stakeholder forums or open community forums so that people in the region can present what they are doing in the ICT area but we can also get that sort of expertise from elsewhere to help people know what the landscape looks like and what the opportunities are.

CHAIR —This is very useful evidence to us because one of our tasks is to say to the federal government, ‘To maximise the NBN, here are some things that areas could be doing.’ For regional and rural areas we hear a lot of evidence, which I do not doubt, about the potential of it to transform them, but you are actually doing it and that is of particular interest to us. Could you give us some of your perceptions from your own experience? You are a centre at the university, how do you think the federal government could facilitate this sort of thing? Is it about funding councils to do studies; is it perhaps through regional development bodies? Do you have a sense of what might actually drive more councils to engage in the way the case study you are talking about has occurred?

Dr Thompson —In regional Victoria our sense is that there is really strong demand right now to do things. One of the challenges as a researcher has been determining what things we believe are really going to make a difference and how we can support those. In the context of the NBN, getting there first has been one of the things that regions have wanted to achieve. While we celebrate that Bacchus Marsh has had that opportunity and we would loudly advocate for wireless or other early release opportunities in this region, I suppose we had to step back and think about what approaches could be replicated that would increase the readiness of regions. We think we have identified quite a range of those. One way is spatial accounting using web 2.0 type technologies in community consultation and engagement so that businesses and community members can add their voice on what it is like for them using ICT right now. If they can see how their voice matches up with others by immediately being able to access—and we can send through further information on this—maps in terms of what people are paying for their telecommunications services now, how satisfied they are with them, what they think would be different if—

Mr NEVILLE —You have got a report with that sort of data, have you?

Dr Thompson —At this stage we have done that work across 13 local government areas and we are currently working with—

Mr NEVILLE —Is that compiled into one document?

Dr Thompson —There is a series of reports. Yes, they are.

Mr NEVILLE —Could you send it to us as an exhibit?

Dr Thompson —Yes, I could. I think mapping information that is already out in the public domain is also useful. Instead of having a list of NBN towns and a PDF that shows where different sorts of connectivity will be received, we probably provide that information to our communities in a much more intuitive form. Organisations like ACCAN are interested in the approach that we have taken in that area. I think there are opportunities for support and local government and the Regional Development Australia committees—there are super regions and smaller regions within those—using those established structures in coming up with their own plans is an important thing.

CHAIR —Just before I move on, do you do a similar thing by industry sector? Is it mainly local government that comes to you or do you get industry sectors such as, for example, dairy? We have had evidence about some of the advantages for the agricultural sector in high-speed broadband access. Do you get industry sector approaches?

Dr Thompson —Our largest partner would be the Grains Research and Development Corporation. Our longest partner would be the Birchip Cropping Group. So we work with groups like the Birchip Cropping Group and have done since 1999 on their knowledge management, their sharing of information among members and the publication of research in ways that engage farmers in changing their business practices. So we have a lot of experience in a whole range of different sectors. I thought it was interesting that you asked before about tourism businesses. A web based business skilling program that was a pilot in the goldfields tourism region, which was taken up by the Victorian tourism accreditation body and now underpins the Australian tourism accreditation program, is an example of using web based technologies.

Mr NEVILLE —It was the pilot, so to speak, was it?

Dr Thompson —It was a pilot in this region. We were proactive in engaging with the broader sector to say, ‘If this has been useful here, perhaps it would be useful if it was rolled out more broadly.’ They have taken that on board. In the community legal sector, there are single-source publishing technologies to support organisations who produce plain-language information. They have teams of subject matter experts who work together to produce the content, but they have always done that in old-fashioned ways. So modernising the processes of those volunteers who produce public-good information is another area where we have had a lot of success.

Mr NEVILLE —How many full-time equivalent students does the University of Ballarat have?

Dr Thompson —We have 26,000 students. Approximately 13,000 of those students are in higher education and approximately 13,000 are in TAFE subjects.

Mr NEVILLE —You run the TAFE system here as well?

Dr Thompson —The University of Ballarat has students ranging from year 10 right through to doctorates.

Mr NEVILLE —That is an unusual model.

Dr Thompson —It has grown. The UB Tec is a technical facility within the University of Ballarat. That is where the year 10s and 11s come in. But we have had TAFE as part of the University of Ballarat for quite some time—10 years, I think, but I am not exactly sure.

Mr NEVILLE —There are 13,000 doing tertiary courses?

Dr Thompson —Yes. They are not all at Mount Helen. In my particular school, the School of Business, 90 per cent of the students are not in Ballarat.

Mr NEVILLE —Your school is Business and it incorporates commerce and communications?

Dr Thompson —We are a centre that is associated with the School of Business, but there is also another centre within the School of Business, which is the Centre for Regional Innovation and Competitiveness.

Mr NEVILLE —So you sit out to the side of that?

Dr Thompson —Yes. We do not have direct involvement in learning and teaching.

Mr NEVILLE —You are a research unit of that?

Dr Thompson —That is correct.

Mr NEVILLE —You do not run a course in e-communications, for example?

Dr Thompson —The School of Business would run e-communications units.

Mr NEVILLE —You made the interesting comment that you feel there is a fair bit of looking over the fence. You seem to imply there that the use of e-commerce in medicine, e-education or whatever is not just driven by need but there is, if you will excuse the tautology, a prospective opportunity in that people are looking to use the computer as an opportunity. Have I picked that up from your evidence?

Dr Thompson —We have had success in that area, so you have to look deeper in that area. This study of Ballarat’s e-health capability is a niche study that was not done by the University of Ballarat. It profiles what is already happening in the e-health space in terms of the industry sector and it looks at opportunities in terms of where a greater benefit can be extracted.

Mr NEVILLE —Can you give us nine copies of that?

Dr Thompson —Yes, I can do that. Ballarat has the ICT industry as well. There has been strong collaboration between the City of Ballarat, the University of Ballarat and other regional champions that have been in that ICT space. There has also been very strong support from both the state and federal governments for the initiatives that have come up. That has enabled the community to look at areas where innovation can occur and business and other efficiencies can be gained.

CHAIR —So you are saying that success breeds success—people see good things and pursue further opportunities?

Dr Thompson —Yes, that is right. You have to learn to experiment in some ways.

Mr NEVILLE —Let me be a bit provocative here. You have talked about collating and sourcing data electronically and through paper surveys as well. You obviously have a great wealth of information to position Ballarat and the region. Who is the driver who puts that knowledge into action? You can go all over Australia and there are committees everywhere running this information and going round to councils and things telling them what they should be doing. Everyone is a centre of advice. But I get the feeling—possibly through the council—that here in Ballarat there is a move to drive this knowledge. Who is the driver of your knowledge?

Dr Thompson —I think we are fortunate. I think we have had multiple drivers; it is shared, it is distributed.

Mr NEVILLE —And they keep coming back to you to refine the information and so on?

Dr Thompson —They are clever in the way they engage us—for nothing sometimes! I would be a director of Ballarat ICT Ltd, for example. That keeps me involved not just as one of the co-authors of the writing of the strategy but also in its implementation.

Mr NEVILLE —Can you identify industries or services that have come here, or new modes of medicine that are practised here, directly as a result of the surveys?

Dr Thompson —I am not sure I can make a link to the survey, but I could make it from strategic planning more broadly. I will go back to the 2010 strategy that Ballarat had. IBM now have nearly 1,000 people employed at the technology park. They came here because the state government was outsourcing some of its work to a regional area. The company that won the tender had to locate in a regional area, and that regional area was Ballarat. Regional stakeholders got together at that stage and said, ‘This is fantastic for economic development, it is fantastic for employment, but what else can we add to it?’ That is when they would have said, ‘We’re going to have a strategy around IT and build niche capabilities in a particular area.’ They sold that story very well. We can look at what has been achieved with this strategy. Whether by architecture and design, or whether some of it just happened, it has happened. So Ballarat, in terms of its ICT industry, is reaching critical mass, though I would not say we have got there yet.

Mr NEVILLE —I understand where you are coming from. We have got to report to the parliament and to the government on how the NBN is going to work that up and be more productive and deliver things in various sectors. You seem to have been doing a lot of baseload work. Can you give us some examples of how high-speed or normal speed e-information has been a driver for things to happen?

Dr Thompson —At a particular business level?

Mr NEVILLE —Business, health. Show us some ways in which the quality of the data you are putting together, or the vision that has come out of the data you have put together, has driven, as I said before, new modes of medicine or brought an industry to town or refined a rural industry or whatever it might be. Those are the sorts of things we have got to write about in our report, and you are coming the closest of the witnesses we have heard so far to providing that. So we would very much appreciate that.

CHAIR —You can take that on notice if you want to come back with some hard examples. That would be really useful.

Dr Thompson —The case studies in each area of the work we do would probably do that to some extent, but I will have a think about the question.

CHAIR —In a perfect world, what would be the five things that, if you did them in conjunction with the infrastructure, would in your experience really maximise the usage of the NBN?

Dr Thompson —It depends on how you break it down. Even something like the diagram in this report helps to do some of that. This report was done from a local government perspective. It says there are certain things local government can do themselves internally as an organisation in terms of making the most effective use of ICT. There are things around infrastructure and planning. Do we need certain policies? What planning requirements can we do in a local government area? There are external strategies. You heard earlier the evidence from the City of Ballarat about local government having a role in helping businesses and community organisations to identify where the opportunities are for them. And there is advocacy and profiling, which is celebrating what you are doing well and advocating for what you are missing. Even something like that starts to—

CHAIR —If you could submit that to us in that format as an example—’Here is the project we did and here is what those parts were and that is why it worked’—that would be great.

Mr SYMON —I should ask you about the Shire of Yarra Ranges, which you brought up earlier on. It is actually the adjoining LGA to where I live. Even though I am in suburban Melbourne, not that far past me it becomes not quite sparsely populated but certainly more open. I imagine that some of the issues they have in the Shire of Yarra Ranges are similar to what we have here in Ballarat. Did you approach them, or did they approach you?

Dr Thompson —They approached Lateral Plains, the other company we do this work with. Lateral Plains would have said, ‘We usually do this work with the university.’ But yes, they would have invited us to submit a response for a tender.

Mr SYMON —So your reputation was out there and they followed?

Dr Thompson —We would like to think so!

Mr SYMON —From a local government services delivery aspect, what were you able to point them in the direction of that they were not currently doing?

Dr Thompson —It is probably too early to answer that because that work is in progress in Yarra Ranges and it is fairly early days. At the moment, we are doing the desktop research and community and business data collection phase. At this stage we have had conversations with 15 to 20 businesses. It is across the whole spectrum. It includes Swinburne University and all sorts of industries. It is not just the ICT sector. This is to get an idea of where the uptake is in terms of the use of the technology right now and what local people think the opportunities and barriers are. I think you are right. One of the interesting things I am looking forward to seeing is how different the connectivity issues in rural and regional areas, which is traditionally where we have worked, will be. Someone from Yarra Ranges was telling us they thought their telecommunications were fine. But, when it is wet, both the exchanges get inundated with water and they have got no connectivity. That happens. They were not seeing that as a particular issue. If that happened to me, I would be jumping up and down. So sometimes what some people see as a real issue other people just understand. They think, ‘It is the weather and we can’t do much about that.’

Mr SYMON —That is an interesting example. Yarra Ranges has some pockets of very high income and some pockets of very low income. It is also a fairly large tourism area.

Dr Thompson —Yes, and it is a very big patch in terms of its geographical size.

Mr SYMON —Yes, it is. It is not a mirror of Ballarat but it has many similarities.

Dr Thompson —Yes. That is one of the best things about a community like the Moorabool Shire and the concept of the NBN fanning out from a first release site to other sites. That shire has everything from urban sprawl to agriculture, enterprise and lower socioeconomic areas where housing is cheaper. So there is that whole range of issues. It also has mountains and bushfires and things that sometimes make it difficult to deliver the same quality of connectivity. So it is great when you have got the whole range of things. It would be wonderful to see what a difference it can make.

Mr SYMON —At the conclusion of that research project, I suppose you will have something of a model by which it will be easier to transfer that knowledge to other local government authorities. It is obviously a learning process as you go through it. I imagine that as you find out more from them and from here and from other places, you will become something of a leader in that field—and you may well get many more customers.

Dr Thompson —We have been quite proactive on that with Regional Development Victoria and the RDAs in regional Victoria. We would be proactively speaking with stakeholders from across regional Victoria. State government has told us that every one of those RDAs has prioritised next generation broadband and telecommunications in their highest priorities. They are all looking for opportunities to do things which are going to make a positive difference. They have the same challenge as you—what are the things we can do right now which are going to mean we will be better positioned? We understand NBN is a big project but this work has highlighted mobile telecommunications and summarising qualitative feedback, seeing that the need for coverage and phone services were coming up as a high priority. So we say to local communities, ‘You cannot have just a single strategy, you cannot just wait for NBN. You can work with your business groups, you can work with areas where you already have a competitive advantage, you can work with the health sector and they all need different strategies.’ There are lots of positive things communities can do right now.

Mr SYMON —Your point about mobile phone coverage in Yarra Rangers is true. There are areas there where I drive and cannot talk to people. There is just not coverage, even now.

Dr Thompson  —Yes. The qualitative data helps to draw out the impact of some of that. One of the things we would advocate for in this region is the importance of trains but we would like mobile and Internet connectivity on all fast rail services, not just for our service but across regional Victoria. You cannot connect with your family and say, ‘I’m on the train.’ You want to be in contact. You want to be able to be reached. In a modern world, if I travel to Melbourne—I would have been there for four days last week—I have maybe three hours on the train. At the moment I can stay connected to the Internet for about half that time. I would like to do it for the whole time.

Mr SYMON —So you are suggesting that the train should have Wi-Fi on the train itself so that there would be one connection to the train and it would have its own Wi-Fi operating among the carriages?

Dr Thompson —Yes.

CHAIR —Thank you for your attendance today. The additional information you have been asked to provide should go to the secretariat. You will be sent a transcript of your evidence to which you can make corrections of grammar and fact. It was a very useful session, thank you.

[11.18 am]