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STANDING COMMITTEE ON INFRASTRUCTURE AND COMMUNICATIONS
18/04/2011
Role and potential of the National Broadband Network

CHAIR —Welcome. The committee does not require you to give evidence under oath. I should advise you that the hearing is, however, a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. We have a written submission from you. Would you like to make some short opening comments to that and then we will go to a question-and-answer session?

Mr Walker —For the benefit of the committee, I will talk a little about what AgForce does. We are the industry representative body of broadacre farming in Queensland. We represent over 6½ thousand broadacre producers in beef, cattle, sheep and wool and grain. They currently operate and control over 80 per cent of our landscape in Queensland and obviously are situated in remote and regional areas.

We have made a formal submission to the committee. There are a couple of points that I would like to highlight that are contained within the document. First of all, there is no doubt that current access to efficient and fast broadband services in regional and rural Queensland is well below par and, in fact, in many areas non-existent. As an organisation that tries to represent many producers in regional Queensland, we still to this day have the need to mail and fax documents to our members because they have no access to broadband or any type of internet or, alternatively, they are not educated to use those services. So there is no doubt that regional and rural Queensland are the second cousins in terms of technology use and availability, as compared to our urban counterparts.

There are no doubt some very strong social, educational and economic drivers to deliver efficient and effective broadband technology to regional Queensland. We would submit that governments at all levels have a social, moral and political obligation to provide these services in an advanced and up-to-date manner for people living in these areas.

In terms of social needs there is no doubt that regional and rural Queensland suffer, particularly in areas of health. Primary producers in Queensland have an average age of 65 and growing older. In certain areas, in particular dairy, they have an average age nearing 70. That is a sign of two things. Firstly, there is a changing demographic within the industry and a changing structure. Secondly, youth are being driven from rural and regional Queensland because of the lack of education facilities and the lack of drivers within those communities to retain those youth in regional and rural centres. That can clearly be put down to the lack of technology. There is no doubt that the next generation of farmers will require high-speed broadband access. They will require the need to download and an alternative means of interaction and education. Unfortunately, they are being let down in that regard and are being driven to major urban centres where technology is available. Unfortunately, with the continued absence of appropriate broadband access and technology, they are unable to return or choose not to return; hence, the growing age of primary producers not only here in Queensland but throughout Australia.

There is also a big need for high-speed broadband access in terms of health. Access to health services in regional and remote parts of this state is quite different to those accessed in urban areas. The ability of particularly specialist services to be delivered via an efficient and effective broadband network is key to ensuring delivery of the best available services to regional and rural Queensland. There is no doubt that, if you have a medical condition that requires access to specialist medical advice and you are living in the far-flung corners of this state, a round trip can sometimes take weeks—that is, if you are able to get a specialist appointment. That is not only a cost to the community but a cost to the health of those areas.

There is also an environmental imperative. Primary production here in Queensland and throughout Australia is under greater pressure to ensure that it manages its landscape in an effective and efficient manner. Unfortunately, the technologies available to do that and to do that remotely are not available in many parts of the state. Remote monitoring of vegetation, remote monitoring of waterholes and remote monitoring of watercourses have all been regulated and prescribed by governments at all levels. Unfortunately, the technology is not there to deliver the information that governments require. Again, the delivery of an effective and efficient broadband technology to those areas would certainly facilitate that.

I have touched on the issue of education but, again, it is not only about retaining and attracting youth back to these areas; it is about providing teachers with the tools to deliver that education in those areas. We find it increasingly difficult to attract the best and brightest teachers to the areas where there is a lack of technology and, unfortunately, that has flow-on effects for the communities.

Those are the three key areas. There is no doubt that in terms of technology much of this state is in a void. We do have a strong view that the government has an obligation to deliver that service. We hope that if the NBN can do that then there will be strong economic, social impacts and benefits for much of this state.

CHAIR —Thanks very much, Robert. The average age figures you gave for across some of the sectors there were quite astounding. It is clearly something that we should all be turning our minds to. We had evidence in Tasmania that, in many of the rural townships, there were very low school retention rates. Structurally, their system is that after year 10 equivalent you leave the school you are at to go to another school to do your final years. That is a big problem. Do you as an organisation have any feedback from your members about the issues they may be struggling with regarding retention rates of their kids. I am aware from my previous role in education of the issue of relocating their kids for university and so forth and the break that that creates with their community and the need to pull them back. I am interested in what you are hearing from your members around how they feel high-speed connection to the home may assist. What models are they looking for?

Mr Walker —There are two points to make. The first point is that, for the youth who actually stay in regional and rural Queensland, there is a lower completion rate of secondary education and a much lower flow-on effect in terms of tertiary education. That is one point. The second point is the point you made: because the technology is not there to deliver the needs of the generation in terms of education there is a dramatic shift or flow back through to major urban centres. Your point is correct. The feedback that we get is that it is very difficult to get those youth back into regional areas. That is having an impact and will continue to have an impact, I suspect, for the next generation in getting younger people back onto properties.

CHAIR —You are picking up that generational difference? Certainly, the rural doctors said to us that they are finding it harder to place young people who are training in medical school in rural areas—even if they are interested in that type of work—when they find out how disconnected they will be, because they are a digital generation. That is the sort of thing you are talking about?

Mr Walker —Yes. As an organisation we have a Twitter account and a Facebook account. They have been taken up, to a large extent, by producers aged under 35 or by people who have an interest. Unfortunately, many of those people are situated in Gatton, Brisbane, Townsville or Rockhampton. They are not on a property. That is the medium by which they interact. They interact not only with us but with their colleagues and their neighbours. Unfortunately, unless those technologies and that social interaction is available in remote areas I think those people will choose not to go back there. There is also a very high proportion of mental illness in the bush and I think that has been borne out by recent floods. Due to the remoteness of some of these properties and isolation—

CHAIR —Isolation issues.

Mr Walker —there is an inability for social interaction. We see this as a tool for producers to greater engage with their communities in a social scene. We hope that if they are able to do that the prevailing issues of mental health, mental illness and suicide in regional and rural Queensland can be diminished.

CHAIR —It is very interesting, because we had someone take the committee to task about the fact that connection using things like Skype is actually very high amongst the elderly, who are very quickly getting on to it as a way of breaking down isolation and staying in contact with friends and families where they can no longer travel in the way they once did. Is that what you are saying in terms of keeping farmers and their families in remoter areas connected with their own families and communities?

Mr Walker —There is no doubt about that. We as an organisation use that type of technology to interact with our membership where it is available and where it is not cost prohibitive. That may be at meetings or whatever, getting speakers who may not be able to travel. If people can socially interact, there is no doubt and there is evidence that will show that mental illnesses and issues like depression, even suicide, will be reduced.

CHAIR —Thank you. That is very useful information.

Mr NEVILLE —Thank you for your submission. This is not said with any sense of criticism, but in your submission you describe, for want of a better word, the ‘motherhood aspects’ of the NBN and what it can deliver. You even talk about aspirational things that could spin off that. But there seems to be a gap between that and what is happening on the ground, notwithstanding the fact that the high-speed fibre broadband has not yet been rolled out. Even at its current level of availability, the uptake of broadband in regional Australia is not that flash. Our own experience in Scottsdale, for example, was that, although 70 per cent of people had accepted the junction boxes to their houses, only 15 per cent had taken up the service. Do you find in your organisation that there is a lack of understanding of the ability of broadband or, more particularly, fibre broadband to deliver these things? And how do we get across that gap to get a better acceptance of the concept?

Mr Walker —I think that your point is valid, but if I can break it down into separate industries, though. If you take the cropping industry, they have a very high take-up of technology.

Mr NEVILLE —You mean with laser levelling?

Mr Walker —Laser levelling.

Mr NEVILLE —GPS?

Mr Walker —GPS. They utilise technology to access market price on farm, but that does not necessarily roll out to grazing and sheepmeat. I think that is also a symptom of the aging nature of the industry. The generation that take up technology a lot easier is not flowing through in terms of actual primary production and ownership of the landscape. There is also a lack of education amongst producers. We find that, even at the very basic level of education on key aspects of their business, it is a very low take-up. I think that is a generational issue. We as an industry group need to work harder at it, but I think also governments need to assist in that education. I think the point you are making is right: even where it is available, there is a low take-up.  But I think they are more generational issues than anything else.

Mr NEVILLE —Is your organisation comfortable with the 93 to seven per cent mix of fibre broadband? Does AgForce believe that more fibre should be driven out into regional areas? And, if so, what would your optimum levels be? Where do you see the gaps between 93 and 100? We know that they cannot be totally filled, but have we tried hard enough in terms of rural Australia, because a lot of rural Australia would be in that seven per cent.

Mr Walker —I think the point, which we failed to make in our written submission, is that the seven per cent that will not be delivered fibre under the NBN is probably the seven per cent that does not have access now to technology. Our optimum level is 100 per cent. I think governments need to explore all options for delivery of technology to ensure that the greatest impact and the greatest access can be achieved. We would make the point that, where there is a gap, governments need to try harder to fill that gap. We are not convinced that you cannot get 100 per cent, because I think the technology will evolve over time. But we need to ensure that we explore all options.

Mr FLETCHER —Do you have a particular view that you are putting to the committee about a minimum required speed or a particular technology? Or is your focus more on getting services widely available to your members?

Mr Walker —We are not IT experts and I do not propose to make a point about what speed is the optimum speed. Our point is about access and what benefits access to efficient internet technology, whatever that technology may be, can deliver to rural and regional Australia.

Mr FLETCHER —If the OPEL network had proceeded do you believe your members would now be better off, compared to the current position they now find themselves in?

Mr Walker —Can you explain?

Mr FLETCHER —That was a network that was to be built, commencing in 2008, under the Howard government’s Broadband Connect program. If you are not familiar with it, we will move on. What is your view about having the network serving your members run by a large, vertically integrated company that operates fibre to the home, wireless and satellite and is based in North Sydney?

Mr Walker —Having had experience in delivering services from major urban areas and cities to regional and rural areas in Queensland that are completely remote—thousands and thousands of kilometres away—it is not always effective. If someone at Julia Creek wants to get access to the service, ringing someone in North Sydney who has never got their boots dirty could be problematic.

Mr FLETCHER —Regarding the applications you talked about in your submission, and you have got across a few of them, am I right in thinking that some of the agricultural applications, like soil moisture monitoring and so on, do not so much require super-high bandwidth as they require the wider availability of a uniform bandwidth so that you can then, for example, deploy sensors in the knowledge that there will be a network for them to connect to?

Mr Walker —Yes, that is correct, whether it be soil moisture, whether it be remote monitoring of bores. Your point is correct. It is not about speed; it is about availability and general application.

Mr FLETCHER —Is it the case that your members have experienced frustrations with the existing providers—to take one example, the Telstra 3G network?

Mr Walker —Yes. There are some areas within Queensland where, for example, the Telstra 3G network works quite well, but there are many areas where it does not work well, and we would get calls every week about frustrations with Telstra or whoever the provider might be.

Mr FLETCHER —Thank you.

CHAIR —Mrs Prentice.

Mrs PRENTICE —Thank you, Chair. Mr Walker, you mentioned that you still mail and fax members because they have no broadband service. Do those members have wireless or satellite available to them but they just do not want to understand the technology and take it up, or is it just not there?

Mr Walker —I think it is a bit of both. There are some areas where they just have no service available at all. Satellite does not necessarily work, nor does wireless, just because of the tyranny of distance and the terrain they may be situated in. Others choose not to access that technology and—

Mrs PRENTICE —So you are confident that, if NBN did roll it out past the door, they would take it up?

Mr Walker —Most will; some will not.

Mrs PRENTICE —Okay. Thank you.

CHAIR —I want to just come back to the issue of the management of the built and natural environments of the farms that you are working with. You are saying that cropping based industries tend to be very technologically driven anyway. Were you also saying the people in that sector tend to be of a younger generation?

Mr Walker —A younger generation?

CHAIR —Yes.

Mr Walker —Anecdotally, you would probably say the average age would be the mid-50s.

CHAIR —Do you have a sense of what has (a) driven that sector to be more technologically focused and (b) allowed that sector to retain a younger generation? I am assuming from previous evidence that there is a fear of competition or something like that. Can you give us a picture of why that is driving that sector.

Mr Walker —Technology is a lot more readily used on a cropping property than it is on a grazing or sheep and wool property—

CHAIR —Why? That is what I am trying to get a sense of.

Mr Walker —It is really in terms of driving production and better productive outcomes, whether it be laser levelling, operating your—

CHAIR —So it is a competitive edge situation?

Mr Walker —It is a competitive edge, and the industry is driving technology and has been very good at doing that over the last two decades. Australia is leading the way in many of the technologies that are being used.

CHAIR —In terms of the cattle and sheep sectors, which you talked about, I have seen evidence that, in places like Japan, supermarkets now have swipe cards that show where the food was raised and the background to it. People even want to know things like what farm it has come from and whether that farm uses sustainable processes and so forth. Is the sector aware of those sorts of international developments and how they might play out in Australia as a provider—

Mr Walker —We already have that technology. We have the national livestock identification scheme, the NLIS. All cattle that go to market must be tagged. You can trace that beast back to the land of origin. The information is there. That will flow on to consumers. It is being consumer driven in many respects. The technology is there.

CHAIR —I am just wondering if that is changing the dynamic. Is there something else that we should be looking at adding to that, perhaps?

Mr Walker —The cattle industry has only taken it up because they have to. It needs to be taken up in other areas as well. We are working with the industries to make that happen. It has not advanced any further. As consumers get more savvy and their eating habits start to be driven by issues to do with where the produce originates and whether or not it is organic—all those types of things—that will drive greater use of that type of technology.

Mr NEVILLE —Are you saying that livestock identification is largely done by default at present on the basis that if there is a problem or an emergency that it can then be traced? The question from the committee is: has it got to the point such that by using the barcode and so on you could perhaps identify the property, see scenes of the cattle in the field and in the yards?

CHAIR —Give us a competitive edge.

Mr Walker —It could be. The industry has not progressed to that stage.

Mr NEVILLE —That would be a more positive spin.

Mr Walker —Yes, it would be.

Mr NEVILLE —It is more positive than talking about foot and mouth or whatever else might be around.

Mr Walker —It is being used at this point in time such that when it gets to processing they can get real time information back on the quality of the beast that is going through processing. They can get that beast by beast. A lot of producers use that. That determines price, of course. But there is a next step: the step where the consumer buys that cut of meat, scans it at the supermarket and see the property.

CHAIR —That could link to the website of the farmer.

Mr Walker —That is the type of—

CHAIR —That is interesting. The evidence was that there is quite a lot of consumer driven behaviour about wanting to buy from family based businesses and so forth. What they actually got to see, as the Deputy Chair said, is the family running the farm. That could be a real competitive advantage for us.

Mr Walker —I am not saying that that does not happen. It certainly happens in isolated instances. But it is not widespread in the industry.

CHAIR —Thanks very much for that. It is something that I became aware of that was of interest. It is useful to have you here to give us some information on that. Thank you for your attendance here today. If you have been asked to provide any additional information, would you please forward it to the secretary. You will be sent a copy of the transcript of your evidence, to which you can make corrections of grammar and fact. Thank you very much for your evidence.

Proceedings suspended from 12.08 pm to 1.01 pm