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Standing Committee on Infrastructure and Communications
19/04/2011
Role and potential of the National Broadband Network

CHAIR (Ms Bird) —I declare open this public hearing of the House Standing Committee on Infrastructure and Communications in Townsville. The inquiry was referred by Minister Albanese on 16 November last year. To date we have received over 225 submissions. This is the committee’s second Queensland hearing, following our Brisbane hearing yesterday.

The inquiry has a different focus to other NBN inquiries that have occurred in the past that are underway presently or will commence shortly. While those inquiries have focused primarily on technical matters either to do with the design of the NBN or the corporate plans and governance of NBN Co., this inquiry is focused on how the NBN will be utilised across Australia.

As is evidenced from the inquiry’s terms of reference, the committee has a broad range of areas to investigate, including the capacity of the NBN to contribute to health, education, business efficiencies and regional development.

While the inquiry is less technically focused than others, (i) of the terms of reference does require the committee to consider the optimal capacity in technological requirements for the NBN to deliver the benefits that are identified in the other areas of focus.

Before asking the witnesses to introduce themselves I would remind members of the media who may be present or listening on the web of the need to fairly and accurately report the proceedings of the committee.

Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise that the hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. We do have a written submission from you, but would you like to make about a five-minute introductory comment to that submission for the interest of those listening to the broadcast and then we will have a question and answer session.

Prof. Atkinson —I thank the committee for the opportunity to be here today. James Cook University is a medium-sized university set in the tropics of Townsville and Cairns but it also has a campus in Singapore and significant teaching locations based around regional and northern Queensland. The original strategic intent of the university in its articles of incorporation in 1970 were that it would be Australia’s university for the tropics and to focus on issues around tropical economies, tropical societies, tropical technology and our goals were to produce graduates with expertise and the intellectual capacity to be able to advance the tropics in Australia and worldwide.

Within that context of the university having its essential footprint here in North Queensland with an extension to all of northern Australia and beyond, the NBN to us is a particularly exciting initiative, because we have for a long time struggled with the fact that we are long way away from major urban centres. We are over 1,400 kilometres by air from Brisbane. It is a substantial distance. Communications infrastructure in the regions has traditionally lagged behind that available in the dense, urban and metropolitan areas.

When I arrived at the university about 14 years ago, the university had a one megabit internet connection for at the time probably about 7,000 or 8,000 physical students, which came to a capacity of just a few kilobits per second. Over the years we have progressively worked on that and it has been one of the major focuses of a lot of people involved in information technology areas of the university to achieve high levels of connectivity to the university. Just recently, in the past couple of weeks, we have switched on a 10 gigabit network from the university’s main campuses in Townsville and Cairns.

That has made an absolute quantum difference to the university. We really could not function the way we do now. We simply would not be competitive with other universities and we would not be able to achieve our top 400 world ranking in research without the capability to interact with the rest of the world and using that interactivity that that level of capacity gives us. It is access to data sets. It is access to collaboration tools. It is access to all sorts of media.

When it comes to the NBN, we see this as the natural extension. We have benefited from that level of internet capacity ourselves and we see enormous benefits as we move forward to be able to give extremely high levels of internet connectivity with low latency to people in the smaller communities, to the students in their homes where they study, to people in research stations where they are studying impacts of climate change and other impacts in the tropical regions—for better teaching, better health delivery—as well as very significant impacts on regional development and economic opportunities that it might bring. They are all areas that the university plays into.

We have outlined in the submission a number of areas where we think that the university is very specifically going to benefit or where we see that the region is going to benefit because of the rolling out of the NBN. We are very excited to be part of the early stages of that NBN rollout. We think there are going to be some significant first-mover advantages that we can achieve from that and hopefully it will position the region for a significant economic boost, not so much in the short term but in the medium and the longer term as that rolls forward.

CHAIR —In your submission you make the point about the focus and opportunity for students. We have heard this from a number of universities, about having got their own infrastructure up to AARNet standards and so forth. That is great, but increasingly students engage with the university, not just on campus. Some of the examples you have identified—and we might call them work placement, either doing research or the actual vocational side of their course, particularly in the medical areas and so forth—are now stymied because they do not have that sort of access when they are off campus, including in their own homes when they may be doing study. Can you give us a picture of where those barriers now are and what you would be looking to do with the new capacity?

Prof. Atkinson —What is happening in the sector in general, not just in Australia and not just in north Queensland but around the world, is that there is this progressive move to what in Australia we are terming work integrated learning, where a component of a student’s degree is actually conducted in a workplace and where it is not just simple work experience. They are actually embedded in that workplace, doing work there. We are restructuring the assessment. We are restructuring the teaching, even the curriculum, around that work integrated learning.

We just do not want to throw students out into that workplace with a few pieces of paper, a couple of downloads on a DVD and let them go. Students need to be scaffolded. They need to be supported and you need to be interacting with those students in those workplaces. It is very obviously the case in medicine and allied health, where we have students spread throughout North Queensland and northern Australia. But it is the case in other disciplines too—in engineering, education and pretty well all the professional domains and others of the university. This is going to become more and more prevalent.

As you work down that path of work integrated learning and as the NBN comes online at the same time, it gives us the opportunity to explore electronic means of mediation of communication, collaboration with those students so that we can keep closer contact with them when they have particular issues, which we very much expect that they will come across when they enter into a workplace. They can connect back to their lecturers and academic staff. They can connect to tutors. They connect even to other students so we can create virtual support networks for these students. We think that we are going to be able to provide a much higher quality work integrated learning.

As to the exact mechanisms of delivery of that, they are being developed. This is the great thing about the NBN. It is going to give us a lot of capacity to innovate around this and probably gain some form of competitive advantage when we do it properly, although the sector is competitive and other universities will quickly pick up on what it has developed in one location and translocate it to another. We think that is actually going to be a very significant area where students day-by-day are going to feel that. It is also learning in their own homes. The other significant difference that has happened over the past couple of decades is that students are working more and more to support their studies. Most people in this room, or many of us, when we went to university we would probably have attended full time. That is now becoming the exception rather than the norm. Students are working part time.

I ran across a student late last year for an early Monday morning lecture and she had to give a presentation and she was sort of tired and droopy, and I chewed her out a little saying she should have given me the respect of having a decent night’s sleep. She then informed me she had worked the previous week 56 hours at McDonald’s as an assistant manager. That is not unusual.

These students are increasingly using mobile learning technologies. They are taking their laptops with them. To have the NBN reticulated into these businesses where students in their breaks and so forth can interconnect with material and content from the universities is I think going to provide better mechanisms for those students to interact electronically with the university.

With the digital native generation that is what they are used to. That is what they expect. That is actually what they are demanding. We have to respond to that and the NBN is going to provide us a very good mechanism to provide higher quality services with much greater fidelity that are going to match what they are seeing in the rest of their digital lives.

CHAIR —You mentioned the competitiveness between universities around the country. Is there an immediate pressure on our university system in that competitive area internationally? I imagine there are international universities providing online high-quality video based training and education.

Prof. Atkinson —This is a very active area of discussion in the higher education space worldwide. There are certainly a lot of online courses from universities around the world and there are lots of people in Australia studying those courses. Australian universities have probably not entered that worldwide market at the same level. If we can use the NBN to generate really cutting edge materials and methods of delivery, it probably gives us an international opportunity that would then springboard into other countries as they develop their own NBN kind of equivalent technologies into the future.

It is certainly true that the provision of the NBN into the regions will mean that it provides options for students to not just study at local universities but study remotely from other universities. You can regard that as a competitive issue—and I think it is. I think that is good, because that will only improve the quality of everyone’s offerings to respond to that level of competition. It may mean that universities can progress down this path of specialisation so that if a particular student in a regional location really does want to study a particular niche area of some discipline that their local university cannot provide they can study that at other universities. In fact, we have courses being delivered now that are being taught from Townsville into Newcastle and Flinders University, I think, and there will be similar reciprocal arrangements. They are on-campus, but there is no reason why they cannot be delivered off-campus as well.

CHAIR —One of the issues that has been raised with us about that sector—it was actually raised by a vocational provider—was that the limitation of online learning has been it is not engaging the learner and you have to be a very high functioning learner to manage it.

Prof. Atkinson —Absolutely.

CHAIR —Whereas with videoconferencing and so forth you can actually create communities of learners so that students can come together via video. The problem is if you have 10 students joined together in a video tutorial it is really pulling down on the load.

Prof. Atkinson —Absolutely. We think that high definition videoconferencing will be one of the very significant tools of the NBN and that is going to spawn a whole range of applications. E-learning is a very clear example. At the moment, distance learning from universities, collaboration between students is usually associated with a chat room, people typing in things. That suits some people, but it certainly does not suit a lot of others. They tend to be very quiet, because they might be more orally focused in their interactions. With this high-quality multipoint videoconferencing it is no problem to get 20 people together in a single virtual space. You can see everyone in high quality. You can interact with them just as naturally as we are now face-to-face and you can build these relationships, better support networks, better learning outcomes and better opportunities.

There is going to be a huge number of really creative ways of people using that in education as well as business, research and health. There are not really going to be many sectors that are not untouched by the rollout of that capacity. The point for us is that it will be every student who will have access to this technology. That is really the difference. Some of these things can be done now to different people in particular different locations, but you cannot rely on people having access to that. Without that, it really makes the investment rather more difficult to justify and so on, whereas because of the ubiquity of this we think that it is going to create a lot of commercial opportunities for people to come up with good solutions to those problems that we can then innovate on top of.

CHAIR —At the end of your submission you talk about why the fibre is so important, but you have also made two points about backhaul and price, alerting the committee to support requirements for the rollout, being the provision of sufficient backhaul capacity and a retail pricing structure that makes access affordable.

Prof. Atkinson —These become quite technical issues with the NBN and the discussion about how they have configured their network and how many interconnection points are in that network. Essentially from a university perspective, we have access to our own fibre optic capacity that we have already purchased or leased, so we can interconnect our students to that network. AARNet has now been announced as a carrier on that network since we wrote this submission. University students would be able to sign up to AARNet as their carrier and that is terrific.

That will probably overcome many of those backhaul issues for certainly the higher education space and probably the research sector space as well. That will not generally be the case for a lot of other businesses and industries, where they will be relying on more conventional commercially for-profit providers. We have to ensure that the backhaul market contains within it a level of competitiveness so that those backhaul charges do not mean that the retail ISP providers have to load up the cost of that retail provision that the customer is finally seeing.

I am sure that over time—as we see in other parts of the world—there will be competition over that, but I think it is something that this committee should consider. Again, it is the issue of what is the cost that the consumer is going to feel at the end. We can talk about these wonderful outcomes, but if it is going to cost people $300 a month, they are just not going to happen. The NBN has now released a number of their pricing schedules. How the wholesale price plays out into the retail price I guess we are yet to find out. But it is an issue to us, particularly with our student community, that that is not hundreds of dollars a month, that that is as close as it can be now to what a regular ISP connection that students and others would normally be paying. In our case we have to consider that students are already paying fairly large mobile bills as well. Students are kind of deeply connected now. Their overall telecommunication expenditure is really actually quite high. It is one of the reasons why they spend a lot of time working, to pay for their mobile phone connectivity.

Mrs PRENTICE —You mentioned outbound lectures to Flinders University. Is that down AARNet?

Prof. Atkinson —Yes.

Mrs PRENTICE —Is your campus in Singapore connected by fibre or satellite?

Prof. Atkinson —That campus is connected by fibre. It is actually interconnected by AARNet. AARNet has a so-called point of presence in Singapore and we have fibre connected that campus. I would have to take advice, but I think that is a one gigabit connection from that campus. That was a point of change when we achieved that level of connectivity, because it meant that videoconferencing to the campus was just suddenly accessible and there is only a two-hour time difference to us, so it now creates a much greater level of interconnection between us.

Mrs PRENTICE —As a mother of a former student of yours, he tells me that he actually got lectures at James Cook from remote lecturers.

Prof. Atkinson —Yes.

Mrs PRENTICE —Would you like to expand on that and how NBN could perhaps enhance it?

Prof. Atkinson —The remote lecture has been used for a long time by universities such as James Cook, particularly because we have two significant campuses, Cairns and Townsville. A lot of lectures in the earlier days from Townsville up to Cairns and now there is a much greater balance between the two so students in Townsville will be receiving lectures from Cairns. As our internet connectivity has gone up so has the quality of the videoconferencing and so has the level of complaints from students declined, because in the early days it was pretty ordinary and the experience was only acceptable. Now it is turning into a much more natural interaction because we can do high definition video and the sound quality has improved as that technology improves.

The NBN is not going to help intercampus connectivity, because that is set in place. As I think I talked to before, where I think it is going to impact is that students will be able to access those lecturers more or less from wherever they are. If you have a student on placement somewhere, this creates all sorts of timetabling nightmares for universities. You have students out on particular placements or they are working for a business and the business has particular demands on them. They can actually just beam in from that business or from home, or if they are in a different city, an interconnect to those lectures in that fairly natural way through desktop videoconferencing tools that are now becoming of course almost free. There are a variety of video interconnection tools now, but a number that have been developed, particularly in the academic space, are essentially free. The quality associated with them is just terrific.

Once again, video is going to have all sorts of manifestations. I think it is going to be a direct lecture replacement. But I think we are going to enter into a zone in the next five or six years where the lecture is going to become maybe a little bit de-emphasised as some of these other electronic learning tools start to become developed and start to become more mainstreamed. I think that is going to engender a lot more flexibility into the system. It is going to become more student-centric. They can take the content when they have time to receive that content. It still does not replace the on-campus experience at all, but it is going to be a very significant augment to that on-campus experience. That is something that is going to provide then a lot more flexibility in timetabling. Timetabling is surprisingly a big issue and as we move more to off-campus work that is going to become increasingly so.

Mrs PRENTICE —With your remote lectures at the moment can the lecturer see the students or is it just one-way?

Prof. Atkinson —No, the lecturers can see the students. That is absolutely essential. In the very early days when that was not possible, that was really a very dispiriting experience for students. Or a student would put up their hand and the resolution was so poor that the lecturer could not see the student. It really is not a way to engage someone. Now we have gone down the path and we are doing these things in high definition the experience is really quite changed. We have learnt a lot more about how to use these technologies in our regular workflow. A lecture event where the lecturer does not know the students is not quite as successful. It is much better in small and moderate classes than it is in the very large classes.

There are all sorts of nuances to this that are being learned all the time and new technologies are being developed. I think there are some very interesting experiments in virtual worlds in education. I think this is going to provide a lot of capabilities for schools to interact with universities in a deeper way for the very best of students in high school to be able to interact with universities as is required, and that can be from wherever they are. That can be from the tiniest of small, rural communities where you might have a student that might be brilliant at physics and they will not get an experience that is appropriate in their school but they could interact with either another school or indeed if they are a great student they could maybe do first-year university remotely. These sorts of programs exist, but it is just going to extend the range of that.

Mrs PRENTICE —Are all your operations at the moment fibre based or are you using satellite and wireless as well?

Prof. Atkinson —All of our Australian sites are based on fibre. We are buying some of those services from commercial providers of course, but our major campuses, Townsville and Cairns, are on leased fibre from AARNet. Other places, particularly up in the Torres Strait and some of the research stations, we are actually leasing capacity from Telstra and other providers. As those services have improved so has the learning experience improved. There is no reason to suspect that it is not going to be the same as this is driven down into people’s homes.

Mr SYMON —I would like to go to part of the submission in regard to smart city concepts. It is an area of interest not only to me but others on this committee as well, especially the part about tropical environments and extreme weather events, collecting of real-time information and communications. Can that be done at the moment or is that a big gap in existing communications?

Prof. Atkinson —Firstly, everything can be done at the moment at some level. We all know we have good 3G networks in many parts of the country from the commercial mobile operators. At some point, to some level they can do a very good job. But as we drive fibre deeper, closer to wherever we are trying to gather some information—gather some data—it means that we can put more capacity down the line. Video is kind of an underutilised source of gathering real-time information.

Mr SYMON —Rather than just the grainy sorts of CCTV images we have all seen.

Prof. Atkinson —They are not so inspiring. We have done some work with an Australian firm where they have used high definition video to extract a whole lot of information about tides and coastal processes.

Mr SYMON —This was CoastalCOMS, was it?

Prof. Atkinson —CoastalCOMS, indeed. Applying that kind of methodology, if not the same algorithms, in a terrestrial environment system is to me very fascinating. An enormous amount of information can be extracted from video. At the moment we just look at pictures and maybe walk away, but we can assess vegetation states. We could probably determine levels of rainfall at particular points in time. Environmental health and quality can be measured by these things. If we can drive that deeper we obviously have to be looking at automated processing of that information as it is coming back. We are not going to have individuals sitting there watching it. This really is a sensor tool. In cities and parks these can be used for public safety. They can be used for efficient utilisation of resources. They can be used for traffic monitoring. They can be used for measuring the health of public assets. There is a whole range of applications that we just have not considered.

Mr SYMON —Are they high bandwidth requirements? I take it there would be for real-time video in high definition.

Prof. Atkinson —Yes, I think the more data that you get down the more opportunity it gives you to actually extract information out. You cannot do optical character recognition over a grainy video, but you can do it over high definition. You could not assess the level of water in a gutter from a low-level TV picture, but you could from a high definition picture and you could assemble that information. You might say, ‘The drains at this point are blocking continuously’, and that particular piece of information would alert a council. You could not get that with low resolution video. No-one is using that application at the moment, but it certainly could be written.

Mr SYMON —So, the application is there, but you cannot use it because of a gap in communications?

Prof. Atkinson —Yes, exactly. The thing is you do not know when you need it. This is the point. When you have an event, you want to turn things on, but you never know when that event is. It might be that the fibre sits fallow unutilised for quite a lot of time, but when it turns on you absolutely need that peak capacity. With the NBN and fibre going out into the suburbs and into the communities that capacity will be there. As to video applications and other environmental applications, commoditisation of this technology means the price is just absolutely turning to almost zero. The gadgets themselves are not the cost. It is the communications cost that is actually the most significant thing, and then of course turning those into ideas and services and products that might be used. The most expensive and critical part is the communications infrastructure, because there is really not the motivation to do anything without that. If you have that there, it gives you the opportunity to start innovating on top of it.

Mr SYMON —I would also like to ask you about R&D and related innovation investments, in particular the use of fixed point satellite services proposed by the NBN for the collection of high-quality data from remote locations. I take it at the moment there are problems with that with existing satellite coverage. You need an upgrade along the lines of what we were just talking about to make full use of the applications that you have?

Prof. Atkinson —Current satellite services are a little slow for us and they are a little expensive for us.

Mr SYMON —Is the uplink limited as well?

Prof. Atkinson —The uplink is definitely limited. When we are talking about environmental monitoring, it is actually the uplink that is the most important component, not the downlink. We need better uplinks so that we can transmit this data. In fact, we are involved in a project now called the Daintree Rainforest Observatory based around the university’s canopy crane. In the Daintree River there is a crane—a construction crane essentially—in the rainforest that can go across the canopy and sample the rainforest at various depths and locations. The intention with that project, which is very exciting, is to upgrade the facility to provide a research station there. But one component is to put sensors into the rainforest that will be talking back to researchers in real-time about what is happening in that rainforest. It turns out that those scientists need very high resolution information. They need information around the microclimates, not just one square kilometre; they want to know the microclimate variations up a tree so that they can understand animal habitats in a very detailed and fine way. They want to be able to do that so that they can understand how the rainforest will respond to changes in climate, how its carbon balance changes, how those animal populations change.

To actually get communications into that area is quite diabolical. For us to get any sort of communications into the deep rainforest, mobile phone coverage just does not exist at the moment. With the satellite systems we think that we can really be stepping forward not just one or two steps, but 10 or 11 steps, as we go down this remote monitoring. Certainly there are scientists coming to my office every couple of days wanting some other crazy application that the communications would enable. They are getting very excited about the prospects that this is unlocking for them. It is going to take a long time and other sort of development, but it is the ability to communicate in real-time that unlocks that potential for them.

Mr SYMON —One of the areas that I think we have not spent that much time on is the use of satellite services beyond the house, as it were, in remote areas. I think you have just given a very good set of examples.

Prof. Atkinson —I think that in 50 years time the amount of data that we will have, the amount of understanding we will have, about the Australian continent as a consequence of this project will be astounding. If you think of the coal seam gas projects that are going to go on in Queensland, there are going to be tens of thousands of bores. They actually become, if you like, environmental information gathering stations, locii/hubs, where we can gather information, which has to be required anyway, transmitted back in real-time, and understanding those things. There are going to be lots of projects that we can actually build out from in the region. Whilst the remote satellite services do not have the capacity of fibre, because of their coverage and the increase in capacity on what we have now, even at those lower data rates they will be able to provide all sorts of fascinating information.

CHAIR —When we were at the University of Melbourne’s Institute for a Broadband Enabled Society we saw the beginnings of university TV, which was a model that basically provided a whole lot of lectures and so forth in high definition as a TV. One of our criteria is social inclusion. It struck me that there are a lot of people who may not actually want to enrol completely in a university degree, but I am thinking of things like University of the Third Age, for example—

Prof. Atkinson —Absolutely.

CHAIR —that could better engage with our existing universities. Have you seen the beginnings of that or is there some conversation about what universities might like to do in that broader area?

Prof. Atkinson —I am not party to them, but I know people have been discussing that as a mechanism for outreach for the university. I know whenever we have public lectures here, which seem to be extremely well attended, the first question is: can we get that on video? I think as we move into this new competitive phase that there is no reason except for people wanting to do it really that we should not be broadcasting a lot of this content live. I think that might come down to an individual lecturer by lecturer decision, but my personal view is that the more openness we have in this the more interest will be engendered. I think again this is a great opportunity for universities just to engage in outreach.

There is a lot of fantastic material that is already recorded. iTunes University, an Apple product, has fascinating lectures, and the TED Talk series, which are really popular. There is actually a demand for this sort of thing. I think you are quite right; in the University of the Third Age there are really fascinating opportunities as we engage with the ageing population. I know this from just personal experience with older people I know in my own suburb and my own parents about people wanting to keep engaged. It is harder for people to get out and so forth, but these technologies will just let them engage.

CHAIR —We were chipped, as a committee, for presuming these were young people’s things. It was pointed out that the retirees are one of the biggest uptakers of Skype as a way to stay in contact with family and friends. It occurred to me that the University of the Third Age was another example of that. If you are in an isolated or more remote area you would be able to participate if there was an online quality version of it.

Prof. Atkinson —Absolutely.

CHAIR —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. It was fascinating and very useful information for us. We have met with universities, but so far mainly city based ones so it is very useful to hear from a significant regional university and the opportunities you would like to take from it. We thank you very much.

 [9.38 am]