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

CHAIR —Welcome. Although the committee does not require that you 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 have received a written submission from council. Do you want to make about a five-minute introduction to the main points of that and then we will have a question and answer session?

Mr Hayward —Council welcomes the opportunity to present to the committee today. As you may or may not be aware, Townsville is Australia’s largest city north of the Sunshine Coast, with a current population of 191,000 people, with projections through to between 270,000 to 300,000 in 20 years time. It is one of Australia’s fastest growing regional centres, and part of that growth is due to the diversity of the economy that we have here. It is probably Australia’s most diverse regional economy. That has been growing at a rate of about 10 per cent per annum for the last 10 years or so. There is significant growth in the area and as a result of that we have seen a rise in population.

The growth in population has been mainly attributable to people coming to town rather than natural growth. As a result of that, council sees an opportunity there to facilitate that growth through communications. It is important that people do not feel isolated and remote when they come to this part of the world. As was explained earlier, it is about 1,400 kilometres north of Brisbane and it is in a fairly remote part of Australia.

We see the future of Townsville as being a capital of North Queensland. You may be aware of recent pronouncements by the Queensland Premier in relation to making Townsville the second capital of Queensland. There needs to be infrastructure that goes along with that. Part of that infrastructure is telecommunications infrastructure to make sure that those who come to Townsville are able to communicate effectively and efficiently with other parts of the country and other parts of the world.

CHAIR —From your council’s experience, can you give us an idea what your current coverage is like? I am sure you get the complaints and so forth, whether from business or community. Can you give us a picture of what the current situation is?

Mr Hayward —In terms of council’s own infrastructure, we have a fairly good fibre network. Townsville City Council was established as a result of amalgamation in 2008 between the cities of Thuringowa and Townsville. That meant that we had two administration centres, one here in Townsville, just up the street, and another one out in Thuringowa, about 10 or 15 kilometres away. Those are connected by a one-gigabit fibre optic cable. We also have connectivity to a number of our remote facilities. They are connected into the council’s network.

In terms of council’s operations itself, we have a fairly good network. However, that does not give us connectivity to the rest of the city, and the ability for the community out there to interact with council is somewhat limited by the capacity of the network out there to come back to council. We have the ability to push information out, but the ability of the community to connect back to us is somewhat limited.

As was raised earlier, the issue around backhaul is something that does impact on the city. We would like to encourage a greater range of businesses and industry to locate here and not see Townsville possibly as a branch office, but as a head office. If you draw a circle around Townsville at the moment, a five-hour circle, there are 650,000 people living within that circle, if you take in Cairns, Mackay and regional centres, with projected growth through to a million people in 20 years time. It is a fairly large community that we are looking to serve. There needs to be that connectivity there around that.

In terms of businesses being able to come and locate here, connectivity both to their current head offices and their ability to connect with possibly other parts of the country and other parts of the world in their operations is somewhat limited at the moment due to that backhaul issue. We would like to see that overcome, and possibly an NBN style network may assist in doing that.

CHAIR —What about your ratepayer base? How is their coverage?

Mr Hayward —Obviously, with most types of these businesses that provide internet services, that coverage is very much, if you are prepared to pay for it, you will get the bandwidth. But my understanding—

CHAIR —Does council have general figures about what the ADSL2/ADSL dial-up coverage is?

Mr Hayward —Not that I am aware of. It is probably something that we could undertake, but as a general piece of information, no, we probably do not have that information.

CHAIR —Would you say generally it is not bad or as you get further away do you get complaints?

Mr Hayward —Certainly the further away from the centre of the city you get obviously the connectivity and speeds decrease, and if you are prepared to pay for speed it is a function of price.

CHAIR —I will just take you to the submission, then. There is some really good quality information in there. Thank you for that. As an early rollout you state that you are looking at some videoconferencing services that would be engaged with by council. Can you give us an idea of what council is looking at developing in that area and what you would be targeting with that?

Mr Hayward —Certainly, there is a number of facets we are looking at there. One is just in terms of council’s operations as to how it does its internal functions. Because we have a number of remote locations not everything is done from one central office. Why do we have to get into cars to travel between offices to have meetings? That is just unproductive. We need to be able to connect better in council and our operations within council.

Also, in terms of the community interacting with council, and I think that is probably where one of the keys is. If you have an engaged community you probably have a more informed community, and telecommunications is one means to achieve that. Possibly things like having a mayoral blog. Obviously there are contentious issues out there and councils face contentious issues all the time.

CHAIR —Is that the case?

Mr Hayward —I do not think we are unique in that regard. It would enable the elected officials to explain the reasoning behind why they made a decision. You read about them in the newspapers. However, unfortunately the newspapers sometimes put a perspective on them that may not necessarily accord with the intent of the decision. I think that is an opportunity to hear from the horse’s mouth why a decision was made and that video facility would give us an opportunity to do that. Also with things like development approvals, why does a developer have to come to council to talk through a development application? Can they not just do it from their office, and that video facility—

CHAIR —One of the things that has been raised with us—it was actually raised in the context of education, but it would seem to apply to council too—is that one of the great challenges with videoconferencing in existing infrastructure is that you often also want to jointly look at documents at the same time and it is that combination of the videoconference with the quality document sharing. I imagine in something like DA negotiations, planning issues, that would be useful?

Mr Hayward —It would be an extremely useful opportunity for developers to actually engage in real-time with the documents in front of them from their offices. That is a more productive use of their time and a more productive use of our time, so that you can share information in real time and get real-time decisions.

CHAIR —Plus I imagine they would have their experts on hand.

Mr Hayward —Exactly.

CHAIR —Rather than try to take a whole team in they could just call people up?

Mr Hayward —Exactly, and you can deal with the issue as and when it arises rather than having to come back and forward and back and forward, and that will just add speed to the approvals process and make it a more efficient process for us all.

CHAIR —These are things that council is working on now?

Mr Hayward —It is looking to work on them. Obviously these things cost resources, and the NBN has probably been a facilitator of our thinking in that regard. Had the network not come to town or had it been further down the track; obviously the size of documents you can put down the network is the key.

CHAIR —Is it driving the changes for the way you—

Mr Hayward —It is driving the changes. It has caused us to have a think about how we do business and possibly to be more innovative in how we actually engage with the community around that.

CHAIR —That is really good. You make some points around developing a digital economy strategy. Can you give us a bit of a picture of what you plan to do with that and where you are up to with that?

Mr Hayward —It is looking to commence on 1 July, obviously in next year’s budget. The announcement of the first rollout of the NBN caught us by surprise. We were not prepared for it. It has been a matter of catch up, catch up, catch up for us. Part of that process—

CHAIR —It is useful for us to hear this, because part of what we have to go back to government and say as this rolls out is that these are the lessons of the test sites. Your feedback on what would have been good preparation and what you have now had to do is very useful.

Mr Hayward —Certainly it is one thing I am talking to other councils about and when we talk to each other about these types of issues it is to tell them to be prepared. As I said, we have done some lobbying obviously, but the first we heard as a council that we were a first release site was the press release. That did catch us by surprise. As a result of that, we have had to change how we do some of our internal operations, reallocate resources to actually take advantage of the opportunity that presents itself.

CHAIR —Can you tell us about what you are doing with that?

Mr Hayward —We are looking to develop a strategy here that looks at how we take advantage of the NBN in terms of the business community as to what opportunities there are for better connectivity, how that might facilitate new businesses coming to town and overcoming the remote perception. It will also be about how businesses here can actually get involved in the rollout itself in terms of supplying goods and services to NBN.

We would also like to see that as a first release site some of the expertise that can be developed here is translatable and transferable to other places in the country so we could become a centre of excellence for the NBN rollout in terms of goods and services that are provided there and the technology that goes along with it. We are also looking at how we engage the community a lot better both in terms of our operations and our interaction with the community. It is also about how the community interacts with each other so that clubs and organisations can actually relate to each other a lot better, and that will be enabled I think through a good network.

It is also about how we connect better with the wider world. Part of what Townsville is looking to position itself into the future is as a centre for tropical expertise and tropical knowledge. The university is its key partner in that. There are also other research institutions there. In the submission we indicate that Professor Andrews, who is a former Queensland Chief Scientist, estimated the tropical economy in the world is worth something like $40 trillion. There is an opportunity there with connectivity to play a more significant role in that and to position Townsville as a world leader in that type of space.

CHAIR —For a quick response, you seem to have your head around a fairly strategic approach. It is good to hear.

Mr Hayward —That is where we are looking to take the digital economy and the digital economy strategy into the future.

CHAIR —One of the issues that has been raised with us is exactly the sort of work you are doing is key to what we as a committee are looking at. But who should be driving that has been a consistent question, because part of the criticism will be that NBN Co. is not doing that but then they are an infrastructure provider. Should it be government departments? How can they best do that? Is it better done from on the ground by local organisations such as councils? Do you want to give us your perspective on how that might best work?

Mr Hayward —Certainly. We have approached the NBN rollout as an infrastructure project, as a facilitator for other things. That is how we have dealt with the NBN, as an infrastructure provider. It facilitates a growth in the economy and a growth in a whole range of applications—a whole range of things that can happen. Certainly in terms of providing some guidance and leadership we would be looking to the federal government to provide some assistance there and we are certainly working very closely with them at the moment to look at the opportunities that might present themselves there.

In terms of driving the project on the ground in the local area, I think probably local government, local business organisations, the local community is key to that, and it needs to be driven from that level up rather than down, because it is this community that is going to benefit from it. This community is different from other communities. How it applies the NBN will be different from how it is applied in other places. The circumstance here is different. The outcome will be different and the opportunities will be different. We need to drive it from a local level.

CHAIR —A good partnership?

Mr Hayward —Townsville is well recognised for the partnerships that it develops both as a region and with the wider world. We like to pride ourselves that as a region we are probably one of the most coherent and cohesive in the country. We get a lot of results because we are a united community and a fairly unified voice to the rest of the country around what we are and what we want.

Mrs PRENTICE —You mentioned the fibre connection to Thuringowa. Was that post the combining of the two councils?

Mr Hayward —That was probably post the connection of the two councils, but there was a well developed infrastructure strategy around at that time in terms of how we actually connect.

Mrs PRENTICE —Did you do that yourselves? Was that pre-NBN?

Mr Hayward —That was pre-NBN.

Mrs PRENTICE —Have you hung that or is it underground?

Mr Hayward —It is underground.

Mrs PRENTICE —How did your fibre aboveground survive Yasi?

Mr Hayward —In our discussions with the NBN we advised them that Townsville was a cyclone prone area and I can understand why they went to an aboveground option. However, there were some concerns there that it may get impacted by cyclones and it was impacted by cyclones. Several of the lines were down. There was an anecdote that one of the poles that went down during the cyclone was actually held up by the fibre optic cable. Apparently it is a very strong cable and it held the pole up. I know that certain parts of the first release site did lose connectivity as a result of the cyclone.

Mrs PRENTICE —Is the council across how many small businesses you have in the Townsville are home businesses?

Mr Hayward —I am not sure of the home businesses. I can certainly get the figures for you.

Mrs PRENTICE —That would be great if you could.

Mr Hayward —There are several thousand of them. I am informed there are 6,500.

Mrs PRENTICE —Is that home businesses? That is small businesses. Obviously it is going to be an asset for home businesses as well.

Mr Hayward —It certainly is.

Mrs PRENTICE —We were concerned recently to hear that, whilst tourism has taken up NBN in another site very enthusiastically, they have a presence on site but they do not actually use it for bookings. Do you have any information on that for your local businesses?

Mr Hayward —We are certainly looking to encourage local businesses to take up the opportunity that presents itself from having a high speed network here and greater connectivity and the things you can do with greater connectivity. In terms of local small businesses, some have jumped on and embraced it, and others are still waiting. I think that is probably the nature of small business: some are innovators, some are drivers and some are followers.

Part of the digital economy strategy we are looking to is greater engagement and greater uptake and just greater involvement with the digital economy and what it can actually mean for business in terms of being able to connect and in terms of being able to grow businesses and overcome the perception that you are in a remote area so it does not really matter. It does matter.

Mr SYMON —I find it quite invigorating to hear your submission about how many things you can see coming up because of the NBN. I think council should be congratulated on having a viewpoint like that.

Mr Hayward —I appreciate that.

Mr SYMON —In your submission you have noted there are a number of commonly available applications that are not currently used due to concerns around variations in available bandwidth. What are they?

Mr Hayward —That was given to me by our IT manager. Some of those applications deal with the volume of files and the size of files that need to be shared. Yes, you can share those files, but they are very slow and it is very expensive to do that if you want the bandwidth to be able to do that. Those applications deal with basically the size of files. We in council have large files. It is very difficult to share those—

Mr SYMON —Between your different sites?

Mr Hayward —Between the different sites. Between the different sites we can because we have developed the fibre network.

Mr SYMON —Your own fibre?

Mr Hayward —Yes. But to get those outside of council it becomes somewhat problematic, and also for large organisations to share large files with us as well.

Mr SYMON —Would that be something as simple as an outsourced payroll file, for instance?

Mr Hayward —It could be. If we were to outsource those types of functions, certainly that would be something that would be facilitated by increased bandwidth.

Mr SYMON —I have asked a question at previous hearings about energy savings due to the NBN, in particular smart networks and smart systems. I note from your submission there was quite a bit of work done up here with Ergon Energy. Although you did not get the funding support, I do have to ask: did you actually identify a figure of what types of energy savings you would be able to get?

Mr Hayward —I would probably need to go back to the submission to find out that figure for you. But in terms of the whole Ergon submission around the smart grid, Ergon are still progressing with that project. They see the value of it in terms of being able to remotely monitor energy, being able to be a whole lot more clever about how we use energy, being able to switch on and off remotely and those types of things, monitoring energy consumption. For us as an organisation as well, we have a whole lot of sensors out there—water meters—and those types of things. How do we monitor those things better? How can we be more efficient about how we use water? A network like this allows you to be able to do that and it gives us as an organisation savings in terms of how we use our resources more efficiently. It is also about the ratepayer out there in terms of how they use our resources such as the water, waste, sewer and those types of things—how to use those more efficiently.

Mr SYMON —Would you see that leading to cost savings for the ratepayer in the longer term?

Mr Hayward —Certainly. I think there would be some significant cost savings in the longer term in terms of efficiencies that are gained through just being able to use the resources more judiciously.

CHAIR —We heard evidence about the importance of the reliability in Brisbane yesterday. Someone was saying that they could not access the council service with the maps to look at flooding issues, because so many people went on at the same time. That sort of service you can well imagine would be important for your—

Mr Hayward —During Cyclone Yasi people were looking to council for a whole range of information. We did provide as much information as we could within the resources that we had. Obviously people get through these events with information and the more information you can put out there the more comfortable people are with the event and the recovery from it. Our Facebook site was used quite extensively. To put up a Facebook site around a cyclonic event was quite a new thing for a council to do, offering a whole lot of information. Ergon Energy did a similar sort of thing in terms of saying, ‘Your street is without power. It will be fixed on this day.’ It provided people with a bit more comfort about getting through an event.

Mr SYMON —I note before we were talking about overheading of fibre. Is the power reticulation system here mainly underground or overhead?

Mr Hayward —It depends upon when the particular suburb was developed. There is a mixture of overhead and underground. Newer estates obviously are undergrounding. We are requiring that to be undergrounded, but for some of the older estates, if you look around the suburbs around the city centre here, most of them are overhead.

Mr SYMON —I imagine if one overhead service gets knocked out, they all do, if you are talking about poles being knocked over.

CHAIR —Unless the fibre holds them together.

Mr Hayward —In our ongoing discussions with the NBN we are trying to encourage them to go as much underground as they can. Obviously there is a cost factor that needs to be taken into account there for them, but in terms of reliability of the service and in terms of its ability to do what it is supposed to do we would prefer it to be underground.

Mrs PRENTICE —You mentioned development applications before. Is NBN connecting the new developments being rolled out? What are their communications going forward?

Mr Hayward —My understanding is that the communications regime into new estates will be NBN, and obviously there is legislation in place around more than 100 houses or under 100 and those types of things, as to who is the telco or the communications provider. My understanding is that NBN will be providing those services.

Mrs PRENTICE —You as a council will facilitate that?

Mr Hayward —We as a council are working with NBN to facilitate that.

CHAIR —There is one other area that we have heard a bit about that I would like your views on. Obviously pilot sites are trial sites to learn from. In Tasmania businesses complained that the landlords did not sign up for the infrastructure to be connected, because they just did not particularly have a motivation to do so even though it was a free connection. But that would put the businesses operating there at a disadvantage. They were quite frustrated by that. In Townsville is council or somebody running some sort of information for the business community about the importance of taking this up—the options available and so forth?

Mr SYMON —The chamber of commerce is well on top of the NBN rollout, as is Townsville Enterprise Limited, which is the regional development organisation, the state government in terms of the development department there, and the North Queensland Small Business Development Centre.

CHAIR —So, these conversations are taking place?

Mr SYMON —There are conversations around there and engaging particularly with business in the first release site about connecting up. Obviously, as you are saying, if it is a landlord-type situation where they decide not to opt in then obviously there is a discussion that needs to be had there between the tenant and the landlord in that regard.

CHAIR —There is a lot of conversation about what I would call the hard services provided by local government—planning, development and so forth. But one of the other examples I had heard of was around library services. Instead of just having to have the old bus that would load up with a certain range of books to get out to more isolated parts of the community, there could be an online library. Do you know if that section of your council is looking at their opportunities?

Mr Hayward —Not that I am aware of, but that is something that I would be happy to discuss, and the opportunities that might present themselves in that regard. I think that would provide a wonderful service to the community. We have suburbs 50 to 60 kilometres north of where we are now that are part of the community and we drive the bus out there every so often with a range of books. Those books might not necessarily be the books that people want to read. The opportunity presents itself.

CHAIR —If there are some developments in that area—obviously we have another month or two where we are taking evidence—feel free to pass council’s views through on that as well.

Mr Hayward —I will certainly pass those back on to you, yes.

CHAIR —That is tremendous. 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 for a tremendous and very useful submission. Thank you very much for the time and effort that council has put in. We look forward to getting some follow-up.

Proceedings suspended from 10.04 am to 10.23 am