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

CHAIR —I welcome representatives of RDA Townsville and North West Queensland to today’s hearing. 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 as the respective houses. We have a written submission from you. Would you like to make some opening comments to that submission—about five minutes perhaps—for the interest of those on the broadcast to give them a highlight of what is in the submission and then we will have a question and answer session?

Mr McCullough —Absolutely. As you are already aware, the RDA that we represent covers about a quarter of Queensland. Our charter from the Commonwealth government, with the assistance and support of the state government, promotes regional growth, sustainability, and economic, social and environmental advancement for this region that we are representing. We understand the issues of communities being located in remote areas. That is one of our ever-growing concerns. We are interested in building long-term sustainable communities and commitments of government to those communities. I would like to place on record at this time that we are not technical experts, so we are talking more from the heart than from the technical books.

High speed broadband, as we know it, will be a great enabler to communities, particularly the smaller more remote communities that have a lot of difficulty at this time in accessing a lot of the things taken for granted by the larger cities, coastal communities and regional centres. The quality of service delivery and connectivity that these communities can get from the NBN will rely on the speed at each end of the pipeline, and from our perspective there is a need for solutions in remote areas to ensure that access to high-speed broadband will be able to compete with other built up areas. This is obviously one of the disadvantages in the smaller communities. The advent of the rollout of better broadband to all of the areas along the coast will further disadvantage little communities in competing if they cannot attract people to represent them in those areas and also to come to those areas for work. We are well and truly aware of that, as are the smaller communities.

We are specifically concerned about the fibre optic cable that is running straight past some of the smaller communities which we tend to represent—say, Julia Creek and Richmond. We see the fibre optic cable running directly past them but not actually connecting to them. Knowing that they already have a disadvantage, we recognise that their disadvantage will be added to by the fact that they are not going to get that connection unless something happens.

We would like to see the possibility of connecting fibre to the home in those areas and also other smaller communities, important communities, within our region, such as Boulia and some others, that are centres for their shires. They are not going to be able to connect, and so the representation for the shire is diminished and therefore the shire’s ability to compete is diminished.

There is an opportunity for the Department of Broadband, Communications and Digital Economy to be involved in first release sites and to promote the opportunities to collaborate with state government and local councils in developing those opportunities in the smaller centres. I am quite sure that the smaller centres would be very happy to kick up any option or any opportunity that they have got to make that connection.

We are aware of the benefits that a faster broadband is going to bring to all of our communities. I come from Mount Isa, and we are quite happy. We are looking forward to its arrival and the benefits that it will bring. But we are also acutely aware that it is going to further disadvantage those little centres that cannot access better health and education opportunities, so we are here to speak for them on their behalf. We feel that at the inception, as the rollout is going on, that will be the time when no stone should be left unturned to try to accommodate their needs.

There are opportunities here. We recognise the limitations with the lower population. It is a challenge, but we realise that this is an opportunity to try to make the most of the rollout and make the most of this initial chance to include them. That is all that I have to say. Ms Schuntner may want to add to that.

Ms Schuntner —I back up everything that has been said. From our regional perspective, we cover a quarter of Queensland, so it is a very large area covering both the NBN first release site here in Townsville but also right out to the west to Boulia, Mount Isa and up to the gulf. We have rural, remote and regional areas, as well as Townsville, which you would be aware has been named by the state government as Queensland’s second capital. We are aware of what it is like to be in a remote community and I would really stress the point that in line with our brief to build long-term sustainable communities we see the enablement of services through broadband to be one of the main factors to ensure the sustainability of remote communities going forward. That relates to the remote servicing that has come up several times today, such as education and health service delivery. When you go out west you will be hundreds if not over a thousand kilometres away from the nearest federal government service delivery point. It is that enablement through NBN that we believe will be a key factor for the sustainability of our communities, especially in the remote and rural areas. We understand the complexity and the cost of delivering it to them, but if anything they are the ones that will benefit the most and actually need it the most in some ways.

CHAIR —That is very interesting and useful to us. There is an interesting dichotomy in the evidence we receive in this committee in that at one end we have a complaint that we have rolled it out to smaller areas that do not best understand how to utilise it and that we should have rolled it out into capital cities where people knew what they wanted to do with it, and at the other end we hear, similar to your example, people saying that who most need it are often the most isolated and that should be a priority.

Given your region covers such a big area I would be interested in your observations about how prepared people are for what they want to utilise the technology for? It is one thing to say that we want to be on the infrastructure rollout, but we hear very conflicting advice as to how prepared communities are to actually utilise it. Perhaps we might start having conversations to get communities prepared to be active and ready. We heard from Townsville this morning that, when the decision was made, that is when they knew, and they had to move quickly to have a strategy in place. How can we do that more effectively across that wide variety? I imagine you have almost every type of size of area, other than major capital cities. Mr McCullough, would you like to address that?

Mr McCullough —We have spoken of the opportunity of broadband to the smaller communities.

CHAIR —You as an RDA organisation?

Mr McCullough —Yes. Most of those people have an expectancy, but most of them also have that realisation that they are not going to be on the receiving end in the early stages. They have not got carried away with the opportunities. I am also associated with health delivery across this region. We, as an organisation, can see the benefits of being able to deliver much better health services in those smaller places. Currently in the organisation we deliver allied health services to places like Birdsville, Bedourie and places where, in fact, they do not even have accommodation for us to fit in, so that we can get there and actually take health services. It would be pretty much the same if we could get the broadband services. Provision would be made for those people to make the most of it, as we are doing in health.

CHAIR —When we went to the Institute for Broadband Enabled Society at the Melbourne University they had a dental technology that basically allowed a community nurse to get high-quality visuals of the teeth for the visiting dentist before they came so they knew what work they had to do when they got out there. Is that better utilisation and more efficient utilisation what you are talking about there?

Mr McCullough —Absolutely, particularly in the health area, because there is no way that we can provide enough qualified staff out there. We have actually been involved in creating non-medical nurse support in some of those areas, who actually take on the role of doctors. Take Bedourie, for example, with a very small population. If there is an urgent need for something to happen, we send out our service providers to those areas and they can make it work. They can have the determination by the capital city hospitals of what the case involves. That is one of the greatest benefits that we will be able to have. We cannot possibly supply or provide the level of hospital medical support to those areas in person, but we can do it through broadband. The same would probably apply to health training or even for education, where we see that as being a great opportunity. In fact, there have been instances in the past in Mount Isa with the delivery of training for university students on site. Obviously that was delivered at speed which will be much enhanced in the future. Those opportunities are well and truly recognised in the smaller communities. We would like to encourage our communities to make more use of them, but that will come whenever it is provided.

CHAIR —The other thing that is raised with us fairly consistently—and I have not heard an outer regional or remote view on this—is the capacity to support people ageing in home. With home based monitoring and those sorts of two-way feedback, if an aged person is logging in and there is some video to the person that they are connecting with, they can actually get a visual sense of how they are getting along and have a chat to them. I am conscious that it is a real challenge in outer regional and remote areas where people want to age in their homes but find it quite difficult with the support services even more difficult to provide.

Mr McCullough —I would suspect that just about every aspect of benefit that is going to come out of the greater speeds would be relevant to the needs of people raised with us. One of them certainly was in fact, in just about every centre that we went to, there is a general need to retain their aged citizens in their area. People do not wish to move away. Currently they are moving away quite often simply for medical treatment that is not available where they live.

CHAIR —They are then a long way from family.

Mr McCullough —That is one of the disadvantages. In fact, in an Indigenous community, it is a very threatening aspect to take them away from their communities to come to Townsville for treatment. I have known of cases where people would not leave to get treatment because they were less secure to come to these places. It is the same with ageing people. People have lived all of their lives in communities out there. They do not want to go anywhere else. This is their secure place. It reminds me of that bloke who did not want to go to the city for anything and he could not get back fast enough, in one of Banjo Paterson’s poems. That is a reality in smaller communities. People feel threatened whenever they leave. The ability to provide services and do the things needed by doctors or others, by the use of broadband, just changes the whole spectrum.

CHAIR —I will go to some of my colleagues. Mrs Prentice.

Mrs PRENTICE —Are the health services to Birdsville and Bedourie satellite or fibre at the moment?

Mr McCullough —At the present time we are delivering our allied services in person. We send people down there for a couple of days a month with two or three different services, but by virtue of them being there they can take any broadcasts and do the determinations or whatever needs to be done at that time. We have people who attend all of those communities in person.

Mrs PRENTICE —Did you say that Birdsville and Bedourie will miss out on the fibre as well?

Mr McCullough —Yes. They are part of the two per cent that will get it by satellite, but the other centres where we have a larger population are in the same boat.

Mrs PRENTICE —Julia Creek and Richmond. You mentioned Boulia as a local government centre that will miss out. Mount Isa is getting it. Do you have other local government centres that are missing out?

Mr McCullough —Certainly those two that we have talked about, Richmond and McKinlay shire. We mentioned them in particular because the fibre optic cable will just go past them. We hope it does not.

Mrs PRENTICE —You would see an opportunity for something like a community centre in each of those centres where you would run fibre to the node as opposed to fibre to the premises, so that you could do your outreach services from that centre and you could bring other people in to use it for telepresence and videoing? What you are saying is that you do not need it for every home in those centres, but if you could have it at just one major centre in each of those key locations and then run it by satellite. Is that the sort of thing you are looking for?

Mr McCullough —In truth, we do not even know what benefit the provision of services brings to those communities, but we do know that the people there have an expectation and a hope that they can have the same provision of services as in other places.

One of the challenges that many of those centres have at the present time or have had for quite a few years now is the loss of population. The loss of population is not only adults; it is generally the younger people who are not getting what they want out of living in those areas. They tend to go off somewhere else for education and do not come back, because they have not got all of those things. They do not have the things that kids are growing up with nowadays in other parts of the world. You can watch on television and so on the lifestyle that young people are enjoying at the present time. They cannot enjoy that to the same extent in those smaller centres and they are not going to be able to. In fact, running a much better delivery of service past them is a double-edged sword, because not only are they not getting the benefit but their people are going to feel more deprived and they are going to be more inclined to leave. The disadvantage to those centres is enhanced by the fact that things are getting better elsewhere.

Ms Schuntner —We also cover up to the gulf. We have Burke Shire, Carpentaria Shire, Doomadgee and Mornington Island, which are also quite remote communities in our region that would be in that similar vein as Boulia in terms of its access.

Mrs PRENTICE —Do they have satellite connection at the moment?

Ms Schuntner —Yes. I understand Mornington Island has quite good satellite coverage.

Mrs PRENTICE —In your submission you mention future demand and whether NBN Co. will be able to handle the growth of future demand. Is that mainly in those areas that you were talking about, in health and ageing?

Mr McCullough —We have an expectation that our region has absolutely incredible growth potential because of the mining industry and because of the demands now for food for the rest of the world. We see opportunities. As we have traversed the region and talked to the people, every one of them, particularly in those Gulf areas, has great expectations of growing cattle for overseas, growing food for the variety of the cattle and even growing fruit and vegetables for other parts of Australia. We see that as being a part of the future, particularly relating to climate change and things that are coming. We see more water and monsoonal rain in our area, and less in other parts of Australia. We see the growth of demand overseas for food and we see an opportunity for us to grow it closer to the ports of embarkation. We have an expectation that within the next five to 10 years we will have growth potential in our area and all of that could be enhanced simply by making it more attractive for people to live there or to move there.

Mr SYMON —This is the second time I have asked today about smart grids, because it is the second submission that I have seen mentioning them. I am interested in what you see as efficient management of electricity use in relation to smart grids, but particularly in between regional towns. At the moment there is not a smart grid, there is no control over who uses what at the household or business levels, and so the generator has to produce a certain amount of power and it is used. Do you see any benefits in linkages of smart grids, not only within a town like Townsville but between towns, that can actually save people money but also from the government or business side of things reduce possible investment in new generators? Is that something that can be done from a regional basis using a smart grid?

Mr McCullough —Absolutely. As an organisation, one of the things that we are very interested in is alternative energy sources. Obviously where we can reduce the cost and demands and use it better we have an interest and we support it. I will ask Ms Schuntner to speak a bit more on the smart grid side of things.

I talked before about when we go out to all of the communities. Every one of them has had an energy supply, energy cost and energy utilisation as part of their concerns about how better to use it. Ms Schuntner may like to talk about that.

Ms Schuntner —Yes. I think the opportunity is there to potentially delay or maybe even reduce the need for generation investment. Our area is also blessed with a lot of renewable energy opportunities. When you look across our corridor out to Mount Isa, for example, we are one of the wealthiest in terms of renewable generation opportunities in the country, especially solar thermal, geothermal and wind generation opportunities. I think the opportunity is building on what the smart demand side management learnings have been with the Solar City program in Townsville. By using the smarts of the internet higher speed, higher pipeline size to be able to enable the technology, we will be able to drive greater efficiency in our energy system. I think they go hand-in-hand between the current transmission and the newer transmission opportunities that exist out with Mount Isa. At the moment the Smart Grid program is focused on Townsville, but the proposed transmission line between Townsville and Mount Isa would enable the growth of new opportunities in terms of smart demand management where we have one of the highest growing demands for electricity in the country.

Mr SYMON —Is that the copper string project?

Ms Schuntner —That is right; the copper string. That transmission and connecting into the grid over the Townsville area would enable growth of that opportunity in terms of smart grid management, but also the ability to have smart technology in renewable energy generation, putting it back on to the grid and being able to distribute that efficiently as well.

I think there are some really exciting opportunities there about managing the demand side through demand management programs directly with the people that are using the system more and more to be able to help support the individual and make the right decisions, whether it is a business or a home, and then being able to hence reduce peak demands which is the driver of the need for investment at the moment. I think there are some very exciting opportunities there.

Mr SYMON —With respect to fibre being used for the connection of remote premises and sites, I take it fibre is a better option because of reliability and lack of latency issues? If you are trying to switch thousands of users at once or in very short sequence, I imagine you need that reliability and the quickness of operation more than probably anything else.

Ms Schuntner —That is right. Traditionally we have looked at the energy sources that have come from, say, Central Queensland and the very traditional model of building more power stations, consuming more power as we keep putting aircon into every room in Northern Queensland. We are really moving into a new scope in terms of how we can tap into the opportunities in a very smart way with the generation out west. But as you said, they will rely upon the best, brightest and smartest ways of connecting people and the generation, transmission and distribution. That is where the NBN will enable that.

Mr SYMON —From the generation side as well, because you have different types of generation, not all of it baseload, to be able to tie them together; if the sun is not shining but the wind is blowing, for instance, then that is also important, even though those sites may be hundreds if not thousands of kilometres apart.

Ms Schuntner —That is right. In these very remote sites, by being NBN and high-speed broadband enabled, you are allowing the management of the systems remotely and being able to make those decisions. While we want to, of course, promote local employment opportunities, it enables a company that might have multiple sites around Australia to be remotely tapping in and managing some of these processes without having to necessarily have a person 300 kilometres from nowhere situated very remotely in a difficult situation.

The other part of that I would emphasise in terms of remote areas was in terms of environmental and infrastructure management when we have disaster after disaster, as we have experienced in the last year, where much of our area has been flooded for not only days but weeks. And in recent times we have suffered Yasi as well. The ability to have NBN and high speed broadband, which will enable better management and monitoring of our infrastructure, is, I think, going to be more important going forward.

While we have talked about the remote management of energy systems, I would also apply that need to our management of rail and road infrastructure, so you do not have to send someone out hundreds of kilometres in a disaster to find out the status of a road or railway. By real-time monitoring, which is enabled through NBN, you can actually have someone in Julia Creek or someone in Mount Isa seeing what the situation is. They do not have to get out in their car to physically see things as well.

Mr SYMON —So, rather than rely on a signal fault showing up on a board somewhere you actually have a fairly close video connection that you could see?

Ms Schuntner —Exactly. You would be able to have much better monitoring. Currently, in our local government area, they would have to get in a truck and drive somewhere to see exactly how far over the road the flooding may be, and then you need to relay back with police in terms of road management. Being able to have real-time monitoring will be a huge benefit for safety management, road management and also infrastructure management, in terms of understanding what the need is going to be for the recovery of that as well.

Mr SYMON —I suppose at the moment, with the systems that are in place, monitoring is really only measurement of how high or how hot something is. That is monitored, but beyond that you do not necessarily have the bandwidth or even the connection in many of these areas.

Ms Schuntner —That is right. Also, while we have some monitoring in place, probably our region is quite poor the more remote you go. In terms of monitoring, even with that information, the government and communities want to make decisions about future investment, for example, into the growth of agriculture in the north, but there is currently not enough information captured in terms of water flow, water depth runoff from flooding events and so on, to really understand the dynamics of the land and opportunity for potentially growing agriculture as a food bowl in the north. That came out of the Land and Water Taskforce in recent times through the federal government. The more we can expand the network through the NBN, the more we can capture real data that will help us with generational change in terms of planning for industry and the supporting infrastructure.

Mr SYMON —You are talking about real-time and very localised hydrology, for instance?

Ms Schuntner —Exactly. While I am not an expert in that area, I have certainly listened to plenty of experts who would say that the more information we can get the more informed decisions we can make to be able to make sure that we are looking after our environment while not missing out on economic opportunities for employment in very remote areas in particular.

Mr SYMON —I am glad you finished on that. Lastly, do you see any employment opportunities in either smart grids or smarter agriculture with jobs that are currently based in capital cities that could then be done in regional cities or even in smaller towns?

Mr McCullough —That is a hard question to answer. I guess that would devolve as time went on. The take-up of technology in the more remote areas has already been happening. I can give you an example of time saving. A grazier used to have to drive out to a tank to see if it was full. Now they use solar energy to power a little camera up there so that they can check the thing each morning. It might be 30 or 40 miles away. They embraced that quite some time back. That is limited technology, but they take it up as quickly as they can.

Your question is: how will it benefit? We do not know yet, but the options are tremendous. The bloke on the land is pretty innovative and we would expect that they would take it up in a short time. If in fact they have the capacity there to do these things, it just opens the door for all sorts of opportunities. Off the top of my head, I could give you an example of how we could transpose that operation from there to here, but all the flows previously have been going the other way. If we could stop them going the other way from people off the land to the capital cities to do the jobs, then we would be much better off.

Part of Ms Schuntner’s answer to you reminded me a little of Mrs Prentice’s question earlier about development and opportunities up there. We see that energy supply using the capacity out there, whether it is solar energy or geothermal, as being a part of the enabler for growth in that region. The big thing is just that it buzzes along a lot faster. Obviously energy costs in the past have been very high and one of the criteria that makes it less attractive for people to operate out there. Whereas whenever we start going into alternative energy sources we expect that we can get that cheaper or probably more reliably, and then more people may be enthusiastic about opening up to the opportunities in our region, which are enormous at the present time.

Mr SYMON —I think your point about capacity is very relevant. It is not necessarily what you are going to use it for now; it is what you are going to be using it for in decades to come.

Mr McCullough —Absolutely. Many years back some people were saying that the jobs that people would be doing in the future had not been invented yet, and that is true.

CHAIR —We had a good example when we laid electricity and people would say, ‘You’ll have one power point in each room.’ These days you can come into a motel and it is not just the hairdryer; you have all the chargers you need to plug in. That is a good example of how that grows exponentially in terms of the usage. Thank you very much for your attendance 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 has been really interesting and useful information. Thank you for your submission and presentation today.

 [12.10 pm]