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

CHAIR —I now welcome the representative of the Cassowary Coast Regional Council to today’s hearing. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that the hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. We have a written presentation from council, but given we are being broadcast and people are listening, do you want to give a short summary of the details of that submission for about five minutes and then we will have a question and answer session.

Mr Basnayake —Yes. Firstly, thank you for the opportunity to present in front of you. I can see from the schedule that we are the only Far North Queensland regional organisation that is represented here. I would like to make it clear that I am not here just on behalf of the Cassowary Coast Regional Council. I am also sitting here on behalf of the Far North Queensland Regional Broadband Alliance, which has just been formed and is a combination of all our FNQ ROC councils—Cairns, Cassowary, Tablelands and Cook. I am here on behalf of the entire Far North region. There is quite a lot to do here, but I am here, so thank you for the opportunity.

The submission that I originally made on behalf of council basically looked at identifying opportunities for regions such as ours. We are a small region between two very large centres. How do we best make use of this potential through NBN, whether it be through fibre, wireless or satellite? At present it is insignificant to us which mode comes to us as long as we have a stable and cost-effective way of exchanging data over long distances. My region is 4,700 square kilometres. About 74 per cent of it is rainforest and on the opposite side we have the Barrier Reef. We have a very small strip of land which we are constrained to in terms of traditional forms of development. An opportunity that presents itself such as the NBN is quite significant for the region, as it enables us to basically, from a council perspective, deliver government services that we would normally be providing over those quite broad distances and also to provide opportunity, economic, social and environmental benefit for our region. One of the things that we do not want to do is lose the lifestyle aspect of our region. Most people go up to that region because of the lifestyle. You do not go there because you are going to get a million-dollar job in Sony Corporation. A lot of people turn up there because they like the fishing and lifestyle aspects. You will get the occasional cyclone that tears through, but if we manage ourselves well we are able to withstand anything. You can probably see that right now, having faced the critical event that we did. Five years ago we had Larry and now we have Yasi and people are still getting over things.

NBN and the opportunity that broadband provides us is quite significant and should not be brushed aside. It offers opportunities for both council and the smaller businesses in the region to go out and promote themselves. It also offers opportunities for other government services and service providers to basically engage with the community to provide them with the services that are necessary and that people are calling for.

We have four major townships in our region—Innisfail, Mission Beach, Tully and Cardwell. From one end to the opposite end is about 200 kilometres. I do this trip quite a lot. I drove down today. Trying to deliver government services can be quite restricted in the fact that we do not necessarily have the hard infrastructure in each of those town centres or the smaller centres so how do we make sure that we engage with that community? What we always hear, especially from a local government perspective—I have only been in the job for about eight months now and this is my first stint at government, which is interesting—is the challenges we face in trying to deliver services. It is not so much complaints, but statements are made to us, ‘How can you engage with us more? We want to see you here more.’ We would like to. I am assuming that through the delivery of the services through the broadband we will be able to engage a little bit further with our community. We have about 54 per cent or 56 per cent of our region connected to internet of some form residentially. The speeds are obviously not what you are used to in the capital cities. At times it is very slow. Our wireless coverage, for example, is like dial-up. You can sit there, click, go have a coffee, take a shower and come back, and the page is still loading. You have issues like that, even though we have the connectivity. The opportunities for a faster, stable, cost-effective solution is what we are after in regional Queensland, especially in the Far North.

CHAIR —I would like to go to one sector that has been of particular interest to us, which has been raised in most states, and I assume tourism is a big issue for your area as well. What is your observation on the uptake of digital economy opportunities in the tourism sector and, alternatively to that, the views of tourists and whether you are getting feedback on their expectations of change and how well we are keeping pace with that as well?

Mr Basnayake —We have two major industries, agriculture and tourism. Tourism for the Cassowary Coast is worth around $100 million per annum. It contributes significantly to our economy. I think it is about 15 per cent or 20 per cent of Cassowary Coast’s regional economy. When you look at a Far North Queensland perspective, it is much more significant, with Cairns being the major centre. Businesses in the region, as much as they can, are connected, but the requirement is for something better and stable. We do with what we have and we make the best of what we can with what we have. A simple example is when you go to Innisfail there are all the backpackers now. We have backpacker hostels throughout the region, because all of them work in the banana farms, for example. Those smaller places are not necessarily connected. You can go on the weekends and you see all of the backpackers with their laptops in McDonald’s because they have free wireless. You can see that there is a need for that. The range of people going through our region is quite diverse. We have a really large proportion of younger more astute people from around the world who are used to better systems than what we have in this country. You see that especially with the Asian students. All the Asians, especially Koreans and Singaporeans, are always at McDonald’s or in the library or wherever there is free wireless. The need for it is there and it has been identified. Although they have not made direct representation to council saying, ‘Can we have better services?’, we have identified the need. We have some internet cafes and so on and they are always quite full of people. From a user perspective, yes, there is definitely a need for it.

CHAIR —I do not know whether you have any evidence on it at the other end. The other thing that was raised with us was an internet provider who said that one of the things that a lot of the tourism sector do not pick up is the lost bookings. Not having fast video based web presences, people will not book them.

Mr Basnayake —That is right.

CHAIR —Or they will click on the page and it takes so long from our end that they walk away from it. I am just wondering from that aspect, before people arrive as well, in terms of engaging with the area—

Mr Basnayake —I do not have any statistics that I can give you in terms of that. But you can look at the organisations that are more successful, for example, Mission Beach Business and Tourism. Theirs is an excellent website. It captures the essence of Mission Beach and the surrounding region. It is as quick as it can be and they have had it professionally designed. You can then go to the other end, some of the caravan parks and the smaller places that are not able to afford those types of things. Yes, they get passed, because they do not have that presence. Most of the tourism businesses in that region survive mainly as a result of drive tourism. Drive tourism is our biggest component. If you are to capture other components, other markets, especially the foreign market, then you need to have this presence. You have a new internet user every two minutes or so, so you need to have web presence nowadays. Not having web presence is a real issue for a lot of the smaller businesses. Ninety-four per cent of my region’s businesses are classified as small business by the ABS. Not all of them have that presence. They basically survive off the surrounding region and whatever business they get through the drive market. If we are looking at taking them to the next level, engaging them with the broader community in a state, national and international context, you are going to need to have that capacity, but they do not have that capacity. As a result of everything being slow we do not have the expertise to set these things up within the region. It is the chicken and the egg situation, as in what do you have first? You want the businesses to be proactive and go out there, but they say, ‘If you don’t give us the right services to go out there then what’s the point?’

Mrs PRENTICE —Do you currently have any fibre connections or is it all satellite and wireless?

Mr Basnayake —I know council itself laid its own fibre. We have some fibre from our shire hall to some of the other council owned buildings in Innisfail. But throughout the region we do not have very much fibre. I believe one of the major backbone cables goes through Cardwell. We already have that existing. It is just that there is nothing connecting to it.

CHAIR —Whose fibre is that?

Mr Basnayake —It is Telstra. Telstra has a lot of infrastructure in the region. I have just completed our economic development plan and one of the documents that I received from Telstra was a map of all their connectivity. They have existing infrastructure there. I am not sure exactly what percentage is fibre and what is not. Because our region is dispersed, with some people living in the middle of absolutely nowhere, then how do you get connected to them? That is why we are saying that we do not necessarily need to look at fibre in the first instance; we need to look at the entire package. You need to look at your wireless and your satellite. It is not going to be cost effective in the first instance to lay fibre to one person who is 200 kilometres in the bush, but you need to provide them with an alternative. Like I said, liveability is one of the region’s most attractive assets. You want to look at attracting people like the mobile knowledge worker, people who do not need offices and can work from anywhere. We have the liveability aspect, but we need the infrastructure to go with the liveability aspect. Not everybody wants to go out fishing all the time. You need to have a little bit more than that.

Mrs PRENTICE —What you are saying is that you would be happy if you had a reliable wireless satellite service. It is just that you want a reliable service?

Mr Basnayake —That is right. We want a reliable service and that is what we do not necessarily have. I will tell you one of the things that happened straight after the cyclone hit. We had no communications. All of our phone networks were down, including mobile networks. Here we are in council trying to coordinate disaster recovery and you cannot get anybody on the phone. You need that. It is about reliability and a constant steady service. It does not need to be super fast. It needs to load in a reasonable amount of time.

Mrs PRENTICE —You have that strip, as you said, of quite a long stretch. How many key centres do you think are in there? Is there about 10?

Mr Basnayake —We probably have about 10 smaller townships. We have the four major townships with Innisfail being the largest, but we probably have about 10 or so smaller ones. Combined we probably have 10 or so.

Mrs PRENTICE —From what you are saying, am I correct in assuming that you are more interested in NBN rollout as an enabler to sustain and grow business and communities as opposed to delivering council services?

Mr Basnayake —Yes. We need to view it holistically. Delivering council services is part of growing the region. If we are able to be more proactive as government, in all levels of government, if we are able to engage with our citizens more proactively the region will grow. One of the biggest complaints we get is that we are not engaged enough. ‘I don’t know what you guys are doing.’ With the disaster, again, through the recovery process, newsletters went out straightaway, the day after the disaster happened, but with some regions like in Cardwell, they got newsletter No. 6. They missed one to five, but that is just because it was not able to get there. We had Facebook, Twitter and all these things with council and our immediate people on it, but when you do not have the same services as those in capital cities, then how do you get that message across? Government is an enabler of growth. It is combining private and government sector. It is the partnership that we form to help the community move forward.

Mrs PRENTICE —I noticed that you did a very detailed submission to the RDA previously supporting the NBN. Did you do a cost analysis of the benefits for that?

Mr Basnayake —No. The RDA submission was done in probably about a day. We did not get notice of it until the last moment where they said, ‘Can you get us this?’ I put that in really quickly. We did not have the cost-benefit analysis. The Far North Queensland Broadband Alliance has now contracted consultants to do that analysis for us. That report is the report that we will be using as our basis for going to NBN Co. to say, ‘We are the region that you want to come into and roll out. We should be one of the priority regions for this particular reason.’

CHAIR —What is the timeframe on that?

Mr Basnayake —We should have that report out in probably another month or two.

CHAIR —Will that be publicly released?

Mr Basnayake —Yes.

CHAIR —Would you mind sending a copy through to us when it is publicly released?

Mr Basnayake —Yes, certainly, we can send that. It will give you a snapshot of why it is important for NBN to be rolled out in the regions.

CHAIR —That would be very useful.

Mr SYMON —I would like to ask about the council survey on skills in training that you mentioned in your submission, particularly the part about the preliminary findings that employers want more access to training and learning solutions. Do you have any further details on that? Can you fill in some of what I think are gaps there in how many employers—for instance, a percentage? Did they identify, ‘We would like to access the sorts of things that you can do in the city via videoconferencing at multiple points’? Was it that type of thing?

Mr Basnayake —The final report has not been released yet. The Department of Education is compiling the final report. I do not have the statistics on the findings. I have preliminary findings and one of the comments was, ‘We need more access now.’ I can get you that report as well, once it is done, which will enable you to see what sorts of numbers we are looking at.

Mr SYMON —Thank you.

Mr Basnayake —I would say, offhand, having looked at all the surveys myself, that probably around 80-odd per cent of the survey respondents said, ‘We would like better access to educational services.’ One thing that you need to realise with this region is that these are very tight knit communities. Although Cairns may be an hour away from Innisfail and Townsville about two-and-a-half to three hours, they are not going to go. They do not want to go because they think, ‘Why the hell should I go there? They should come to us.’ That is just what you are going to have to deal with in these types of communities.

Education is critical to our region. Forming new skills sets is critical to our region. Employers have said, ‘If we had the ability for us to have in-house training or access to education, which you have in all these other centres, delivered on the premises, that’s going to be an enabler for us.’ As I said, 94 per cent are small businesses. They do not necessarily have the time to be sending the one or two staff members that they have off to Townsville, Brisbane or wherever to get trained up for two or three days. They need those guys on the ground doing the job. That is the critical factor. It is enabling them to be trained in house or within that community so that they do not lose their staff. Some of these businesses are mom and pop shops. I talk to these guys all the time. The state government centres, for example, say, ‘We have these courses. This is free.’ It is not a matter of giving the free courses. It is about where it is delivered. They do not necessarily have the time or the capacity to get up there to have a course delivered. Some of the larger businesses will say, ‘Yes, I’m able to manage my staff so I’ll send someone out. We can rotate them.’ If you have 94 per cent of small businesses that are one or two people you are not going to get someone going out there. They understand that they need to. I constantly get people saying, ‘Thanks very much for sending us this information on this course and I understand I need to do this, but I don’t have the time.’

Mr SYMON —You cannot send half your workforce away.

Mr Basnayake —That is right; you cannot. Sometimes you will have to close the shop to send the staff away.

Mr SYMON —The other advantage that I would see in training like that is also upskilling, feedback on what has been learnt at training. Again, if you can do that remotely and as you say, with the barriers as it were between towns of people not wanting to travel, it is not just at the front end of the training but an ongoing thing as well.

Mr Basnayake —That is right; it is ongoing. You never stop learning. Learning is a lifelong thing. You learn something new every day. It is about that ongoing ability to be tapped into a resource that continuously feeds improvement into your systems. It is making sure that we have access to that. It is about delivering those services so that we have a continuous learning process.

We have these things in this region with the Department of Employment, Economic Development and Innovation, in the state government department, with the Centres of Enterprise. The Far North region has been identified for aviation and marine tropical expertise. That is where we are looking at investment in jobs, infrastructure and so on. For my region I want to be able to tap into that, because that is what has been identified for my region, but the reason I did the skills audit was to understand where we lack and how we position ourselves to enable us to tap into these future possibilities. Getting those courses and things delivered in my townships is critical, because you have a problem with drift. People will go. If you have a community of, say, 30,000 or 31,500, which is my region’s community, just with the youth leaving the region, that drift, even going to Townsville or Cairns is a problem because if they like it there then they will not come back. How do we get them back? Delivering the essential services that they require in terms of education and even entertainment; if you can do that you tend to retain them a lot more than what you would do if you had to send them away.

Mr SYMON —Finally, I have a question on what the NBN may do to alleviate the impact on exports. I would like you to expand on that one a little, because I do not think we have heard anything about that area so far.

Mr Basnayake —My region has tropical fruits, for example. We have the largest amount of tropical fruits grown anywhere in the country. One farmer, Peter Salares, grows 150 different varieties of tropical fruit. There is nowhere in the world that has that much tropical fruits other than this far north region of Queensland. He wants to look at exporting. How do we enable him to export? He has to have a web presence. He has to be engaged with foreign markets. He has to be able to have real-time access to information to respond to inquiries and things like that. The NBN will provide such a benefit not just to him but to all the businesses. As I said, a lot of the time we retain our businesses and service businesses in our local region only. When you have one of the major industries, like bananas or cane, falling over, all of the businesses that feed off these one or two larger sectors all of a sudden are in strife. To make them competitive one of the things that I have always said is they need to look at engaging beyond their region. It is not just about exporting out of Australia; it is also about exporting within the nation. It is our intrastate and interstate trade as well. It is about enabling them to export. It is giving them access to real-time information. You could have access to the stock exchanges, the markets and to see price fluctuations in what the dollar is doing. Things like that are important for these businesses. Reading the newspaper or reading the Financial Review the next day is not going to help you if you had to deal with something the day before. Having access to that information, being able to connect, is what I am talking about, and getting your product out there. It is also about marketing the region for tourism. Tourism is a form of export business. It is about selling yourself to international or interstate customers. If we have access to this technology we are able to give that better picture. You are able to tap into what people nowadays are after. People nowadays want things to be shown on the web. They have YouTube and all of these things that even I am not aware of.

CHAIR —We had a wine company who did international wine tastings over the net. You could imagine a tropical fruit tasting.

Mr Basnayake —That is right. We have tropical wines. There are opportunities there.

CHAIR —Combine wine tasting with tropical fruit tasting. We would be very supportive of that.

Mr SYMON —I was about to add that quite possibly your tropical fruit grower could also do online wholesale sales by the same method in that high definition video might mean the product can be inspected at the farm gate, rather than at a market that is a long way away where, if it is not right, is not wanted at that point.

Mr Basnayake —That is right. That is just one example. Even for organisations such as AQIS, Customs or Primary Industries, if they want to do assessments of products. It is about us teaching as well. There are people like him who have growing technologies. You are able to teach the rest of the world. It is not just about us asking the rest the world: can you give us more? It is about us saying, ‘This is what we have. Here’s something else that we can teach you too.’ You can go and film the whole farm and say: ‘Here you go, this is how it’s done. This is how we survived the cyclones and so on.’

Mrs PRENTICE —In addition to a very proactive and visionary economic development office, what are the main services provided by the council?

Mr Basnayake —The simple things that I can start with are our rates notices, all our notices to our businesses. Provision of those can be done electronically. Right now people have to drive all the way to Innisfail or Tully to just pay a notice. Things like that can be done. We are also able to provide assistance in terms of business licensing and even disaster management techniques and mitigation strategies. That is something that I want to try to pump out to these people to learn about. ‘It is readily available on our website. Have a look at it. You do not necessarily need to come in.’ It is just simple things. You start with some of the basics. We do not even have the capacity to deliver the basics.

CHAIR —I wanted to touch on a point you made earlier about knowledge workers. When we went to Victor Harbour in South Australia we heard that, because they are sort of a holiday tourist destination, a lot of people have little holiday places. They will go into semi-retirement. They locate out of Adelaide into the nice area, but they want to be able to still do a bit of contracting as a planner, an engineer, an accountant or whatever their profession was. Would that be a similar model to what you would be seeing in your area?

Mr Basnayake —Yes. One of the things that the region is working on is engaging with the fly in, fly out workforce for the mines. But you can have a fly in, fly out workforce for anything really. What the region needs to position itself—and I am quite a strong advocate of it—is to sell the lifestyle aspects and get these guys into the region so that they are contributing to the economy. They are changing the demographics as well.

As to the demographics of my region—47 per cent is low socioeconomic blue-collar workers. If you bring these people in it creates an air of change and that adds to the value that the community can get from these people. It is the same sort of model that we are looking at. If you follow on with the cycle then that is fine. You can stay here for six months of the year. We have beautiful, perfect weather and once in a while we get a little whirly that comes in and blows things over.

CHAIR —It is a really interesting model. We met a film company called Rising Sun Pictures in Adelaide, who said to us that about a third of their professional staff, including musicians and people like that, that they contract never come into Adelaide. They are able to do it, if they have the connections, from Byron Bay, which was the example they used. It would seem to me for regions like yours that there is a real capacity and an opportunity there to have a more dynamic and diverse community.

Mr Basnayake —That is right. Even with the environmental aspects. Like I said, we do not want these huge massive polluting factories necessarily, so why not tap into these types of industries that have very low and minimum impact?

CHAIR —But that require that communication infrastructure to make it work?

Mr Basnayake —Yes.

CHAIR —That was a fascinating piece of evidence for us and we really appreciate it. Thank you for your attendance here today. The additional information that we have asked you to provide can be forwarded through to the secretary when available. You will be sent a copy of the transcript of your evidence, to which you can make corrections of grammar and fact. Once again, that was tremendous evidence, which is really useful to us, and thank you very much for your participation.

Mr Basnayake —Thank you for the opportunity.

Resolved (on motion by Mr Symon):

That this committee authorises publication, including publication on the parliamentary database, of the transcript of the evidence given before it at public hearing this day.

Committee adjourned at 12.40 pm