Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Standing Committee on Infrastructure and Communications
27/05/2011
Role and potential of the National Broadband Network

ATKINSON, Mr Simon, First Assistant Secretary, Policy Coordination Division, Department of Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government

FAICHNEY, Ms Kirsty, Acting Assistant Secretary, Strategic Projects Branch, Department of Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government

[13:48]

CHAIR: Welcome. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I 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 submission from you. Would you like to make some opening comments highlighting the main issues?

Mr Atkinson : Different parts of Australia have different challenges and opportunities. In regional Australia two of the key challenges are distance and access to communications. We see high-speed broadband as having great potential to improve both private and public service delivery, as well as to provide new economic opportunities and opportunities for economic diversification in regional Australia. Obviously the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy is responsible for NBN more broadly. Our focus is on working with communities to ensure that we maximise the opportunities the NBN presents in regional Australia as part of the broader digital productivity agenda. In that role we work very closely with the Regional Development Australia committees, with the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, and across government more broadly to pursue those objectives. That is the overview.

CHAIR: Many of the submissions we have received have raised the issue of addressing the digital divide in regional Australia—although I think it would be fair to say that just about everybody who is not within the direct footprint of a major city considers that they are in regional Australia and that their broadband is not up to the speeds and service they require. I think your submission referred to specialist advisers who have been attached to some of the RDAs in relation to the backbone program.

Mr Atkinson : The blackspots.

CHAIR: That is it, yes. Could you update us on how that works and whether you are looking at extending that model? It certainly appears to the committee that there is great variation in understanding of and engagement with the NBN process between regions. I am wondering how that has worked to date, whether you have assessed it and whether there is a likelihood of its being extended.

Mr Atkinson : Around 30 of the 55 Regional Development Australia community plans have identified this as a priority. The eight advisers you talked about are attached to the blackspots sites. They are people associated with the department of broadband rather than our department.

CHAIR: It might have been in their submission.

Mr Atkinson : There is a reference to it in ours but not great detail on it. I am sure you will be able to ask them in the next session whether they are considering it.

CHAIR: I am happy to ask them for more detail but can you comment from the RDA perspective?

Mr Atkinson : From the RDA perspective they are playing an important role in community engagement and moving communities to be NBN ready. We see value in that. I am not sure whether the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy has assessed it. The broader digital economic strategy which I understand is coming out this month will take forward a lot of the broader digital productivity agenda and how that will be pursued.

CHAIR: We are interested in what appears to be a significant presence of home based businesses in regional areas—particularly 'mumtrepeneurs', as it was described to us in Townsville. A lot of women run small businesses from home but they are not often recorded or counted anywhere so it is hard for planners to have a concept of the size of that sector. It seems to me to be particularly important for regional development because if people are going to relocate they are often relocating with a view to running home based businesses if they can. Does the department have any take on the size of that sector or how it operates in regional areas?

Mr Atkinson : As you said, there is no detailed data on that. Anecdotally, one of the things the NBN will enable is more home based work, as well as people undertaking roles for which they previously would have had to be in different areas, particularly things that are reliant on high-speed broadband. So it will allow greater flexibility for businesses and allow opportunities for different businesses to be located in regional Australia. That is part of the broader economic opportunity I see for regional Australia.

CHAIR: You have talked about some of the RDAs who have developed within their own strategies a view on the NBN and a particular focus on it. To some extent that has been driven from the ground up, and I understand that that is the philosophy behind the RDAs anyway. We have a concern that there will be an increase in the digital divide if a regional development area does not have a champion—someone who gets this and is driving an agenda, who is ahead of the game and can put strong arguments to take the benefits. But if you do not have someone who really gets it and drives an agenda then you can start to lag behind. Do you have a view on how you might provide support or encouragement to the RDAs to better engage with the process and potential?

Mr Atkinson : Obviously there are opportunities for individuals, private businesses and government in relation to service delivery. In relation to the broader community, local government and RDA benefits, the department is engaging with the RDAs on the NBN and a number of other issues. At the NBN forum recently Mike Kaiser from NBN Co. addressed them, talking about how RDAs can support the rollout of NBN and about the types of opportunities. The department will continue to work with RDAs. In the recent budget there was a measure strengthening RDAs' capacity to take leadership roles. Taking it forward, I think the strength of RDAs will improve and the government will continue to engage more closely with RDAs to ensure that that leadership happens.

CHAIR: Do you go back and talk to the RDAs who do not have an NBN component in their strategies about why that might be the case? I am not convinced it is because they do not see an advantage; I think it is more likely that they have not even thought about it.

Mr Atkinson : Part of it is about the RDA plans and what their priorities are. Just because it is not in their plan as written at the moment does not mean it is not a priority for the area; it is just about the relative priorities. We are working with the RDAs on the plans as well as the broader issues around the NBN.

CHAIR: You deal with local government as well. My last question is about the potential for cloud services to expand local government, and in particular smaller local governments. The challenge will be that many of them will not have the expertise to begin to engage with it. What is the current conversation about cloud computing for government services and rolling that down to local government level?

Mr Atkinson : In the context of the broader digital productivity agenda, which is only just starting, I think that would be within the scope for consideration. I am not sure whether the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy has anything concrete on that yet. That would be a question for them.

CHAIR: It seems to me that there is a lot of overlap between what you are trying to do and what they are doing. How do you manage that between the two departments?

Mr Atkinson : We work very closely with them. We have a presence on their steering group and we work very closely in the development of policies, particularly on the digital productivity side of things. Our focus, which is on the benefit for regional Australia, obviously is quite reliant on their focus.

CHAIR: You are saying that at an individual level officers work closely together but there is not an existing cross-departmental—the focus is on delivering for the regions through the NBN but there is not an overarching cross-departmental group looking at that particular aspect?

Mr Atkinson : We actually work with a number of departments across it and, as I said, we are on the NBN steering group. There is not a formally established—

CHAIR: So it would be through the steering group?

Mr Atkinson : Yes, it is through the normal processes.

Mr FLETCHER: On page 5 of your submission you quote some data about the lower rate of internet and broadband take-up in regional Australia. How much of that is due, in your view, to lower incomes and therefore a lower capacity to pay in regional Australia? The heading is 'Current internet access and use in regional Australia'.

Mr Atkinson : We actually have not done any detailed analysis of what has driven those statistics. Those are ABS statistics.

CHAIR: You are just reporting on the statistics?

Mr Atkinson : Yes.

Mr FLETCHER: You talk on page 10 about RDA Central Coast partnering with RDA Hunter and some other players to fund a report to assess the broadband readiness of the Central Coast and Hunter regions. What is broadband readiness?

Mr Atkinson : In the context of that report—and I have not seen it personally—I understand that it is actually about the capacity of the community, business and individuals. I am not sure to what extent they have gone into those—to take up and use broadband and get new benefits from it.

Mr FLETCHER: What would be the consequences if the report finds that this area is not broadband ready?

Mr Atkinson : I am not certain. I have not read the report. I suspect that, as with many reports, if a report finds that something needs to be done or some further leadership needs to be taken—

CHAIR: This is an RDA report.

Mr FLETCHER: I know. I am just trying to understand: if a report is to be done assessing whether a particular region has achieved this state of 'broadband readiness', I am interested to know what might then follow if it is found that, on the one hand, broadband readiness has been achieved or, on the other hand, troublingly, that broadband readiness has not been achieved. Do you have a response plan? Do you have minibuses?

CHAIR: I suggest that, if they are broadband ready, they will be lobbying to have the broadband rolled out early.

Mr Atkinson : What will happen, I suspect—I am sorry; this is quite speculative—is that, based on any outcomes of the plan, we would have a conversation with the RDA and that would feed into their priorities for the RDA plan.

Mr FLETCHER: You talk about the fact that quite a number of the RDAs have identified improved information technology access as a priority. Clearly, from first principles, that make sense as a thing to identify. I am interested to know whether there is any survey data or other data that you are aware of that any of the RDAs have gathered to support or underpin those recommendations that they have made.

Mr Atkinson : I am sorry; I do not have the detail of the recommendations underpinning each of the individual RDA plans.

Mr FLETCHER: Is that something you could take away on notice and see if any of them have conducted surveys? I would be particularly interested to know if any of them have conducted large-scale, statistically valid surveys. I think we would be very interested to know about that.

Mr Atkinson : I will take that on notice and see if anyone has done large-scale statistical surveys to support their priority in the RDA plan.

Mr FLETCHER: Thank you. Does the department have a view about previous rural and regional communications policy initiatives? I am thinking of things like the $150 million funding for the extension of untimed local calls to extended zones in the year 2000, initiatives under the National Communications Fund in 2004 or, indeed, the Glasson review more recently. Are there any views the department has about those what might be called several waves of regional communications policies?

Mr Atkinson : I am not really in a position to comment on the government's policies in that sort of sense.

Mr FLETCHER: I suppose what I was really asking was whether, given their regional development perspective that I understand the department has been formed to advocate and prioritise within the government, you have had the opportunity to go back and look at previous efforts to improve communications infrastructure in rural Australia?

CHAIR: And capture a bit of an overall picture over time of communications across regional Australia—not the particular policies but the history of it and where it is that?

Mr Atkinson : We have not done a detailed analysis of the communications history.

Mr STEPHEN JONES: Thank you for your report. I think it is pretty comprehensive, and a good one. It speaks for itself. I really only have one question and that goes to the issue that your department and others have identified as the advantages that the NBN provides in enabling organisations to decentralise and for employees to be devolved out of capital cities and into regions. How are you going on that in your own department? How many of the department's employees are based in Canberra vis-a-vis the rest of Australia and particularly regional Australia?

Mr Atkinson : I am sorry; I do not know the numbers off the top of my head, but—

Mr STEPHEN JONES: Do you have rough percentages? Would you say that the majority is based in Canberra or the majority is based in regions?

Mr Atkinson : There is a significant proportion outside of Canberra.

Mr STEPHEN JONES: Is that a majority?

CHAIR: Give us a structural picture—you have officers where doing what?

Mr Atkinson : I apologise—I did not have that one prepared. We have offices around Australia and we are actually currently reviewing our footprint. Our secretary alluded to that in Senate estimates last week. I am sorry; I do not have details on our footprint. We have an engagement division that is in charge of those things.

Mr STEPHEN JONES: Would I be able to ask you to provide that to the committee?

Mr Atkinson : Certainly. You would like current departmental numbers on who is in Canberra as opposed to who is in regional Australia?

Mr STEPHEN JONES: The point is a simple one and it is not meant to be cute. One of the benefits of the NBN is to enable organisations, including government organisations, to decentralise. If the department whose charter it is to advance the interests of or look at the development of regional Australia is overwhelmingly Canberra-centric or capital-city-centric, it does beg the question of whether we should be looking at that.

Mr Atkinson : Our minister has been very public about wanting to increase the level of engagement and that is why the department is examining its footprint.

Mr STEPHEN JONES: Nothing I have said should be taken as in any way engaging in the time-honoured sport of Canberra bashing. I have a deep affection for the place.

CHAIR: No, it is the time-honoured sport of region promoting.

Mr STEPHEN JONES: Indeed.

Mr Atkinson : I am safe to say there is a significant presence outside of Canberra.

Mr STEPHEN JONES: Yes, I have taken note of that—thank you.

Mrs PRENTICE: So part of that information you will provide will be the location of your offices, not just the people. You mention in your submission that you have 54 RDAs and 30 of those have committees identifying IT being of importance. Are all of those 54 getting optical fibre as part of the NBN rollout or are some of them only going to be served by satellite and wireless?

Mr Atkinson : The difficulty with your question is that that is actually about where the full and final NBN rollout of fibre will be. That is actually a question for the department of broadband. RDA regions are reasonably large, however, so I would suspect it would be a mix.

CHAIR: It is not too long until you can ask them that question directly.

Mrs PRENTICE: You mentioned in the back of your submission regional broadband coordinators. You have listed eight. Is that it? Is that the total? We do not have any more?

Mr Atkinson : That is the current total, and that is based on those blackspot locations.

Mrs PRENTICE: Okay. Is part of their role or could part of their role also be to promote the take-up of NBN given that we have seen some disappointing take-up in other areas?

Mr Atkinson : I am not wanting to sound cute, but that is also a question for them because they actually own those staff. They are co-located, in many cases, with RDAs, but—

Mrs PRENTICE: Has that department also selected who should get a co-ordinator? Was that your decision? I would hate to get to the end and find out that it was your answer.

Mr Atkinson : I understand that it was deployed to the blackspot locations.

Mrs PRENTICE: Brisbane does not have one and I have stacks of blackspots in Brisbane.

Mr SYMON: I would like to go to an area that we have not, as a committee, delved into so far and it is in your submission; that is, coverage of the Australian external territories. I have to confess that, up to now, I had not really thought about what is there and what opportunities the NBN provides. But I think that, in many cases, it is probably an even bigger quantum leap than in some of the regional areas where we have been and seen the gap in services now compared to what may be provided. In particular, I was reading that Norfolk Island, for instance, does not have the benefit of the universal service obligation. Can you explain what that means to residents of Norfolk Island at the moment in terms of what they do not get in telecommunications that the NBN will provide once that system is in place?

Mr Atkinson : At the moment, Norfolk Island under current arrangements does not have access to most of the telecommunications that mainland Australia does. The NBN will provide significant advances in NBN services and will also enable their telecommunications services. That will be a significant improvement and improve our capacity for service delivery.

Mr SYMON: So Norfolk Island, for instance, will be in the footprint of the satellite service?

Mr Atkinson : That is my understanding. But, once again, I would prefer it if you could take up issues of footprint and rollout with the department of broadband.

Mr SYMON: In relation to the Indian Ocean territories, is that a similar thing? They are different administrations in the way they are done, but your submission talks about in particular the lack of mobile services there currently and that the NBN provides an opportunity to improve telecommunications capabilities. Obviously, that is broadband internet, but the side benefit, I take it, for those two islands—Cocos and Christmas islands—is that they actually get better telephone links as well, and at least a telephone is something that most of us in mainland Australia would take for granted.

Mr Atkinson : Certainly. That is correct. I think we detail that on page 11.

Mr SYMON: The way I read that at the moment is that there is a far from perfect phone network on the Cocos Keeling Islands. Do they have any internet coverage there through that service?

Mr Atkinson : I am not certain. I can take that on notice.

Mr SYMON: As I said, I have not seen any of this before. It has piqued my interest to some degree, because I suspect we do go on in terms of health and community services and things like x-ray screening and then having to send images to Western Australia for processing. As your submission says, it takes weeks. I suppose that has always been the case for those territories. So it is really a bigger leap for them than for many other places we have dealt with. In terms of government facilities, though, I do note that some of them were using separate satellite links. Is that something you can tell us more about or are they all through the existing satellite service that is used by the majority of the people on Christmas Island?

Mr Atkinson : I am sorry; I do not have any details of how the other departments on Christmas Island are communicating. Once again, I can find something out for you on that.

CHAIR: I am developing a greater and greater concern. This is one of those classic areas where it sits in silos in different departments. One of the biggest issues that has been brought before us and one of the greatest potentials has been around regional development, whether we are talking new businesses or easing the pressure on capital cities by having people able to live and work outside of the capital cities. A lot of the benefits that are looking at being rolling out over the longer term relate directly to the issue of the regional areas. That is not surprising given the priority it has been given in the rollout. But it just seems to me that, other than on the overarching task force, it is still sitting in silos in departments, to be honest with you. If I look at the local level from the regions that we have been to, the RDAs themselves, where we have met with them, and local government as well I think are lacking some leadership on how they are going to address the rollout of the NBN. They have expressed some frustration with interacting with NBN Co., but I have to say that, as we have gone around, there has been some improvement. But I feel that there are these two separate things running. I am not as yet assured that they are coming together effectively. I worry that that will filter down to the ground level. You have somewhere like Ballarat, where a guy who established and ran an ISP and is running their agenda there has that region way ahead on this agenda, whereas the wheat belt councils in Western Australia that thought they were not even getting the NBN, because they thought it was only the fibre component, did not know why they were coming to talk to us because they did not think they were getting anything. The disparities are huge between the regions. I invite you to give me perhaps some assurance or some developments that show that we are going to take the regions by the throat and really ensure that they can maximise the utilisation of it.

Mrs PRENTICE: Chair, perhaps we can get a report or a paper suggesting that there is some light there and they are working on something?

CHAIR: My only fear is that we have about 10 days until we start writing our report. I am just giving you the chance now to perhaps highlight to me what the key initiatives are on that from the department.

Mr Atkinson : Part of the challenge that I think you are seeing is that we are not at the end of the road in terms of digital productivity and getting people ready to make the most benefit of the NBN. It is quite a long journey. It is progressing in a number of ways. The first is about progressing the strengthening of the RDAs. We are working with the other departments to create the linkages between the departments, NBN Co. and the RDAs.

CHAIR: I am encouraged by the co-location of the DBCDE position in the RDAs, but it is just such a small thing.

Mr Atkinson : Also, there is strengthening the RDA initiatives to build the capacity of RDAs. Some regions have very strong leadership already. It is about improving that capacity across the board in those roles. Those initiatives are moving forward now that the budget is coming through. In the context of the digital economy strategy, we will be working on some digital productivity work to ensure that regional Australia is positioned to maximise the benefits of the NBN.

CHAIR: So you are basically saying to me that you are at a point where you are about to initiate some activity in that area beyond the very initial stages.

Mr Atkinson : Absolutely.

CHAIR: We might have some suggestions for you that you can look at out of the report. I appreciate that. Thank you very much for your participation in the inquiry and the submission that you have provided to us. As Mr Symon has said, it has broadened for us our understanding of what the coverage is there too. You will be sent a copy of the transcript of evidence, to which you can make corrections of grammar and fact. The transcript will also guide you on any additional information you undertook to provide. It would be appreciated if you could forward additional information to the secretary as soon as possible, as we are commencing the process of formulating our report. Once again, thank you very much for your time.

Mr Atkinson : Thank you.