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National Broadband Network Companies Bill 2010; Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (National Broadband Network Measures—Access Arrangements) Bill 2011

CHAIR —Welcome. Do you wish to make a brief opening statement before we go to questions?

Ms Saab —We do. I am here representing Australian Catholic School Principals of New South Wales but also, with Dave, I am part of the national executive council for all primary principals across Australia. I want to start off by saying that, as we all know, the world of technology is growing and changing rapidly, and there are both knowns and unknowns. Schools need to be prepared for both of those. Currently in schools we know that we need the capacity to work remotely, we need the ability to deliver video. Even in our primary schools we need that ability. We know that we need bandwidth that is able to service the massive growth that has been occurring over the last couple of years. We also know that in schools we have already reached our threshold. Our work is all now cloud based. We require access on a daily basis.

The trends are already here and they are already growing. Our challenge now is to maintain adequate levels at affordable prices. We need the ability to provide a rich environment with multiple users. We need scalability and we need economy of scale. E-learning is truly already a reality in our schools. We have moved from paper to e-books to personalised learning and now to e-publishing in a relatively short time. Scalability is necessary to allow us to continue to grow, as I said, and to provide 21st century skills, which we hear about all the time around collaboration, innovation and creativity.

The other point is affordability for our schools. It is crucial. You would all know that as schools we operate on very limited budgets. You would also perhaps be aware that there has been massive growth in one-to-one devices in schools. Large number of students and staff are now trying to access the internet at the same time, which leads to very long delays. Ten years ago, schools were centres of technology. That is not the case now. Now mobile technology is everywhere. Our students arrive in kindergarten experienced users of technology already. They are digital natives.

According to the recently released Horizon report, by 2015 80 per cent of people will be accessing the internet from mobile devices—iPods, smart phones, iPads, netbooks and the like. Our students are accessing the internet on a daily basis right now. They use it as a reference tool and to access their email—even our little kindergarten people are accessing it for communication. They are using apps for education, productivity and creativity; they are using e-book readers, doing note taking, accessing maps—that is very much a part of our maths lessons now, using GPS—using mobile technology for dictionaries, as a thesaurus; and using them for many other things. The connections beyond classroom walls have the potential to promote global citizenship through cultural exchanges. Reliable internet is the tool of the trade for teachers in 2011 for communication, professional development, wikis, blogs and myriad Web 2.0 applications.

Currently, my own primary school, which has 824 students, is running over 350 devices. Our wireless network and our wired network are very much up to date within our school. We have planned and prepared for the present and into the future. However, once we walk out the school gates we are working with connections off the street that cannot cater to that volume—they can cater to 50 devices, but we have 350. Our school cannot meet the needs of the 21st century learner with 20th century infrastructure. Hence, the broadband is so important to us. Students are, as we know, the very greatest asset we have. The children of Australia, we believe, deserve an education that enables them to be global citizens of the 21st century. The 21st century classroom is currently grinding to a 20th century halt without fast reliable access to the internet. As educators and as parents—myself as a grandparent—we dream of the possibilities for our children and believe that national broadband really does have the potential to make some of these dreams a reality for our students.

Mr Edwards —One of the key messages that we got in our recent work at the Primary Principals Association related to the goals that came out of the Melbourne declaration. We welcome those absolutely enthusiastically. For every child we are looking for equity and excellence—no matter where they are located and no matter their circumstances. We are also looking for them to become successful learners, confident and creative individuals and active and informed citizens. For that to happen, we need high-quality internet access. Lots of schools, we have already said, have got the structures, but it is actually about making sure of the supply to schools, at the front gate; it is about making sure that they actually have networks that support and enhance learning and that are reliable in quality. Lots of connections are occurring already but the quality of service is extremely low, particularly in rural and remote areas. It is about making sure that the speed is suitable for purpose—so much of our work is streaming, so much of our work is about accessing clouds. It does not matter where you are in the school—it is affordable management of accessing your resources. Therefore, you need continual access. No longer is everything just stored on a server; it is out there and we need to be able to access it.

There needs to be equal access for all students in primary schools around Australia, not just those who are near the strongest hubs and where there are currently good strength and large pipes. It needs to be affordable. The costs we have heard about from our members around Australia are quite significant. We hear of numbers of schools that have got a supply and services but then have to go outside those services to get something that can actually support learning in their school communities. The last issue is around being global citizens. If you want students to be citizens, even of their local community, not all of that appears within the four walls of their school. Therefore, whether they engage at a local community level, a state level or more broadly—nationally or internationally—they need some sort of service that is going to be able to provide that so we can provide the outcomes that have been designated in the Melbourne declaration.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —Obviously, a lot of your comments go to the overall arguments around having an NBN, not having an NBN and so on. In relation to the proposal that is on the table, in particular the 93 per cent fibre to the premises with the remainder to be serviced by fixed line, wireless or satellite, you highlighted some of the remote and regional school issues. Does the association have an understanding yet as to whether all primary schools can expect to have a fixed line service and, if not, how many might miss out on the fixed line service? What response have you had to representations to government on such matters?

Mr Edwards —We do not have the statistics of how many would have it but we do know those that are in remote areas of Queensland, Northern Territory and Western Australia in particular would require a different sort of service whether it be satellite or something else. Our comment is not so much about the form of service but about the quality of service which comes in. When you are talk to remote schools in Western Australia at the moment, their satellite services are about 126 or 256 kilobytes per second. It is going to take you your whole lesson to get one map loaded. It cannot support you. You are using online resources to support a lesson and a lot of those you cannot unload. It is not so much about the manner in which it is delivered; it is the quality and speed of service that would be most important to us. I do not have the percentage figures at hand but most of those are single or two-teacher schools and they are extremely remote.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —The manner of delivery impacts on the quality of delivery and the speed of the service. Do you have concerns that some of those schools that are currently enduring a second-rate or suboptimal outcome will continue to face that in comparison with other schools?

Mr Edwards —There is going to be that differential, yes. When you look at the reality of how you can deliver those services, you cannot deliver some services just by the nature of the location. That can be because of rivers; most of it has got to do with the physical landscape. Our goal would be that each site gets the best possible service that they can and at a reasonable cost.

Ms Saab —That would include our urban services because both of us are in urban schools and we can assure you that our service leaves a lot to be desired as well. A comparison was made to me by one of my colleagues, when they knew I was appearing here today, that for their students it is often a Third World technological environment that they come into at school because we do not have the sorts of services that many of the students are able to access in places other than schools yet their main learning, for primary school students, occurs with us, within our walls and yet we cannot provide them with the sort of access they have at home.

Mr Edwards —There are far greater technologies available than the ones that are currently being used to service those communities. If it is satellite technology, there is better satellite technology than these schools currently have access to. That would be the main thing. If we are unable to deliver other forms of connections to those sites then we need to put in place a quality of service that is going to provide them access to the resources they need, the same as every other child.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —Have you made any representations to the government or had any thoughts about the prioritisation of the schools that receive services and how quickly services are provided to the schools that, Ms Saab, as you have put in colourful terms, have technologically Third World services? It is not quite that bad but certainly they are very poor services compared with other areas.

Mr Edwards —No, we have not. A large number of actions predominantly through state education systems have been made. The one I most aware of in relation to that is in Western Australia where they are lobbying for upgrades so they can have a better delivery of service than currently. I am not sure where that is along its points of consideration. In relation to the others, the difference is that most places that want that speed of service are paying for it themselves and paying quite considerable amounts of money. What we are after is making sure that that affordability element is significant. If there is one answer instead of 58 answers, it is going to be far better. Whether it be a local government answer, a state government answer or a national answer, it needs to be connected and it needs to provide like with like so that the kids in certain places have the same access as children who are attending other schools and so that the funds that should be directed to learning are not redirected to core infrastructure needs in the way that they are.

I was talking to the principal of a school in the Barossa Valley, in South Australia, and her response to me was that, once their office staff use the connection, their service no longer lets them do anything else in the school, and a lot of their stuff is online. Therefore, they have to buy in an additional service for their school. That means that educational support or student support officers are then not utilised in those schools, therefore money that should be directed to other areas of student need is being directed to core services. We are seeking a service that would support all of that happening.

Ms Saab —Our issue really is equity for all of the students in our well over 7,000 primary schools across Australia, that they should all have access to the best possible connections that they can have, regardless of where they are.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —My last question goes to price equity. You would hope to see an outcome where regional and remote schools can access a service at a comparable price for a comparable service to those in built-up areas?

Mr Edwards —I would actually say a comparable price across the board. For example, a comparable price for the school where I am currently principal, where just the connection download and upload cost is $17,000 a year, for a school of 200. I think that $17,000 could be better spent elsewhere.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —But is it going to be any cheaper under the NBN?

Mr Edwards —I do not know all the prices, but where infrastructure is not linked to just one avenue, when you start to roll that out, my understanding is that that cost is then spread over a broader range and, therefore, the service is providing it. If it was not coming down the road just to our place and then going back out again, it would be that other people in the area could use it—the other businesses in the area and the other schools in the area. I work in a Catholic school. There is a government school 2½ blocks away and—

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Have you made any inquiries about what the cost might be to you once it comes along?

Mr Edwards —No.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —The idea of NBN is great, and everybody wants it. We want faster broadband for our kids but at what cost? We have to pay off $55 billion and get a commercial return on it.

Mr Edwards —Yes.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Have you made any inquiries?

Mr Edwards —No, I have not. Our school has not. My understanding is that, at the moment, for us to do that is quite a significant challenge, to actually get the money for our downloads—

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I do not think anyone knows at the moment. All we know is that it is going to cost $55 billion and we are going to get a commercial return on it, so someone has to pay.

Ms Saab —The commercial return for us, though, is the future. We do believe that in terms of our students.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Sure, but where do you get your money? Who pays for this? Can you tell me about school funding very briefly?

Mr Edwards —It depends which sector you are talking about. The money that goes to the government—

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Does your $17,000 come out of your general schools funds? The parents in Catholic schools pay?

Mr Edwards —It is the money that is on the My School website.

CHAIR —Senator Macdonald, Mr Edwards has started the answer so can you let him finish, and then you can ask again.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I am sorry, Chair, I was trying to speed it up. I am sorry, Mr Edwards.

CHAIR —I am not pushing you for time, at the moment. Continue, Mr Edwards.

Mr Edwards —For any school, all non-government schools, it would come out of recurrent funding and is reflected in the amount of money that is on the My School website. So for government schools it is included because of the central costs that are downloaded. But if they then want to access additional services they have to pay for that out of their recurrent funding as well.

The other part with the NBN, which sort of links into that, is that where I live at West Beach there is not a broadband service. In my part of West Beach there is not a broadband service and there is not likely to be.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Where is West Beach?

Mr Edwards —It is 12 kilometres from the city centre in Adelaide.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —I am a north Queenslander, so I do not know these minor states.

Mr Edwards —There is another West Beach in Western Australia, and I was talking about that before. I am sorry that I did not clarify that. It is all across Adelaide. My understanding is that it is the same in any metropolitan area, there is built-up. Most of the children who come to our school can get a better connection speed at home, but some kids actually cannot. The only access we have at home is a poor wireless service. It is the best of the wireless services you can get through a toggle, but the quality of it does not allow you to do what you need to do when you have children—one in year 12 and one in year 8. So it will actually allow us to provide a service. My understanding is that this is crucial. Not only is there access to a faster speed and a quality service. It is not just about doing what we used to do better; it is about doing a whole range of other things as well. The amount of information you can get, actually communicating with people in different parts of the world, accessing different sorts of information, and the way you sort and manage information—all of those aspects are actually new things that we do instead of enhancing. There are lots of things that are far easier to do using interactive whiteboards.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —As long as you can pay for them.

Mr Edwards —Yes. One of the challenges in our sector at the moment is that it is a small sector, like the Catholic sector. If we were to supply that by ourselves—if we actually had larger capacity—you would imagine that the costs would come down.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —We hope for your sake that they do.

Mr Edwards —So do I.

Senator WORTLEY —Ms Saab, you refer in your opening statement to ‘very, very young children’. What age group were you referring to?

Ms Saab —Five-year-olds. I work in a primary school, so five- to 12-year-olds. If any of you have young children to raise, or if you are grandparents, you will relate to this. My two-year-old granddaughter can navigate my iPhone quite well and pick out what she needs to get access to. Our children are coming into schools very much as digital natives now, so they do need access and they need it when they arrive. They are using one-to-one devices from the moment they come. Many schools, mine being one of them, now invite students to bring their own mobile devices to school if they have them at home. Most parents can afford a $300 netbook, so many of my students bring their netbooks to school now to get access to the internet at school, which of course then increases the traffic on the bandwidth and it cannot manage it.

Senator WORTLEY —It cannot cope with it. Mr Edwards, how long have computers been used in schools—in particular, online computers?

Mr Edwards —In the 1990s they started to come in. Coles probably had a bit to do with that, with the Apples for Students approach—lots of computers came into schools. They were very slow and were not linked to the internet. Probably the most radical change would have happened within the past 10 years, during which the online aspect and use of computers has radically sped up and that sort of thing. That is for a range of reasons. One of those reasons is the question of what else is out there that can actually be accessed. The other reason is that there is a whole range of online resources that can now be used as well. So instead of us buying a resource to support children with a particular learning need—difficulty with reading or a need in another particular targeted learning area—we can actually go online and find one that is free and that suits that child explicitly. Those can be accessed from around the world, whether from the BBC in the United Kingdom or from Arizona in the United States. There is a whole range of different resources that can be used. That is doubling time and time again.

Senator WORTLEY —You were saying that in West Lakes in South Australia you do not have access to broadband. I have become familiar with a number of schools in South Australia over the years—

Mr Edwards —West Beach?

Senator WORTLEY —Yes.

Mr Edwards —I was talking about at home. At home, our part of West Beach, you cannot—

Senator WORTLEY —Are you familiar with schools that actually have issues with access to the internet for lessons or research?

Mr Edwards —Not in having a connection. The connection is there, but it is the speed of the connection and the quality of the connection that are the problems. The majority of those are in country areas and rural areas, but not far from the city. Therefore it is the quality of service; although the school might have a designated 10-megabyte-per-second link or, using an example from Western Australia, a 512-kilobyte-per-second link, in reality the quality of service is so poor that it actually never operates anywhere near that. If they are lucky it operates at half of that.

Senator WORTLEY —What is the impact on the educational outcomes for children who are in that situation?

Mr Edwards —They are probably in two sets. One is that they cannot access learning that they could otherwise access, and that learning is around access to resources, development of skills and a broadening of their learning opportunities. That means that they go back to a style of learning very similar to what happened when I was at school: using hard resources.

In other places it is the speed. You can imagine 30 children sitting around and developing PowerPoint presentations. They are cutting and pasting, researching and putting it in, but every time a page has to load it scrolls down slowly—which we used to think was fast. If the class is sitting there watching a screen load, it is not overly interesting, so they get off task and they start doing something else. So it has an impact in a whole range of different ways.

Senator WORTLEY —So it is waste of education time.

Mr Edwards —Yes, it is a waste of time or not giving children access to opportunities that they otherwise would have.

Senator LUDLAM —It is nice to have some people in the room who are excited about the uses to which we might put this network, because mostly we have just been hearing this clash of commercial interests. So thanks for coming in and giving us your point of view. I do not notice in your submission that you have taken views on the specific provisions in the bill that we are debating in the next couple weeks. Are you of the view that it should be passed as soon as possible?

Mr Edwards —The Australian Primary Principals Association has 7,000 members in three sectors. We are the only organisation that operates with independent, Catholic and government schools. What we would say is every single child has to have access to a quality of service that is like other countries around the world. We are demanded to show results that are the very best around the world. We are not given a service that allows us to do that. We are compared to Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore for maths and all the other places, but we do not have opportunities to support our children’s learning in the same ways that they do. We are not ICT technicians and do not have a wealth of knowledge in that area about all the specifications, but I do know the difference that I have seen in my school, where we have gone from a slow-speed connection to a 10-megabyte-per-second connection. We can now stream stuff in class. We can now load and access it. Therefore, it is not so much the specs and having it at no cost. We have a duty to the children in our schools to deliver a service that can support an education in the manner it should be delivered and in the manner that most of our teachers can absolutely deliver already except where they cannot, where they cannot it is because they have never had an opportunity.

Senator LUDLAM —Not being able to get a piece of glass fibre out to every premise in the country—for obvious reasons—we are going to have an eightfold disparity between the remote areas and metro and regional schools and towns. How do you propose, given that enormous disparity which is perhaps inevitable, to level the playing field for the schools?

Mr Edwards —That is the reality that we have been told is going to exist. My understanding is that the reality of the satellite technology is far ahead of what is currently delivered now. We talk about the personal excellence of the students in our schools. We would like it to be as close as possible. If there needs to be a disparity, do we not have it for anyone? My argument for that is that we do not have nothing because it cannot all be equal.

Senator LUDLAM —That was not my argument.

Mr Edwards —I might have misunderstood.

Senator LUDLAM —To be devil’s advocate for a second, are kids spending too much time in front of screens these days and not enough time out passing the footy around and interacting with each other?

Mr Edwards —In school?

Senator LUDLAM —Yes, or in life, because they are going straight home and looking at screens as well.

Ms Saab —We are still out at morning tea and lunchtime playing cricket, handball and all the sorts of activities that were probably the same when you were at school. It is what children are still doing at lunchtime. We do not have control over what happens at home. We need to recognise that we only can look at the school day and what we do during it. To repeat what Dave just said, we need to provide our children with the best possible education we can. They deserve that.

Senator LUDLAM —Sure. I am not disputing any of that.

Ms Saab —So I do not know if you can argue to educators that they are spending too much time in front of a screen. We can only deal with our own families at home, not with the population.

Senator LUDLAM —It has been a while since anyone here was at primary school. How much of a kid’s day at school is spent in front of a screen these days?

—It would depend. It would happen in a whole variety of different ways. There would be times when they were working at a screen one on one in that environment. Usually you will find that they will be there but they will also be having a conversation—the same as the work that I do in my workspace, where if I am writing a report I will still go off and have other conversations but come back to get information. There will be times when that screen is sitting on the floor in amongst the group. There will be times when they are not having anything to do with that and are manipulating hard materials in a mathematics lesson. Usually what would happen is that one of the reading group rotations each week would be doing an individual comprehension or sound activity using computer hardware of software. It really depends what year level they are in.

It depends a lot on the access. In our school they use them much more readily now because we have a connection that allows you to use them. Therefore the time you are in front of them is diminished because you are not waiting for something to load all the time. When you clicked for the next page you could literally walk around the school before it loaded. Now it happens really quickly. I have not done the studies but it would really depend incredibly on the school.

CHAIR —I do not suppose you have read the NBN Co. financial business plan.

Mr Edwards —No.

Ms Saab —No.

CHAIR —I would not have thought so. If you were told that the government has to pay interest on the $50 billion or taxpayers have to pay interest on $50 billion, you would not know whether that was a proper statement or not, would you?

Mr Edwards —No, I would not.

CHAIR —Would you be surprised that, within the NBN Co. business plan, all of the money that the government pays out to NBN Co. to start up the NBN will be paid back by about 2033? Would that surprise you?

Mr Edwards —I will be very honest. In looking at the specifications and how it works, I have not considered that. I suppose it is looking at that in terms of the length of life and those sorts of things as well.

CHAIR —And the business plan also has an internal rate of return on public money that is invested of 7.04 per cent. Do you think that is a reasonable investment for government to make for the future capacity of this country?

Mr Edwards —You probably need to ask me more from a personal point of view than as a representative from our association. From my understanding of business that would be a reasonable return.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —You are schoolteachers. Can you multiply $55 billion by seven per cent and divide by 22? If my arithmetic is right—

CHAIR —They may be English teachers, Senator Macdonald.

Mr Edwards —That is part of the reason why we need good access to technology.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —That is $175 per man, woman and child in Australia every year just to pay the interest, not to repay the debt. Actually that is not a question.

Mr Edwards —I am pleased about that.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —It is an argument that Senator Birmingham made perhaps three or four inquiries ago. Finally, have you had a look at the legislation? Are there any sort of things in that that really concern you or do you think it all looks pretty good?

Mr Edwards —We actually have not looked at the fine detail of the legislation. We primary principals around Australia saw this as a chance for us to say, ‘This is what children in our schools need.’ We would then say, as we would like to be seen as absolutely professional in our area, that we believe that other people have the skill and the capacity to respond to those questions. We trust them in doing so the same as we ask people to trust us that, in our energies, time and benefit, our expertise is directed in the way they can.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —But you would not know anyone in Australia that does not want full price broadband for their kids?

Ms Saab —No, you would not. You spoke about the $175 per head. For me that would be a small cost for our future.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —But for every man and woman and child—and every year.

Ms Saab —Again, we would not say that it was important to quote you.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —That is for interest only. I take your point. Everybody wants fast broadband. There is no question about that. It is a done deal. How are we going to pay for it? How are your kids going to pay for it?

Mr Edwards —If we want this for Australia to deliver the best education for these kids, the bipartisan way is my understanding. The Melbourne guidelines were absolutely embraced. They were really clear, they were driving our new national curriculum and they were clearly laid out. For us to meet those guidelines, we need high-quality internet access that is the best capacity. I understand the monetary and financial implications and those things, but it needs to be as good as it can be for every kid around Australia. Having heard the stories of colleagues around Australia talking about things, you just would not find that. I went to New Zealand a couple of years ago. Our situation is far worse than what they were complaining about then. For us to support every kid to achieve those goals we need far better than what we have now. We think that a single focus is going to be far better than everyone coming up with their own focus.

CHAIR —I suppose that you could look at this two ways. You could look at it as a cost to the community and to every man, woman and child. Or you could see it as an investment in the future of our kids and in the future of our industry. I suppose you see it the latter way and not the former.

Mr Edwards —Absolutely.

Senator IAN MACDONALD —It is perfectly laudable; I think everyone agrees with that.

CHAIR —Mr Edwards and Ms Saab, thanks very much. It is has been very refreshing to hear the enthusiasm that you have in the education area for the NBN. Thanks for coming here and helping us today.

[2.06 pm]