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Role and potential of the National Broadband Network

CHAIR —I welcome the representative of the Australian Computer Society to today’s hearing and apologise that we have put you a bit behind time. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that the hearing is a legal preceding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the respecting houses. We have a written submission from you. I invite you to just highlight the key issues, for about five minutes or so, and then we will have a question and answer session because, as you have probably observed, we are very keen as a committee to ask questions of our witnesses.

Mr Redman —Thank you. This year the ACS, the Australian Computer Society, celebrates its 50th year in operation in Australia, from its humble beginnings in South Australia. We now have about 20,000 direct members and more broadly we represent what we estimate to be about 545,000 IT professionals in Australia. We are a not-for-profit, we accredit all university ICT courses in Australia and we play a key role as an assessing authority for ICT skills migration. Our president is a very active member of Senator Kim Carr’s innovation council, and I understand you have heard a lot from the innovation council during this inquiry.

Our mission is to advance professionalism in ICT and to create broader recognition of ICT and the benefits that it brings on a whole range of fronts, and for 50 years we think we have been prosecuting that charge quite well. In that line, we have four basic policy areas that we focus on: measurement of the digital economy; education; skills and training; the use of ICT and social responsibility in ICT. Those four policy areas informed our submission into the NBN. We have been a longstanding proponent of the NBN because we know that it will bring a lot of positives to Australia, advance our profession and draw attention to some of the macro issues that we highlighted in our report regarding those four things.

CHAIR —Thank you, that is tremendous. You are certainly touching on one of the areas that we spoke about earlier with one of the witnesses. The point that they were making was that you can have the physical infrastructure and you can have the regulatory and policy framework but you also need the people with the skills and the education and so forth. One of the things that is of particular interest to me, and I would be interested in your observation on this, is that often our more traditional courses for university degrees and so forth can be slow to respond to evolving sectors. While I take the point that you have been around for 50 years, I am conscious that there is perhaps a move away from the very technical engineering base of ICT to much more creative design base. I wonder whether we are doing that well or whether you think that is something that we need to have a look at in terms of innovation. Are there any comments you would like to make for us consider in that area?

Mr Redman —For a start, I think that there are less people enrolling in ICT courses, regardless of whether they are in traditional ICT type course codes or in things like visual art, where they concentrate purely on digital media. There are less people enrolled in those and there are less people graduating each year, so this is creating a demand for about 10,000 skilled migrants each year in Australia.

Mr STEPHEN JONES —Is that less in absolute numbers or in percentage terms?

Mr Redman —In absolute numbers. Just today, I believe, the Clarius report on skills demand came out, showing a shortfall of ICT skills to positions of about 2,000 places per quarter. It is very easy to talk about the skills shortage of ICT, but you need to drill down into it to look at particular geographies and particular professions or roles. For example, in Victoria, where a lot of banks are headquartered, there is a shortage of business analysts. In Canberra, there is a shortage of security analysts. In Queensland, there are a lot of ICT shortages regarding mining, for example. We see that as clearly unsustainable. Part of our submission recommends a greater focus from government on leadership across the education sector—in states and at the federal level—and not just in higher education but also in secondary education. While the Australian Computer Society is very well pleased that ICT is on the national curriculum, we are also very well aware of the inconsistency of approach amongst schools, the quality of teaching and even the focus of teaching, where in some high schools you may be taught about the binary or programming that underpins ICT, whereas in other schools the focus may be on proficiency in the Microsoft Office suite. We firmly support the former and not the latter.

CHAIR —Do you have some observations about what is driving that drop in enrolment and graduation?

Mr Redman —We need to do further research on that. Our main flagship research publication, our annual statistical compendium—which I will table to the inquiry today—goes some way in looking at that stuff, but I think that since the dotcom era ICT has probably got a question mark over its head as far as parents go and their counsel to students.

CHAIR —So there has been a crisis of confidence in it.

Mr Redman —Correct. ‘Is this a sustainable industry?’ In a post-NBN context, we look at an ecosystem where there are acute skill shortages, not enough graduates coming through and not enough people in secondary education seeing it as an attractive area to get into.

CHAIR —My second question is again on skills. There is a category of paraprofessionals or higher order trades in this sector. You have only got to look at your local phone book to see the number of people now who do home based computer networking support. In the same way as you might have a plumber or a carpenter on call, people now have someone with that technical skill. Have you got information on whether we are training sufficiently in that area? How well are we training in that area?

Mr Redman —Again, there is great inconsistency around the states amongst VET providers. I do not want to single out Victoria, but Victoria is a case I know quite well, where there are very real barriers to women re-entering the workforce and accessing that VET, as there are with older workers wanting to retrain in the VET sector. I am encouraged by the work of the industry business councils in Victoria to address that. But we are very quickly approaching a situation where we just will not have enough people to operate the NBN and maximise its potential.

CHAIR —So the whole area of training and skills development is at a pretty critical point, regardless of the rollout, which will in itself create a demand for more.

Mr Redman —Yes. We would like to draw a parallel with other professions that have a keystone or professional year development attached to them. In most medical professions, you have got to do a period of supervised work. It is the same in law and various other professions. In ICT, you do not get that. You go to university, and the university are not really into vocational training; they are into knowledge transfer and fulfilling their charter, producing graduates who are not work ready—they do not know about business culture; they do not know how to hit the ground running. In this space, we think the government can play a lead role with trying to address a work-integrated learning type of framework that can apply across boundaries and geographies, even though we understand that higher education providers often use this kind of professional year development as a competitive advantage amongst themselves to attract students.

Mr SYMON —It is very interesting to hear the conversation turn over to the area of ICT skills. It is certainly a big consideration that I do not think is always given enough thought. I would like to ask a question in relation to ageism and gender imbalances in the workforce, which you touched on just briefly in your submission. I worked alongside the ICT industry for many years, and a lot of people I worked with are now at the age—50 years plus—where you are not always first in consideration if applying for a job. I was wondering if that attitude still exists in the ICT sector and what can be done to reverse it.

Mr Redman —I am not sure what can be done to reverse it, but there is also an onus on the job applicant to ensure that their qualifications are up to date. Just as there are people in my own position who have tried to keep their qualifications up to date and tried to keep abreast of the latest developments, there are also people in my age group whose last qualification was gained in 1975. So there is an onus on both parties there to address ageism. It is not peculiar to ICT, but it is certainly a factor that is going to contribute to our ICT ecosystem in the future. I do not have a short answer for you. I am quite happy to table our report on ageism in the ICT if you would like me to do so.

Mr SYMON —I would; that would be most appreciated. I would also like to ask whether there are any formal courses set up for that conversion of people who learnt their craft a long time ago but probably need updating. Do you run those? Are they advertised widely amongst the profession?

Mr Redman —Yes. The ACS runs a series of structured programs in each state to allow people to assess and then uplift their qualifications. We partner with various universities and TAFE colleges as well.

Mr SYMON —It seems to me that we are going to need a large number of people to become involved in ICT as the NBN grows larger. It would also make sense if people who have at least some idea, although maybe not current knowledge, of the area were to be attracted back into employment in that area.

Mr Redman —I agree with you. I think that, at an even higher level, the ICT sector is not recognised as a sector in itself, and I am looking forward now to receiving the census letter, which will ask me my role and occupation. How will I answer it this year? Do I work in IT because I work for the Australian Computer Society, or am I a policy manager? This gets right down to it. The ACS and our partners in New Zealand—the New Zealand Computer Society—are trying to engage the Australian Bureau of Statistics and Statistics New Zealand to review these job classifications. Our goal would be to bring them in line with the framework called the SFIA framework of skills for the information age, which is not just about job classification but also about capability. We think it would go some way in enlarging the pool of available resources for Australia to draw on to manage and to take advantage of the NBN, given its inclusive nature.

Mrs PRENTICE —Adam, one of your recommendations from ACS is to ensure the NBN is fit for the future. Are there any things happening at the moment with the rollout that give you concern that something we are doing today could affect that future capability?

Mr Redman —We were largely agnostic on the technology of the NBN, the cost of the NBN, the structural arrangements of the NBN and even the rollout plan of the NBN, although for the first one—technology—we do support fibre to the home as the best available technology for us today and into the future. Our concern in that respect was really about the seven per cent of the population who will not get fibre to the home and will have a mix of satellite, wireless and other sorts of technologies. The NBN by its nature, and we heard immediately prior about the ‘galactic capacity’ of fibre, will produce so much innovation and encourage so much innovation largely because of its synchronous ability—the ability for you and I to have a completely seamless interaction without any latency to it—whereas latency, as defined by the time between when I click the mouse and the time something happens on-screen, would be more exacerbated under wireless, satellite and hybrid technologies.

We are encouraged by CSIRO trials for the Ngara technology, where they are lifting up the capacity of wireless, and we would like to see that tested and trialled in those remote areas. We are not unrealistic about providing service to those communities. I worked for Telstra for a very long time when the customer service guarantee was brought in, which specified minimum time frames to service some of the most remote communities on Earth. Prior to that, under the USO, we found that the obligation to provide a fixed line service to some communities was hundreds of thousands of dollars. So to provide satellite and wireless the seven per cent of Australians—and some of them live on Sydney Harbour—who are classified as remote we think is just a stopgap temporary measure, and we will actually leave those people behind from taking advantage of the full synchronous capability of the NBN.

All that said, though, I would like to draw on the example of telepresence. I know that Cisco make a telepresence system, as do other companies. For the highest function of telepresence that Cisco offer, I think you only need 4.5 megabits, which the NBN clearly exceeds, so, at the lower end, I think you can run it on 500 kilobits a second for a virtually seamless interaction with somebody in a remote community.

Mr HUSIC —I was interested in the discussion within your submission regarding the definition of the ‘digital economy’, which will obviously take on greater significance in the years ahead. From the ACS’s point of view, why is it imperative to revisit the way that the digital economy is considered or defined? What benefit is there in being able to get a clearer definition of its scope, and what initiatives has the ACS undertaken to advance or advocate on behalf of that initiative?

Mr Redman —May I ask you to repeat the first two questions?

Mr HUSIC —You have been arguing about the need to redefine or have a better definition of ‘digital economy’. Where have you taken that debate up and what success have you been having? I am interested because I think it is going to be important. One of the things that have come out so far is the importance of defining or being able to better scope out the benefits of what the NBN will do so that people can take advantage of it. Obviously this type of debate will be important as well.

Mr Redman —Thank you. The main platform we use to engage people on the digital economy is our statistical compendium, which pulls together what we think is probably the only repository of multiple government databanks and services. It uses ABS, DEEWR and cross-departmental statistics as well as industry surveys to build up a pretty big picture of what we think the digital economy is. Depending on who you talk to, you get a different figure. We estimate 556,000 people work in IT. I think the government’s figures range between 150 and 320. So this is an incredibly fundamental point when considering national policy about immigration, for example, and in fact the whole digital economy that we are going to live in.

We do not think that measuring the number of people connected to the internet, the hours they use the internet and the type of internet they use is really a reflection of an input-output digital economy. We want to see such things as a sense of inclusion and look at how you measure community inclusion or participation, the value of transactions beyond their dollar value and things like people’s confidence, security and safety. Those are some key elements of the digital economy that we are pushing forward in our communications program. We are talking to stakeholders. It is part of our platform at the innovation council. It also forms the basis of our publication program.

I alluded before to an important project using the ABS, Statistics New Zealand and the New Zealand Computer Society to jointly review the ANZSIC and ANZSCO coding, which ultimately forms the basis of all government statistical data. We think, if we can get that reviewed, we will be on the right track. These standards are virtually set in cement; they do not change overnight. They also have to fit in with OECD considerations, so we are active on that front as well through the University of New England. Redefining and improving the measurement of the digital economy is not a short-term thing that the ACS can achieve alone or that, in fact, Australia can achieve in the next year or so. But the ACS would be very proud to achieve opening up discussion on that front.

Mr FLETCHER —Adam, I just want to understand the comment you make in your submission about the last seven per cent. Are you putting to the committee that the ACS would like to see all of the last seven per cent also provided with fibre?

Mr Redman —Absolutely, but we also understand the enormous logistical difficulties and expenses in providing fibre to the home to those people.

Mr FLETCHER —I am bit confused there. Should there be 100 per cent fibre?

Mr Redman —Yes, we would like to see 100 per cent fibre, but we recognise that that is practically impossible. In that regard, we say that wireless is the second best solution because of the capacity issues. If that seven per cent cannot have fibre for various reasons, we accept that wireless is a solution for them, but we ask that focus be placed on improving their capacity, latency, connectivity and bandwidth and also on ensuring the service that they receive—perhaps through extension of a USO type framework, through public access data points, to measure data rather than just telephony.

Mr FLETCHER —So in relation to the last seven per cent you would like to see the universal service obligation defined to include an obligation to provide a certain minimum speed. Is that right?

Mr Redman —Correct.

Mr FLETCHER —Would that be 12 megabits per second or would it be higher?

Mr Redman —I think it is currently limited to 12 megabits per second, so that is what we would be advocating—or whatever the maximum can be.

Mr FLETCHER —Does it make any practical difference if you set a data requirement in the USO? At the moment there is no data requirement under the USO. The policy of the present government is to deliver 12 megabits per second wireless in areas where there is no fibre. I am trying to understand what practical difference it would make.

Mr Redman —We think that is fit for future now, but we are not sure whether that will be fit for future in the future, so to speak. We will be in a situation in 10 or 15 years where remote communities in Australia will only be provided with 12 megabits per second. The ACS would not support that.

Mr FLETCHER —So, to put that to you another way, is it really a comment about wanting to ensure that there is a continued increase in the speed that is delivered over wireless should that be technologically possible?

Mr Redman —Yes.

Mr FLETCHER —I see. Based upon your experience of the sector and of the different kinds of users, what proportion of end users do you think will make use of the full capacity of a fibre connection?

Mr Redman —I have no informed view on that, but I think that what is essential to that end—in maximising the take-up and the subsequent benefits of it—is the role of the government as the investor to model and exemplify the benefits of the NBN and to address people’s misconceptions regarding the internet generally. For example, there will be households connected to fibre which do not use the internet but play solitaire on the computer, and there are many people with mobile phones who do not use SMS and cannot be bothered figuring that out and do not want to, for whatever reason. We think that you will build an NBN, but the take-up will be impacted by people’s reluctance or ignorance of what it can be used for. To that end, we urge the government to start modelling NBN applications. Today is a great example—I have flown in from Sydney today to appear before this inquiry when I cannot see any reason that I could not have done it by videoconference.

Mr FLETCHER —You make the point in your submission about the need for government to convey to end users the benefits that are available from using the NBN. Are there alternative models by which that might be done—for example, by establishing a market structure under which there are private sector players that have an incentive to encourage people onto a network?

Mr Redman —Presumably so, yes.

Mr FLETCHER —What is your view about the relative effectiveness of different means of encouraging those kinds of behavioural changes?

Mr Redman —I will wait until I see the digital economy strategy released by the government at the end of May, which I understand will be focused exactly on this, before the ACS makes a comment on that.

CHAIR —You went to my final question that I wanted to come back to, which was about the government modelling. I think it is an interesting and important issue. It is certainly the case, and you have probably seen yourself, that we have heard evidence where we got very sharply pulled up, when we talked about young people using the net, by a group who said that Skype is probably more utilised by retired age people, who use it for staying in connection with grandchildren and so forth. I remember a series of ads running by a particular company which was all about exactly that sort of thing, so it is interesting in terms of those different models about how people will take it up and utilise it. It is an interesting challenge for us all, and I take the evidence that you have given us about government modelling and some of the government 2.0 projects and so forth. We are running out of time, but I just want to acknowledge that that is in there, and we appreciate that information in the report as well.

Thank you for your attendance here today. If you have been asked to provide any additional information, could you forward it through 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. I am sorry that we have kept you over time. We do appreciate the expertise that you bring to the table. It was very useful to us. Thank you again.

Resolved (on motion by Mr Fletcher):

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 3.11 pm