Putting the NBN to work
The National Broadband Network is touted as having many benefits for Australia, but an unheralded upside from the network is its potential to help Lorraine Rosenberg drink less coffee.
Rosenberg drinks a fair bit because she has little else to do while she waits for wireless internet downloads to bring even relatively simple web pages to her hillside home in Willunga, South Australia. “I’ve been on a mobile modem for the five years since I’ve lived there,“ she says. “If I want to download something, I click to download it and go get a coffee.“
Stories like Rosenberg’s are common throughout rural Australia. But Rosenberg is mayor of the City of Onkaparinga – a mostly rural area south of Adelaide, and one of five areas around the country to be named as first-release rollout sites for the $36b National Broadband Network (NBN) – so broadband access is an issue in which she has more than a passing interest.
With Willunga soon to become one of the first NBN service areas to come online, Rosenberg and the council's other elected representatives have been thinking extensively about the myriad benefits better connectivity could bring. This includes even seemingly pedestrian improvements such as the ability to download council papers from work: poor broadband access prevents many councillors from accessing documentation distributed online, and there are many types of work Rosenberg doesn’t even bother trying to do until she arrives at her better-connected office in Noarlunga.
“We [councillors] are still quite limited as to what we can do,“ she explains. “It’s a pretty inefficient system, and if you multiply that by 120,000 people in Onkaparinga, it makes the region pretty inefficient. We've been lobbying for improvements to broadband in our region since 2006; we’re very clear about the fact that we have a responsibility not just to pick up rubbish, but also to do many more things that put us on the map as an innovative council.“
Like executives in a growing number of government bodies, Rosenberg sees a much bigger picture when considering the NBN’s benefits to the council. For example, the network is seen as critical in enabling initiatives such as an online entrepreneurship program run with the neighbouring City of Marion. And it’s a key support for a clean-industry development being set up in the Lonsdale industrial area that’s showcasing clean power generation and lower-cost business.
“Broadband is just another notch in the belt to say that we’re not only doing things innovatively in terms of green energy and water-proofing our region,“ she says, “but that we are also positioning ourselves to be innovative in terms of attracting knowledge businesses.“
New veins of forward-looking thinking are rapidly surfacing as government bodies at all levels plan ever more concretely to capitalise on the contentious network project, which is a political tinderbox as Julia Gillard’s Labor government and Tony Abbott’s opposition argue ferociously over its necessity, funding and timeframe.
There were even allegations that the project was being built to unfairly benefit government departments after last February’s ’exposure’ draft legislation suggested NBN Co might deliver communications services directly to government agencies – diverting revenues away from an indigenous ICT industry that currently relies on the government’s approximately $1b annual communications spend. That firestorm of controversy forced Stephen Conroy, Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, to emphatically clarify that NBN Co would only ever deliver wholesale services.
Arguments are still raging as Conroy this year pushes NBN-enabling legislation through Parliament; however, this year there is an ever-growing sense of inevitability around the project, which has dodged bullets including a federal election, heated eleventh-hour Parliamentary debate and calls for it to be delayed to pay for flood recovery.
Indeed, Conroy’s posture remains one of full steam ahead. In the wake of Gillard’s decision to appoint her Communications Minister as Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Digital Productivity, Conroy has spruiked the project hard to government and industry leaders at every opportunity.
One early target for Conroy’s efforts has been healthcare: by positioning the network as a driver for improved healthcare delivery through telemedicine initiatives, he has worked to capture the imagination of both Commonwealth and State health authorities. Their ability to roll out ubiquitous high-resolution imaging, videoconferencing and the like has been limited by lack of connectivity, particularly in poorly-serviced areas where perceived or real inequities in service delivery are a chronic sore point.
Labor gained some political traction last November, when it followed an earlier decision to reimburse doctors for telemedicine consultations with a $4m trial program with the NSW Department of Health. That program, which will begin this year and run through till 2013, will test delivery of telehealth services into the homes of more than 100 seniors in the NSW towns Armidale and Kiama Downs, two of the other NBN first-release sites.
“We can test the effectiveness of the care provided by telehealth,“ Conroy said, “and look at the implications of telehealth to reduce presentations to hospitals and emergency departments, reduce travel times and transport costs, and slow down on admissions to residential aged care services.“
Conroy’s Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy (DBCDE) is working closely with NSW Health to design and execute the trial as efficiently as possible; similar trials with other departments will no doubt follow. DBCDE is pushing government departments to consider how the NBN would improve their own operations, and provided official backing with the formation of a Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet taskforce that will facilitate the process of NBN adoption within government departments at all levels.
For now, DBCDE is keeping specifics of other initiatives – and the departments with which it will work – close to its chest: “Discussions have been taking place with a range of government departments and have included all levels of Government,“ a department spokesperson said. "DBCDE will continue to play an active role in encouraging NBN related services. Announcements will be made in the budget context."
New options, hard choices
While details remain hazy, escalating certainty around the NBN has provided encouragement for thought leaders at many government departments.
“The NBN will make a big difference to how our teachers can deliver education and the programs they can deliver to students right across the country at all levels of teaching and learning,“ said a spokesperson from the Commonwealth Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR), positioning the NBN as a complement to the Labor government's $2.4b Digital Education Revolution program.
This is hardly a revelation: education and scientific communities have long been particularly blessed when it comes to fibre deployments: universities already enjoy gigabit-class connectivity thanks to the efforts of AARNET, while individual State governments have done a commendable job sourcing fibre to link many of their schools.
Indeed, recent figures suggested that 47% of all Australian schools now have direct fibre access, particularly in high-population Victoria and NSW. Related projects such as Victoria's Ultranet teaching and learning network have built on this expanding fibre footprint, hinting at the possibilities that could arise when the NBN extends fibre access to households and the rest of the government's schools.
“The education and training sector needs access to broadband infrastructure that can be used to maximum educational effect,“ the spokesperson continued. “Universities are looking to develop and facilitate online learning, and have already developed and adopted a range of innovative programs that utilise technology to support distance education. At present the main limiting factor in the development and uptake of such programs is the bandwidth available to students in their homes. Introduction of the NBN should in time remedy this issue.“
Many departments were predictably vague when questioned by GTR on specific policy issues, with several referring enquiries back to DBCDE and others offering little more than sweeping statements of vision. Little wonder: for all the promise it offers, the NBN will also force government bodies to reassess their commitments to in-ground fibre network deployments.
DEEWR, for example, recently committed $70m to build the Vocational Education Broadband Network (VEBN), an internal fibre network linking existing networks owned by vocational institutions in Victoria and NSW with those in other states and territories. The network is designed to improve communications between key education bodies – but it could end up as a remarkable waste of money should the NBN’s ubiquitous footprint make it redundant in the long term.
Despite its progress, lingering uncertainties about the NBN’s timeline have made it difficult for government departments to bet anything on its being available by a certain date; in this context, it's likely that VEBN won’t be the last NBN-replicating fibre network to be built in the shadow of the NBN. Asked whether the NBN would invalidate its network investment, the department said only that it “is currently considering the possible implications that the NBN could have on the Vocational Education Network.“
Another government body watching the NBN with interest is ICON (the Intra Government Communications Network) (http://www.finance.gov.au/e-government/infrastructure/icon/index.html), an agency of the Department of Finance and Administration that provides ’dark fibre’ services to various government agencies across the ACT. ICON’s closed and relatively small network enjoys cost and security advantages and satisfies an ongoing government need for bandwidth, but director Ric Glenister admits the NBN could be a spanner in the works once it become as widespread as planned.
“The reason we exist is because carriers charge too much,“ he explains. “If their cost came down to equal with ours – and I don't think it ever will – it’s not sensible for us to exist. Carriers haven't wanted to give away what they see as their birthright, and as long as they have that view, small fibre networks like this one will continue to exist.“
As Commonwealth agencies follow DBCDE’s tightly-pitched NBN mandate and state bodies decide where and when the network might be useful, local councils in particular are finding much to love about the project. By linking them directly with the properties they’re charged with managing, the NBN could drive a renaissance in local services – improving efficiency and enabling the release of new services in local councils like Townsville City Council (TCC), which hosts another of the NBN’s ’first-release’ sites.
Like many councils, TCC has over 100 different sites involved in its daily administrative operations – which, as in many regional areas, include direct authority over water and other infrastructure. Since 2004, the council has added fibre-optic infrastructure to the mix, working with Ergon Energy spinoff Nexium Telecommunications and Telstra to buy excess wholesale fibre-optic capacity between many of the council's own sites.
While many TCC sites remain accessible only over microwave wireless connections, piggybacking on Nexium bandwidth – or, in the few cost-effective cases, laying its own fibre – has helped TCC realise vast new efficiency in its service delivery. Yet with a budget just a fraction of that of NBN Co, TCC had no chance of laying fibre throughout its entire catchment area; city planners are rubbing their hands with excitement as they consider the possibilities of an NBN that saturates the city with fibre-optic bandwidth throughout the rest of the decade.
“We have made headway in ‘fibre-ing’ Townsville, but it will pale into insignificance when you look at what the NBN will potentially give us in the next five to seven years,“ says Anthony Wilson, Executive Manager for Knowledge Management with TCC, which spends $1.5m annually on its telecommunications. “We’ve actively participated in telecoms in this region, but the cost of laying fibre into some of these locations is cost prohibitive and broadband has often been non-existent.“
Based on its early access to the NBN, the 180,000-resident council has put in a bid for involvement in IBM’s $50m Smart Cities Challenge (www.smartercitieschallenge.org) grants program to gain additional funding for smart-grid initiatives. NBN connectivity has been identified as a key enabler for better communications services within a major mall development project, will improve public Internet access through computers within the council's library system, and could help water administrators to spot leakages and other anomalies by providing real-time monitoring of meters at NBN-connected households.
Telemedicine, distance education, social services, disaster-proof communications and other applications have also been targeted as the council leads discussions about just what it and other regional bodies will be able to do with the NBN.
“We’ve been fairly proactive in engaging the business community and [James Cook] University to see what business opportunities we can take with the NBN, and who's going to be willing to invest further into the region,“ Wilson explains. “We’re hoping the NBN will be able to provide bigger bandwidth for our backhaul, which at the moment has been problematic. It’s an area we're really looking forward to.“
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