ADJOURNMENT;National Broadband Network – 15 Sep 2011

At the end of June this year I was pleased to have the opportunity to attend community information sessions held by the National Broadband Network Co. at the Kingston Beach Yacht Club in Southern Tasmania. Kingston Beach is one of the seven sites receiving the second stage of the National Broadband Network rollout in Tasmania. I met with some very motivated NBN Co. staff, including the Principal of Government Relations and External Affairs, Mr Mike Kaiser, and Tasmania’s Community Relations Adviser, Lalla Hinds.

NBN Co. had seven staff on hand that day to respond to questions from the community. That may sound like a lot of staff when the Kingston Beach optic fibre footprint will only reach 950 premises, but during the course of the day over 400 people walked in and out of the clubhouse and most of the time it was standing room only. While the feedback I have from NBN Co. is that the numbers at the Kingston Beach session were the best they had seen, there were still large numbers of people—and I am talking hundreds—at similar information sessions in other stage 2 communities.

One of the things that impressed me in the Kingston Beach session was the number of people turning up representing non-profit community groups. While we understand—at least those of us on this side of the chamber—the enormous commercial and economic benefits that will be realised by fast and affordable broadband, I focus my contribution tonight on the social benefits, particularly in the areas of health and education. In doing so, I will give some concrete examples of projects that are being delivered in my home state of Tasmania, the first state to receive the rollout of optic fibre to the premises.

It is particularly exciting for me to watch, because the stage 2 community of Kingston Beach, to which the optic fibre is now being rolled out, is almost on the doorstep of both my office and my home. When the rollout is complete, I will continue the conversation with my local community, not only about the possibilities they can imagine from the NBN but also about the opportunities they are actually realising. Already, we see real-life examples in Tasmania of a world of opportunity opening up to educational institutions because of their access to 100 megabits per second optic fibre connection.

The Circular Head Christian School at Smithton, in my home state of Tasmania, has the distinction of being the first school to be connected to the NBN through optic fibre. In a news article on 2 July, in the Mercury’s Saturday Magazine, the school’s principal, Patrick Bakes, outlined a number of benefits that the network had for his school. Mr Bakes said that because the school had such a small number of year 11 and 12 students, usually around 20, it had never been possible to offer them a broad range of subjects. As a result, many students had to leave the area and study elsewhere. For students at any level of education, we know that this can be a very expensive and very disruptive exercise. They need to find accommodation, means of transport, and often they need to find part time work to support themselves financially. They move away from their families, and they need to make arrangements to return home periodically to visit them. There are not just costs to the students themselves but costs to the families and to government—if they are living away from home they are eligible for income support. But according to Mr Bakes, the NBN allows Circular Head Christian School to offer its students almost any course they want. Through the NBN a single student wanting to study a specialised course can join another class in Australia through a video link. Not only does the NBN allows Circular Head Christian School to offer more courses to their own students but also their vocational education and training coordinator is using the technology to teach students online and to offer courses to other schools through virtual classrooms.

Mr Bakes also mentioned in the article that the NBN helps Circular Head Christian School to overcome barriers to cultural experiences created by Smithton’s geographical isolation. Mr Bakes said, ‘For example, if we take students to Devonport we are facing a three-hour return trip for a one-hour activity. The cost of going interstate is prohibitive for many students and our ability to organise such trips is limited. But the NBN is removing the geographical barriers and enabling us to bring the experiences to the students’. Mr Bakes gives the example of the school’s annual trip to Fiji to work in the villages and visit local schools. Even though the school is still only taking a small number of students to Fiji this year, through the NBN they are engaging the whole school population in the trip by connecting their school and Fijian schools in real time while they are there.

Another school in Smithton which is connected to the NBN and benefiting from it is St Peter Chanel Catholic School. The school is using its broadband connection to share field trip experiences with other schools and to arrange a live videoconference with NASA.

At a broader level, the NBN presents fantastic opportunities for e-learning across Tasmania. Skills Tasmania’s e-learning unit is very much looking forward to the deployment of the NBN because it will help them with providing online resources to help teachers and vocational education trainers in schools across the state to incorporate e-learning into their teaching curriculum.

The impact of limited bandwidth in online learning is significant for both teachers and students. They have to download files to complete tasks, and the student with an ADSL connection could be on to the next task while the student with a dial-up connection is still waiting for their files to download. However, the NBN is so fast that students do not even have to download files before completing tasks. Instead, they can simply complete them online in real time.

Another area that will benefit from the NBN rollout is that of health. The ability to transfer diagnostic information and high-definition video through the NBN presents some really exciting opportunities in the delivery of health services to remote and isolated patients. I am proud to be part of a government that has recently announced $400 million of funding to provide Medicare rebates for online consultations, and I can see the emerging area of telemedicine expanding rapidly with the NBN.

In Tasmania’s capital of Hobart there is already a real example of an organisation that will soon be using the NBN to deliver new services. The St Giles Society has just been successful in securing $4.5 million from the Regional Development Australia fund to develop a paediatric health centre of excellence in Lenah Valley in Hobart. The organisation will contribute $1.5 million of its own money to the project. Not only will the centre of excellence integrate paediatric allied health services but they will also integrate patient data through a new e-health network. This network will be compatible with the NBN and will be used to deliver their programs to regional and isolated families. I was very pleased to assist the St Giles Society’s application to the RDA with a letter of support, and it is particularly pleasing to see their application succeed.

Tonight I have mentioned some real-life examples of the possibilities that the NBN presents in the areas of health and education, but future possibilities are only limited by our imagination. In the area of home and community care, what if some elderly people, in addition to regular home visits, could be spoken to daily via a video link and have diagnostic health data reported in real time? What if our home appliances, such as clothes dryers and washing machines, could be linked up by data-intensive smart grids and switched on during periods of low electricity usage? This could help make our power usage more efficient, leading to a dramatic cut in our power bills. What if community groups, including service clubs, interest groups, RSLs, historical societies, land and coast care groups, U3As and so on could meet more regularly with their interstate and overseas counterparts, sharing knowledge, information and fellowship through high-speed video links? They could organise more frequent meetings of this kind, or substitute expensive physical meetings. What if a variety of government services could be delivered with video queries so that clients did not have to visit a physical counter to show a document or to have something explained or demonstrated to them?

A lot has been said about the commercial return of this network, and the benefits it will have for business and the economy. There has also been a great deal of discussion about the possibilities it provides in education and healthcare—some of which I have alluded to this evening—and in overcoming the tyranny of distance in many aspects of our daily lives. But the benefits it will have for social inclusion more generally, and the impact it will have on our standard of living, need to be given a lot more thought and discussion.

The NBN will touch the lives of every Australian and will transform the way we work and live. It would be a tragedy of immeasurable proportions if these benefits were not realised because the rollout of the NBN was brought to a halt by Mr Abbott and his backward-looking colleagues in the Liberal-National coalition.