Monday, December 27, 2010

Broadband for a Broad Land

The Australian Parliament has invited submissions for an Inquiry into the role and potential of the National Broadband Network by 5 February 2011. Here is the first draft of a submission for the enquiry. It addresses two issues: the environmental costs and benefits of the NBN and the role of electronic document and records management in making the NBN useful to he community.

Broadband for a Broad Land: The role and potential benefits of the National Broadband Network

Tom Worthington FACS CP HLM

Version 0.1, 27 December 2010


The Australian Parliament has invited submissions for an Inquiry into the role and potential of the National Broadband Network (the Inquiry) by 5 February 2011. This is a very important topic, as while billions of dollars have been committed to building a broadband network, little thought or investment has gone into what it might be used for. In the mid 1990s a series of Australian parliamentary inquiries looked into the role of what was then called the "Information Superhighway interest. There was a broad consensus across political parties that policies and investment by government to encourage what became known as the Internet was in the public interest. Roger Clarke wrote "Vision for a Networked Nation", with my assistance, for several of the inquiries. Successive state and federal Australian governments drew on the rhetoric and the specific proposals from these enquiries.

Recent public debate has become bogged down in the technical details of how to implement the NBN. However the NBN is intended to provide high speed broadband to households and small business. The householders and small business people will need training in how to use the NBN to make it of value.

The assumption is that the NBN will greatly benefit the Australian community, both culturally and economically as well as help the Australian environment. Australians will be able to have access to medical, financial and educational services, particularly in regional areas, not currently available. However, the NBN will only provide the link to the netowrk for households and small businesses. To provide a useful service, cultural, educational, medical, financial and government services need to be provided online. In most cases the necessary network connections are already in place for medium to large organisations, but appropirate software, procedures and trained staff are also needed. The cost of installing software and training staff will be far higher than the cost of the NBN itself.

The NBN can reduce dependence on transport of people and goods, thus reducing energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. However, this will not happen without explicit planning and investment. In the absence of planning and investment, there is a risk the NBN will take jobs away from Australians, particularly in regional areas, impoverish Australian culture and harm the environment.

The NBN will open financial, education, and health service providers in regional areas of Australia to competition from the cities, and all Australian service providers to competition from overseas. In the absence of strategies and investment to help with the change the likely effect of the NBN will be to lower the availability of face to face services and employment, particularly in regional areas.

The NBN will be a major consumer of energy in Australia and s increase greenhouse gas emissions. Consumer equipment made obsolete by the NBN will contribute to pollution of groundwater. An example of where the problem is now occurring is with the transition to digital TV. The Australian government has had a long term plan to replace analogue with digital TV transmission. However, no provision has been made for disposal of millions of obsolete analogue TVs, which are going into landfill.

An example where the NBN could be beneficial is in education. Australia is a world leader in e-learning, with the Australian developed Moodle open source software being deployed in schools, vocational education and universities. As an example the Australian National University uses Moodle for pure e-learning courses, such as Green Information Technology Strategies COMP7310 and Electronic Document and Records Management COMP7420. The ANU also uses the same software for blended online/classroom Engineering 'Hubs and Spokes' Project in collaboration with the University of South Australia. The allows advanced courses presented by world leaders in their field to be made available to more students. The use of online systems also lowers the energy sue and therefore greenhouse gas emissions by replacing classrooms with e-learning and reducing the need for students and staff to travel to a campus.

The Australian federal and state governments have jointly funded programs to educate school and university teachers on how to use online education, including EdNa and the Australian Flexible Learning Framework. These provide the opportunity for not only improving Australian education but also maintain Australia's major export industry in educating international students. It should be noted that the NBN represents a risk as well as an opportunity. Not only does this allow Australian students to enrol in Australian courses online, but they can equally choose to bypass Australian institutions and enrol in overseas courses. The international agreements which Australia has concluded for access to education with countries such as India, not only allows Indian students to study in Australia, but allows Australian students to study in India. The students now need not leave home to do this.

The Terms of Reference, listed listed eight areas to examine, in relation to the capacity of the National Broadband Network:the delivery of government services and programs;
  1. achieving health outcomes;
  2. improving the educational resources and training available for teachers and students;
  3. the management of Australia's built and natural resources and environmental sustainability;
  4. impacting regional economic growth and employment opportunities;
  5. impacting business efficiencies and revenues, particularly for small and medium business, and Australia's export market;
  6. interaction with research and development and related innovation investments;
  7. facilitating community and social benefits; and
  8. the optimal capacity and technological requirements of a network to deliver these outcomes.

From: Terms of Reference, Inquiry into the role and potential of the National Broadband Network, House Standing Committee on Infrastructure and Communications, House of Representatives, Australian Parliament, 16 November 2010

The eight areas can be grouped into four broad categories:

  1. Social impacts:
    1. achieving health outcomes;
    2. improving the educational resources and training available for teachers and students;
    3. facilitating community and social benefits;
  2. Regional and environmental impacts:
    1. the management of Australia's built and natural resources and environmental sustainability;
    2. impacting regional economic growth and employment opportunities;
  3. Business impacts:
    1. impacting business efficiencies and revenues, particularly for small and medium business, and Australia's export market;
    2. interaction with research and development and related innovation investments;
  4. Requirements:
    1. the optimal capacity and technological requirements of a network to deliver these outcomes.
The fourth area "Requirements" differs from the other three, in that it is about what is needed from the NBN to achieve favourable outcomes in the other areas.

What is the NBN?

The two Key Objectives for the NBN, as set down in the NBN Co. Corporate Plan, are to

  • Connect homes, schools and workplaces with optical fibre (fibre to the premises or 'FTTP'), providing broadband services to Australians in urban and regional towns with speeds of 100 megabits per second - 100 times faster than those currently used by most people extending to towns with a population of around 1,000 or more people;
  • Use next generation wireless and satellite technologies that will be able to deliver 12 megabits per second or more to people living in more remote parts of Australia; ...
National Broadband Network Corporate Plan 2011 – 2013 (NBN Co., 17 December 2010),
The NBN is in essence about delivering broadband to homes, schools and workplaces. The most significant aspect in terms of social policy is delivery to homes. It is likely that this will by the area it has most impact in terms of education, health, the environment, business and employment.

There is a risk that the NBN by delivering two different levels of service: 100 mbps in the city and 12 mbps in the country, will perpetuate or make greater the disadvantages of distance. However, 12 mbps is sufficient for many current and foreseen online services and so is more likely to lessen the disadvantages of regional areas. Also many online services are now being designed for use with wireless smart phone and tablet devices, which will have much less than 100 mbps capacity, making a 12 mbps connection more than adequate.

Delivery of broadband to schools was already under-way through other government programs and so the NBN will have little direct impact. Similarly, organisations having medium to large offices are able to arrange the installation of high speed broadband and so the NBN will have little direct impact on these. It s in the area of micro and small business where the NBN can have more impact.

The NBN will have an impact on education, business and employment by allowing greater access from homes. Activities which previously required people to meet at a central location will be able to be done online from home. This will have a profound effect on education and business, at a local, national and international level.

The main issues for the NBN are not technological, but social, in terms of how people interact: how much will they use the NBN in place of face to face contact? The NBN can reduce financial, social and environmental costs by replacing travel to school, shop or office with online communication. But how many will use this and what might be the side effects?

Some early use of the technology provides pointers for the future. Australian educators are pioneering the use of online education. This shows that online education cannot completely replace face-to-face teaching, particularly for younger students. A blended hybrid) mode of education has been adopted in many areas. With this the student undertakes part of a course online and partly in a classroom. However, provision of broadband at home and in educational facilities is the simplest and least expensive part of the process.

The blended mode of education will require retraining of teachers, restructuring of courses and the remodelling of buildings. The cost of this restructuring of the Australian education sector will dwarf the cost of the NBN itself. The logistical and political complexity of changing the education system will be far higher than for the implementation of the NBN.

The cost and complexity of remodelling Australian classrooms will be far larger than the $14.2b Primary Schools for the 21st Century component of the Australian Government's "Building the Education Revolution". It has been assumed that providing broadband to schools involves providing a fibre cable to the premises and perhaps some re-cabling to deliver it to classrooms. However, to gain educational benefit from the broadband requires a change in the way education is done and the redesign of the classrooms to accommodate this, turning them into "learning commons".

One aspect of the change to education which will be less difficult is the curriculum. The work by federal and state government on a National Curriculum for Kindergarten to Year 12, will provide a useful framework for work on integrating online education into schools. This will allow resources to be shared across geographic and organisational boundaries. Students in different locations can share the same course materials, take part in the same classes and be part of study groups. Use of online educational facilities can greatly enhance the national curriculum, reduce the cost of its implementation and speed its introduction. Currently each educational system (state or non-government) in Australia has to separately work out how to incorporate the national curriculum. Schools, down to individual teachers then have to work out how to teach it. Online support can provide forums for working on the mechanism of introduction and provide sample materials for use. This can cut trough several levels of national, state and local bureaucracy. Teachers can interact directly on the teaching and prepare materials and share them. This approach is used particularity in Australia for vocational materials. This can be facilities through the use of Creative Commons licensing, which allows any teacher to use the materials produced by any Austrlaian educator, without the need for separate permission or payment of fees.