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Op-Ed in Fairfax Rural Press: NBN distance education a two-way street

For many years one of the iconic Australian images has been children on remote properties doing their schooling over two-way radio.

Today, distance education is typically delivered over broadband internet – but there is much we can do to improve the experience for students, and the affordability for parents.

In fact, there is no group of Australians who stand to benefit more from the National Broadband Network (NBN) than school and university students living in regional and remote Australia, who rely on broadband for access to distance education services.

Late last year I spoke with ABC Central West Queensland about concerns raised by Kristy Sparrow, who lives on a property near Alpha in outback Queensland.

Kristy highlighted the cost of satellite broadband and the difficulties this can cause for families who need to use broadband for distance education.

As a result, last week I convened a distance education working group at Parliament House in Canberra.

The group brought together Commonwealth, State and Territory education officials and satellite experts from NBN Co (the Commonwealth business enterprise which is designing, building and operating the NBN) to discuss ways to more effectively deliver distance education services to isolated students.

Distance education comes in different forms. It can be students who live on a remote property, receiving all their education at a distance, much of it computer-based and delivered over satellite broadband.

Or it can be students at a small country high school who are taught face-to-face for some subjects, but are taught other subjects in distance education mode, with the teacher based in a larger centre.

Classes can be delivered by video over broadband and students can download materials and upload assignments using broadband.

Significant numbers of students are involved. In Queensland, for example, over 7800 students receive distance education, with 59 per cent being school-based, 11pc geographically isolated, 11pc home-based and 15pc receiving distance education for medical reasons. There are nearly 1000 in the Northern Territory.

Governments need to work together to make sure we provide the best possible support for students and their families.

The Commonwealth government is responsible for the rollout of the NBN, while State and Territory governments are responsible for school education.

There is substantial Commonwealth funding for distance education: in fact it is over $60 million a year.

Different States and Territories have different approaches in the support they provide for families whose children are receiving distance education.

A key issue is the amount of data that students need to download each month over the broadband network.

Work by the Department of Communications suggests that a typical distance education student will download 15 to 20 gigabytes (GB) of data in a month.

Indeed some States require as much as 50GB of downloads per month for secondary students studying via distance education.

This is well in excess of the maximum download limits on consumer-grade satellite broadband services typically available in regional and remote Australia.

These issues generated much discussion at last week’s working group meeting.

The objective of the working group is to identify the broadband services which distance education students need – especially in remote areas where the main option for broadband is the NBN satellite service.

Today, the NBN offers an ‘interim satellite service’ – but in 2016 the long-term satellite service is due to commence, after the first of the two new satellites, owned and operated by NBN Co, is launched.

These satellites will offer much improved broadband services to people in regional and remote Australia. Speeds will be much higher than the six-megabit-per-second (Mbps) peak speed available on the current interim satellite service – the peak speed on the long-term satellite will be 25Mbps.

This will feed into improved educational services such as higher quality video, and the ability to receive several different feeds of video simultaneously over one satellite service – meaning that where a family in remote Australia has several children receiving distance education, the children will be able to do their work at the same time.

NBN Co is currently developing its wholesale pricing on the satellites – which in turn will determine what end users will pay to their retail service provider for a satellite broadband service. A key aspect of the retail pricing will be the monthly download limits – and price points for different download limits – which will also be driven by the decisions NBN Co is making.

As well as looking at how the long-term satellite service can meet the needs of distance education students, the working group has also asked NBN Co to look at whether there are any aspects of the interim satellite service which could be varied to better suit the needs of distance education students.

The first meeting of the working group was very worthwhile – but there is much more to do if we are to make sure that the NBN best meets the needs of Australian children who are studying via distance education. As the working group and NBN Co reach some decisions I will have more to say about what we are doing in this space.

Paul Fletcher is the federal Member for Bradfield and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Communications.