Tue, 28 Jul - 21:00
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Speech to the Isolated Children's Parents' Association Conference

I first encountered the Isolated Children’s Parents’ Association nearly twenty years ago, as a young ministerial adviser working for then Communications Minister Richard Alston. 

I quickly came to respect your members as a source of credible and well-informed advocacy about communications issues affecting families living in regional and remote Australia, particularly issues concerning distance education. 

Much has changed in those twenty years – but the ICPA has continued to be a strong and effective voice.

The needs of isolated children and their families are distinctive – and not always particularly well understood by policymakers in Canberra and by satellite and telecommunications companies based in the cities.

That is why your conference today is so important. I am very pleased that I can join you, and also that Gavin Williams, NBN’s Executive General Manager Fixed Wireless and Satellite is also here.

In my remarks today I want to speak first about how far distance education has come – and how much further it can go.

Next I want to touch on some of the challenges – technical, commercial and organisational – which have held it back.

Finally I will discuss the steps we are taking at Commonwealth Government level – working in coordination with state governments – to improve what is on offer for distance education users in regional and remote Australia.

How far distance education has come – and how much further it can go

Let me start, then, by reviewing how far distance education has come.

There is no more iconic image of Australia than children doing their lessons by radio from the outback.

It was only a few years ago that we moved on from radio as the default technology.

In 2003, when I was an executive at Optus, I travelled to a property near Alice Springs for the launch of distance education over satellite broadband, provided by Optus in conjunction with the Northern Territory and NSW Governments and funded under the Howard Government’s National Communications Fund.

Until a few weeks before the two boys on that property had received their education over VHF radio. In fact the old radio was still in the corner of the room.

Now they were able to see video of their teacher on the screen in front of them – and their teacher could also see them.

It was a powerful – and moving – demonstration of how improved communications services can change lives for people in remote Australia, in this case through giving these young boys a vastly richer educational experience.

Today of course two way video over broadband is the default for distance education in most parts of Australia. Depending on where the student is located, it will be delivered over satellite, over the 3G or 4G networks of the mobile operators, or over the fixed wireless network of NBN.

I recently had the opportunity to see today’s version of distance education, when I joined Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Member for Maranoa Bruce Scott on a visit to the Longreach School of Distance Education.

We had the opportunity to see several classes in action, with a teacher conducting lessons via video conference, allowing for two-way interaction with students as they used their computers to type in answers to questions.

It was encouraging to see that the learning experience had improved considerably on what I saw near Alice Springs twelve years ago – but it also gave me a first-hand experience of some of the difficulties which users face.

Malcolm, Bruce and I held a conference call with around twenty parents whose children used distance education services, drawn from properties within a 400 kilometre radius of Longreach.

The parents on this call raised a range of issues: regular dropouts for those on satellite, slow connections which made video conferencing impossible, and download quotas being too small for the distance education programmes being offered by the Queensland education department.

As we also discussed on that call, distance education comes in a range of different forms. 

It can be students who live on a remote property, receiving all their education at a distance, much of it delivered by two way video over 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.

Around the states and territories, a significant number of children are served by distance education.  In Queensland, for example, over 7800 students receive distance education, with 59 per cent being school-based, 11 per cent geographically isolated, 11 per cent home-based and 15 per cent receiving distance education for medical reasons. There are nearly 1000 in the Northern Territory.

Of course, distance education is not limited to schools – it is also widely used for university, professional and vocational education.

But if there is one common theme to all kinds of distance education, it is that what you can do depends on the technology you have available.

The challenges which have held distance education back

That is a good point at which to turn towards discussing some of the challenges which have held distance education back from achieving its full potential.  I will argue that the available technology is a critical constraint – but that economic and organisational factors are also important.

Technical

If we start with technology, the experience of most families with distance education over satellite has been that there are some constraints on what is possible.

First, there is a limit on the speeds that satellite can support.  In the Howard Government years, most people were served by the Australian Broadband Guarantee, which offered speeds of 512 Kbps (later increased to 1 Mbps). This was adequate for basic video.  Of course, many users continue to be on this service.

The Rudd Gillard Rudd Government introduced the interim satellite service, which was promised as offering speeds of up to 6 Mbps.

Unfortunately the service was not well managed and it became very congested.

It was positioned by the previous government as able to provide broadband to 250,000 households – but NBN only purchased enough transponder capacity to serve 48,000.

The problem was compounded because NBN had neither the technical nor contractual tools to police its retail service providers selling plans at levels which were not consistent with the available capacity.

While NBN has slightly more than 9 gigabytes of available data capacity per month per user on the interim satellite service, some retail service providers were selling plans offering monthly downloads as high as 60 gigabytes.

The actions of these RSPs led to a degradation of the customer experience not just for their own customers but for all end users on that particular satellite beam.

This unsatisfactory experience has reminded us all that speed, or bandwidth, is just one aspect of the technical issues which can affect the end user experience.

The monthly download limit is another very significant factor; and the reliability of the service is a third.

Organisational

The next important factor is an organisational one: which organisations are involved in delivering distance education services and how well do they coordinate or interact?

The federal government is responsible for communications policy and infrastructure; the state and territory governments are responsible for school education including distance education.

Hence the Commonwealth is spending nearly $2 billion on building the two new NBN satellites – as well as the many other aspects of the end to end satellite network, such as the ten satellite ground stations which have been built around Australia.

Of course, the Commonwealth does provide significant funding to support many aspects of education – including over $60 million a year for distance education.

But the key organisational factor I want to highlight is the risk of a disconnect between state and territory education departments delivering distance education on the one hand – and on the other hand the Commonwealth which drives communications policy, and the network operators such as NBN, Telstra and Optus which deliver communications services on the other.

The specific issue I have in mind is in the amount of data that students need to download each month over the broadband network.

A typical distance education student will download 15 to 20 gigabytes of data in a month.  This is obviously a function of the curriculum design; the amount of time students are spending on their computers doing lessons; and also the particular technology packages used by the state and territory education departments, some of which are more bandwidth hungry than others.

Now this amount of monthly download goes beyond the maximum download limits on consumer-grade satellite broadband services typically available in regional and remote Australia.

For a parent with two, three or more children all studying via distance education, the monthly data requirement is correspondingly higher. 

I was interested to read in this month’s submission by the ICPA to the Commonwealth Government a good description of the issues which have arisen in some states because the curriculum has been written in a way which does not take account of the available bandwidth over satellite.  Your submission also draws the contrast with the more satisfactory user experience where these bandwidth constraints have been taken into account.

Economic

A third factor which has a big impact on the distance education experience is the cost of the satellite or mobile broadband connectivity that people are using.

I want to acknowledge the advocacy on this issue by Kristy Sparrow, who lives on a property near Alpha in outback Queensland – and who is here with us today.

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

Of course this issue has also been strongly highlighted by ICPA.

The issue is not just the entry level cost of a broadband service, it is also the price tiers for higher data download allowances – given that, as I have discussed, distance education users tend to have high data needs over the course of a month.

Improving What is on Offer for Distance Education Users

I have spent some time talking about the challenges faced by distance education users – which most of you here know very well!

What then is the Commonwealth government doing to deliver a better outcome for distance education users?

In the short term, we have done a fair bit of work seeking to improve the experience for users of the interim satellite service.   

NBN spent an additional $18.4 million to acquire additional satellite transponder capacity to increase the bandwidth available to each user by about a third.

NBN also re-pointed some 1,200 end-user dishes to deliver further improvements to speed and reliability.

That being said, many end users have communicated to NBN and the government that the service is far from perfect – and some say they have not seen any improvement.

At the NBN end, the numbers are clear on what is called the ‘space side’: average download speeds across the network have increased.

But the other end is what the retail service providers need to do.

NBN has required the RSPs to better manage capacity so that there are acceptable service levels across all users. 

This was in response to some analysis of network usage which found that the top 2% of users on the interim satellite service were taking up around 20% of the capacity on the service – unfairly slowing the service levels of all other users.

I hasten to add that this is not to criticise users who have been sold a particular plan and are using what they were sold.

Following these actions by NBN, some RSPs have responded by reducing download limits on their plans, in some cases from 60GB down to 20GB per month.

Network monitoring performed by NBN has found that RSPs which are compliant with new 'fair use' controls have seen improvements in end-users speeds.

However, some RSPs have yet to implement the necessary measures to deliver service improvements across their user base, and NBN is actively pursuing these RSPs to ensure they comply with new fair use controls.

These improvements to the interim satellite service are, as the name suggests, only relevant for an interim period. 

I now want to talk about three longer priorities: commencing the long term satellite service; tailoring a better product for distance education users; and two other networks which can be used to support distance education, the mobile and fixed wireless networks.

Commencing the Long Term Satellite Service

Our first priority in delivering a better service for distance education users is to launch, and commence service over, the two new NBN satellites.

The first of these is due to launch in October or November this year, and following a period of in-orbit testing NBN expects to begin offering services by mid-2016.

The satellites will use ‘Ka Band’ technology – referring to the radiofrequency spectrum used to deliver the broadband signal.

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 down and 5Mbps up.

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.

Tailoring a Better Product for Distance Education Users

Launching the satellites is one thing – but there is also much we need to do to tailor a product for delivery over the satellite which better meets the needs of distance education users.

With this objective in mind, in April this year I convened the first meeting of 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 to discuss ways to more effectively deliver distance education services to isolated students.

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.

I’d like to thank the Isolated Children’s Parent Association for their submission to this working group, which highlighted the difficulties faced by parents, teachers and students using the various online education programmes offered in different states.

In its submission the ICPA asked if it could participate in the working group.

I can announce today that the government will be pleased to have the ICPA represented, and we will issue you with an invitation to join the next meeting of the working group.

Thanks to the work of this group, NBN has already begun assessing the technical requirements of delivering improved distance education services on NBN’s long-term satellites.

One of the options being assessed is for a dedicated port on the broadband equipment in a user’s home, reserved exclusively for distance education services. This would be the modern-day equivalent of having a separate phone line, allowing users to have one satellite broadband service provisioned for personal use and a second service for education – meaning the education service would not impact the download quota of the home broadband service.

Of course, this will require the agreement of the state and territory education departments.

Gavin Williams from NBN will discuss this in more detail in the next presentation.

Improving the Mobile and Fixed Wireless Networks

The final thing I want to talk about is our work to improve the mobile and fixed wireless networks – which are being used in many parts of Australia to support distance education.

For example, speaking with distance education users in Longreach, it was clear that users with access to mobile broadband – usually a Telstra 3G service – had a much better experience than users on existing satellite services.

Last month I announced the results of the Abbott Government’s Mobile Black Spot Programme – there will be 499 new or upgraded mobile base stations around Australia.

They will provide new handheld coverage to 68,600 square kilometres and new external antenna coverage to over 150,000 square kilometres.

The total investment is $385 million, significantly exceeding expectations. The Commonwealth funding commitment of $100 million was supplemented by funding commitments from the governments of NSW, Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia, and Tasmania; as well as co-contributions from local governments, businesses and community organisations.

The Programme also leveraged significant private sector investment – Telstra will spend $165 million and Vodafone $20 million.

Recently I was in Yaraka in western Queensland, joining Malcolm Turnbull and Bruce Scott.  That little town today has no mobile coverage – but following the mobile black spots announcement it will over the next three years receive coverage from a new Telstra base station to be built in Yaraka itself

Andrew Pegler, your Queensland President attended the community meeting in Yaraka and spoke eloquently about the disadvantage that community faces because of not having mobile coverage.  It is pleasing that this programme is going to bring coverage to many communities like Yaraka all around the country – bringing significant social and economic benefits including of course the capacity to connect to distance education services.

At the same time as we announced the results of the Mobile Black Spots Programme, we also announced an additional $60 million in funding for phase 2 of the programme.  This will give further opportunities to meet unmet demand and provide coverage to more locations around regional and remote Australia.

In addition, the rollout of the fixed wireless network is steadily gathering momentum. When we came to government, only 39,000 homes could access this network; today it is 268,462, and there are 956 towers operational throughout regional and remote Australia.

The feedback from users on this network has been extremely positive: they get a high speed, reliable service at attractive pricing.  To give you one example, a customer who takes the 25 Mbps peak speed service from Telstra can choose a 500 GB monthly download limit plan and pay $95 a month.[1] Recent benchmarking showed that there is no wireless network in the world which offers this combination of speed, download limits and price.

Conclusion

Let me conclude with the observation that distance education is a striking example of how communications technology can help people in regional and remote Australia to overcome the disadvantages they have traditionally faced. 

Australia has a proud record in distance education and we have come a long way.  But there are some well understood difficulties with our current arrangements.

I want to thank the ICPA and other advocates for your work in ensuring that government understands the present challenges.  This has helped us in our work to design appropriate products to be delivered over the long term satellite service.

This is an exciting time to be involved in distance education – and I look forward to working with the ICPA as we seek to capture the full potential of the NBN to support distance education and give kids in regional and remote Australia the support they deserve.

[1] https://www.telstra.com.au/broadband/nbn/nbn-plans#service-qualifier