Wednesday 08 September 2021

Every three years under legislation a review must be conducted into the adequacy of regional telecommunications by the Regional Telecommunications Independent Review Committee (RTIRC).

The role of the Regional Telecommunications Review is to provide a report card as to where we are at in regional telecommunications and make recommendations to the Government that may enhance services in the bush.

RTIRC has had a history of informing communications policy. The 2018 Review resulted in recommendations which have been adopted, funded, and implemented by the Government, such as the Regional Connectivity Program, the Regional Tech Hub, and the alternative voice trials.

So, the aim of the 2021 Review is not to produce a report that gathers dust, but to inform policymaking going forward and to contribute to enhanced infrastructure and communications outcomes in regional Australia.

There are a number of key changes that have occurred since the last Review.

Firstly, communications have assumed an even more important role in our economy and community than just three years ago. It was always important, but communications have gone from something that was very important to something that is vital to almost every aspect of business and community life. It has assumed a role much more on a par with electricity.

This is evident when the communications system goes down, business stops, and people are isolated – and potentially in danger - as in recent bush fires, floods, and cyclones.

In 2021 we not only need to keep the lights going, but we also need to keep the data flowing.

COVID-19, as we know, has meant more people are working from home, with virtual meetings replacing physical meetings and jet travel, and the use of cash disappearing at an amazing rate. These days, you need to scan a QR code to enter a shop to buy a loaf of bread.

Some of these trends were evident three years ago – but COVID-19 has dramatically accelerated the process.

Communications have allowed much more widespread working from home. Regional Australia is not just a great place to live, it’s a great place to work and a great place to invest – people can make a lifestyle choice as well as a career choice.

COVID-19 has led to awakening the potential of regional Australia – there is almost no limit to what you can achieve in a regional area compared to a city location. But only if you have access to first-class communications services.

People’s consumption of data has changed – not just by ever-increasing volume but also in its nature. Remote working has meant a greater focus on upload and download. It will no doubt place strain on the Universal Service Guarantee provision of the basic 25/5 service.

Secondly, a seemingly unending list of natural disasters across the nation has placed our communications network, and our infrastructure systems more generally, under great strain.

The bush fires, floods, and cyclones I referred to earlier have placed a renewed emphasis on network resilience. It was always something in the minds of planners and the general public, but outages of days and weeks in the 21st century are not something we can readily sustain.

At the RDA National Conference in June this year, Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons of Resilience NSW recounted that in the 2019 Bushfires on the NSW South Coast, it was possible to put standby generators in place to allow a service station to pump petrol. However, as the communications system was down, cashless tourists could not pay for their petrol and were therefore stranded in a fire zone – unable to drive to safety.

Governments and telecommunications companies have responded with a greater emphasis on network resilience at every phase, from planning to installation to the maintenance of the system.

Government programs such as the STAND Program and the Network Hardening Program focus on those areas that are most at risk – but there is still much work to do in this space.

And thirdly, the relentless march of technology has thrust data-rich applications far beyond the NBN fixed-line footprint.

We see NBN Co. driving fibre deeper into the network and the proliferation of the business fibre zones and edge data centres located in relative proximity to their customers. This is the shape of communications in the regions, but its only part of the story in the bush.

Further out, where low population densities struggle to support high-capacity telecommunications infrastructure, the needs of a technology hungry agricultural sector and significant regional businesses cannot be ignored.

The Australian Information Industry Association is predicting that Agtech will be a $100bn industry by 2030. The demands of IoT, robotics, and the use of artificial intelligence are raising the bar with regards to what our communications system must deliver

If these businesses are to succeed in ever more competitive world markets, and they are often price takers, they must have access to competitive communications at a competitive price.

Individuals too must be connected whether they like it or not. More and more, Government and a range of other services are only available online.

From July 2022, much of the JobActive employment services regime will move online. Many of the face-to-face aspects of getting back into the workforce will move to a sophisticated digital platform.

The digital divide presents a significant barrier to the move to online service delivery, and many of our most disadvantaged, who require government services, live in rural and remote areas.

The heavy lifting of our review committee is taking place outside the NBN fixed-line footprint.

While the hard-wired development pathway is reasonably clear (where backhaul is close and readily available), out in the rural and remote areas where the ageing copper network and limited 3G provides service, the future is more challenging.

Through programs such as the Mobile Black Spot Program, the Regional Connectivity Program, and NBN’s Sky Muster Plus, services have certainly improved in rural and remote areas. But there is more work to do.

We also need to focus on connectivity literacy, as so many people are not fully informed of the best communications options available to them. As a result, we could be doing better with the infrastructure we already have.

Our review focuses on how we provide equity of access to telecommunications services to individuals and businesses in these areas.

Our Terms of Reference require us to consider ways in which new technologies can assist in service delivery. Embracing new technologies such as LEOSats and better use of existing technologies will be necessary to close the digital divide rather than see it become wider.

So what is the future of communications? It’s a future that is at the very centre of our success as a nation, and it is a future that will require us to embrace new technology if we are to be a prosperous, vibrant, and inclusive society in the years ahead.