Wednesday, April 08, 2009

How will a national broadband network help Australian government agencies?

Yesterday's announcement of the Australian Government's plans to build a national broadband network has created a huge amount of buzz online.

If you've not seen the news, yesterday morning the government announced that they have terminated the tender process due to cost concerns and shortcomings in all tender proposals. Instead the government will invest up to $43 billion over 8 years to build a national broadband network using fibre optic cables to 90% of homes and offices, offering 100Mbps broadband.

This technology is also future-proof. Using emerging technologies, fibre-optic cable can be upgraded further to Gigabyte speeds without significant additional investment and over time this is likely to get even faster.

So what will this mean for government departments?

There are many applications for a super-fast network - many of which are beginning to emerge in Japan (with 160Mbps broadband available) and South Korea (with 120Mbps broadband available and moving to Gb speeds).

These include telepresence, a step beyond video-conferencing which allows groups to work interactively together over extended periods despite being physically remote. Conferences could be held without people leaving their offices, both within Australia and internationally - saving vast amounts of money in travel and accommodation and generating environmental benefits as well as saving work hours.

This concept could be further extended to provide access to telepresence staff in government offices. Basically while every office would retain a base level of staffing for activities requiring live interactions, when one office is quiet and another busy the staff from one could be serving customers in the other, via teleprescence. This would dramatically improve staffing management, allowing every office to have the appropriate number of staff at all times. Potentially a core staff group could be available out of the current business hours government operates within, providing access to critical information and services anywhere in the country face-to-(virtual)face.

Equally government office staff could work more readily from their homes, holding conferences via telepresence where necessary and otherwise only commuting to their office for specific reasons, supporting greater diversity and workforce participation.

Medicine is another area that could be revolutionised. With high-speed broadband the ability to use telepresence to oversee and, coupled with robotic aids, to actually conduct operations becomes a possibility. This provides enormous flexibility for a national health system, allowing doctors to be located anywhere in the country (or even overseas) and still provide vital medical services at remote clinics across Australia. Termed telemedicine, this approach is increasingly being discussed and implemented overseas.

Also in the medical sphere, anyone who requires ongoing medical monitoring could be monitored remotely using their broadband connection. This would significantly reduce demand on hospital beds and allow many people to recover at home without sacrificing quality of care. Of course there would need to be a balance between the speed of access to medical personnel in emergencies, however ongoing monitoring would provide early warnings of medical issues and provide greater flexibility to respond appropriately.

Education is another service that benefits from fast broadband services such as telepresence and the ability to stream video and audio in real-time. Experienced teachers could teach classes anywhere across Australia, and students, also spread across the country, could interact in real-time - supporting home schooling, subjects with fewer students and better use of good teachers.

Infrastructure management also benefits from faster and more reliable internet speeds. Every piece of infrastructure in the country, roads, bridges, tunnels, dams, power plants and more can be monitored remotely. This would help identify issues before they become life-threatening and allow governments to pre-emptively address failing infrastructure. This type of technology is already in use in some international engineering projects, monitoring bridges and dams for stability and reporting back to central offices using the internet.

In the service provision sphere, all the services currently provided by government online or by phone could be provided in a far more interactive and engaging way. Full-motion video could provide walkthroughs on how to use services, and video-based help would be available. This would encourage increasing take-up, particularly as phone services gets integrated into online, meaning that people could easily start a telephone call then, using a video and internet-capable phone, directly receive the forms they need and be supported through an online transaction while continuing to speak with the government customer service operator.

These are only a sample of some of the opportunities for government to provide more cost-effective and convenient services using real high-speed broadband. Many others already exist and are being rolled out elsewhere in the world and more wait to be discovered.

Of course government will need to be more open, flexible and innovative in its thinking around the online channel. There will be the need to rethink the entire approach to many services.

However I believe that if the Australian government is capable of rolling out a real national broadband network it is also capable of developing innovative and effective services for citizens and business to run across it.

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