Thank you for this opportunity to share with you some of the Australian experiences in enabling digital infrastructure.
Every country has their own specific challenges in enabling its citizens get access the best possible digital infrastructure at an affordable price. We are all driven by the ideal of innovation and growth, and we aim to achieve equality of opportunity—avoiding digital divides.
One of Australia’s challenges for all infrastructure projects, not just communications, is our geography. The size of the landscape dominates debate on all policy and regulatory formulation.
The government is constantly faced with the same dilemma—the competition between urban and regional for similar services: ‘How can we ensure a farmer in the bush gets the same social and economic opportunities offered by booming communications as the lawyer working in the centre of Sydney?’
To give you an idea of our challenge, Australia has a relatively small but rapidly growing population of 25 million people. With 85% of the population living on the coast, and both Sydney and Melbourne now pushing five million people, we are one of the most urbanised nations in the world.
But there are large tracts of land separating our urbanised centres, with vibrant key regional centres and widely dispersed remote populations—a third of our gross domestic product is generated outside of the capital cities.
And remember, Australia’s land mass is twice that of India. Or to measure it another way, imagine a global map. If you placed an outline of Australia across Asia, the borders would run from Hong Kong and Vietnam in the bottom south-east corner, to cover everything through to New Delhi in the west, and up to Mongolia in the north.
So how do we meet the challenge of offering accessible and affordable broadband to all Australians? And how do we fund it and make it sustainable over the longer term?
Scheduled to be completed in 2020, successive Federal Governments have funded a national broadband network wholesale project, planning for it to be moved or sold after completion.
Having to cater to such a wide range of locations means relying on our existing infrastructure, some of which is ageing, building new infrastructure and importantly, using a mix of tailored solutions. Fibre optic may be the best fix in the centre of Melbourne, but if you are in South Australia living on a station, which is larger than the state of Israel, trying to access real-time livestock prices in China, or studying history through the School of the Air—satellite is really your only solution.
Most of the regional and remote work has been completed, with the bulk of the build left in the cities, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne.
For the majority of customers, it has been relatively straightforward. But the sheer scale and complexity of the rollout has created problems for some. Our research at the Australian Communications and Media Authority revealed that, as we’ve entered the peak rollout period, we’ve seen issues with consumer complaints not being addressed in a timely fashion; promised speeds are not being delivered; and in some cases, consumers are being left without services, internet or phone, during the transfer.
Consumer and user confidence is a prerequisite for participation in the new digital environment, and an important part of the ACMA’s work is managing the uncertainty and disruption that new technologies bring.
So, in recent months the ACMA has put in place rules to help make sure service providers solve these consumer problems. We’re now moving to enforcing these rules.
Elsewhere in the infrastructure space, Australia is now planning for the roll out of 5G services. We’ve announced the framework for auction of the 3.6GHz band and are scheduled to have it completed by the end of the year.
As 5G takes us into what many are calling a ‘fourth industrial revolution’, we are faced with new challenges already underway though the IoT.
As regulators, we don’t want to be caught behind the curve, playing catch up.
We need to be well informed, as well as flexible enough to address the issues facing both consumers and businesses as quickly as they present themselves.
Artificial intelligence is another exciting part of the changing future and the Australian Government is already planning for it. The government recently allocated funding to develop an AI ‘technology roadmap’ as well as a national AI ethics framework. These are designed to ‘help identify opportunities in AI and machine learning for Australia and support the responsible development of these technologies.’
For example, changes may bring new threats and challenges to personal security including from cybersecurity, but it can also be a possible solution for protecting security of networks and the data and applications used on them.
As the regulator, it is important to set the right regulatory landscape to encourage investment in the infrastructure needed to support innovative development of new services, as well as protecting consumers and promoting competition.
But we also need to be careful that we don’t get ahead of the technology by trying to regulate a threat that we can’t really define, let alone understand.
This panel presents a great opportunity to share and learn from each other about issues we all face, and the approaches we are taking to address future challenges.