Getting Up To Speed With The Digital Economy
With the rise of industrial and home automation, driverless cars and home-based medical services, our everyday lives are undergoing a transformation to rival the Industrial Revolution. While this provides cablers and installers with opportunities to up-skill, Australia is unprepared for the upheaval of the digital economy. Ross McGravie explains.
If the information superhighway is a road we will all travel upon, Australia seems to have hit a massive road block in its bid to make the most of the digital economy. Rather than embracing collaboration, teleconferencing and global engagement, and proceeding at full speed, the brakes are being applied on our prosperous future.
The Australian Government report The Digital Economy: Opening Up the Conversation describes the digital economy as “the range of economic and social activities that are enabled by information and communications technology. It impacts all industries and business types, and influences the way we interact with each other every day. It also recognises that as sectors become data driven, their economic structures change, industry boundaries blur and the basis of competition changes.”
In its response to this report, the Australian Digital and Telecommunications Industry Association (ADTIA) predicts a world in which data-driven change is the only constant within a decade or two.
Within five years, ADTIA expects a desktop computer with the processing power of one human brain, autonomous vehicles, driverless electric transport, wearable tech, decentralised (building) power generation, education on demand from home, a 10% increase in artificial intelligence (AI) automation of professional services, and a 10% penetration of the internet of things (HIoT).
By 2027, there’s 3D/holographic telepresence, personal AI assistants and robot servants, delivery of education by AI, Li-Fi, desktop computers with the processing power of up to 64 brains, and the introduction of basic services rather than basic income.
A decade later in 2037, the processing power will have expanded to 48,000 human brains, all built environments will be ‘smart’, automation will account for most professional services and labour, leading to discussion on AI/robot equal rights, and human intelligence will be moved between organic, robotic and cloud platforms.
It’s indisputable that communications and data storage in Australian households have gradually switched to the internet, work locations have become increasingly mobile (including working from home) and work-life balance has become a priority.
Yet the expectation that internet speeds in homes will become equivalent to corporate networks in availability, reliability and symmetric data transfer is being limited by commercial considerations of performance and price.
Wood & Grieve Engineers telecommunications manager Lawrence McKenna says it could take years to repair the damage that has been done by the NBN switching from its original fibre-to-the home model to the multi-mix technology.
“Every step of the way Australia has found a way to break everything. We’re like a global experiment gone wrong,” he says.
“Government keeps talking about innovation, but innovation doesn’t happen if you don’t have the right environment to nurture it.”
The Cabling Advisory Group (CAG) response is equally blunt.
“The concern is that the Commonwealth will take a total of 15 years to build a 21st century telecommunications network that is already dated and may be compromised before completion due to the present telecom legal framework,” it reads.
“This national strategic network approach is fragmented between public and private carriers, with a vested interest in not providing a truly open, integrated platform to support smart cities, smart buildings and facilities, and the IoT. How is Australia to support 10 million residences, one million workplaces and all government facilities to become ‘smart’? The amount of material, cable, equipment and labour is expected to be 100-fold of what was/is required to deliver the NBN, and within the same period.”
The good news, Lawrence says, is that Tasmania has proven that it is possible to embrace the digital economy. It’s 1Gbps (1,000Mbps) internet service Launtel exemplifies everything the mainland should be aiming for.
Reid-Net consultant Robert Reid, who provided expert advice to the CAG’s response to the national Digital Economy Strategy, says it’s imperative that telecommunications be treated as an essential service and not be left to the market.
“Telecommunications is so diverse, so penetrating of society and all aspects of commerce and now it’s heading for smart buildings, smart cars and medical sciences – it pervades virtually everything,” Robert says.
“It’s probably the most complicated engineering exercise you could undertake. And yet the freeway being built, or sabotaged in the case of the NBN, at extremely high cost is embellishing old technology rather than looking forward. To enable the data flows we will need to operate efficiently.”
ADTIA maintains that telecommunications needs a minimum level of quality, service (availability and reliability) and safe practices.
Lawrence concurs and says the much-hyped 5G network is not a feasible solution for all homes. His household experiment highlighted the limitations of wireless.
“I have a five-bedroom house with four children and two adults. We have 16 mobile devices streaming HD video. On a wireless router, no matter how you carve that up, it doesn’t work. Then on top of that you have a 4K TV in the lounge room,” he explains.
“So if I can’t even use a wireless network on rudimentary mobile applications, how do I do it when we throw gaming consoles into this, or kids who want to upload videos or do serious next generation consumer electronic works? It’s just not going to happen.
“As much as everyone spruiks wireless, it will not provide the data you need in each room of your house to be able to use consumer devices that haven’t been developed yet, which is what the innovation and digital economy will be based upon.
“The idea is to enjoy mobility so you don’t want to keep throwing stuff on it. If it’s not going to move, run a bit of cable to it.”
Thankfully, it’s not all doom and gloom.
ADTIA head Dominic Schipano says cabling is at the heart of the digital economy, leaving cablers in a prime position to take advantage of the demand.
“A cabler will have to be more than just a cabler,” Dominic says.
“Our plan is to get our cablers or installers up-skilled because the consumer needs someone who knows what they’re doing to come in and connect all their devices to get the maximum benefit of the digital economy and infrastructure.”
Dominic says discussions with registered training organisations (RTOs) are already taking place to create appropriate short courses. PriceWaterhouseCoopers is also developing skill sets within training packages over the next 12-18 months.
The third facet is encompassing all the necessary skills required in the merging electrical and telecommunications fields as part of a qualification, funded by government through a traineeship.
Lawrence agrees up-skilling is the key, saying potential exists for the creation of up to 200,000 home networking businesses by 2021. This ‘end-to-end’ home specialist would be capable of electrical and communications cabling, creating and maintaining a wireless network, switches, home automation, storage, firewall security and even the provision of solar cells and battery storage.
“Rather than having someone build a home network and walk away, customers can have a managed service,” Lawrence explains.
“It guarantees cablers an income and business model for the next 20 years. As long as you keep your clients happy and are exchanging technology every five years, you’ve constantly got a revenue stream.”
The last but perhaps most important aspect to address is the creation of standards via regulation.
For example, there is no requirement under the National Construction Code (NCC) to cater for telecommunications.
Dominic says the random nature of audits by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) to check the quality of NBN installations has led to more complaints and a need for greater regulation.
As a simple measure, Lawrence suggests increasing the annual cost of a cabling licence from $80 to perhaps $120 to fund inspectors.
As for standards, Dominic says ADTIA is advocating for a co-regulated approach, in which the industry takes responsibility under the ACMA’s authority.
For Lawrence, this means the engineering in all projects should be left to specialists.
“I have never seen a comms design come across my desk in my entire career from an electrical services building engineer meet standard. The quality of workmanship isn’t just bad, it’s dreadfully unsafe,” he says.
“There has got to be a lot of changes. If it’s comms, it has to be done by comms engineers. If it’s electrical, it must be electrical engineers and network engineers for networks. There is an opportunity here but if you don’t have the skill sets, stay out.”
Similarly, ADTIA advises in its submission, “infrastructure (and safety) is business critical and will impact the national digital economy if not managed well. The opportunity here is to undertake a program that enables industry and government to set minimum, universal wiring rules for communication cabling in the build environment that would set a minimum level for safety, availability/reliability and performance.”
The submission stresses that any review must consider Australian standards, such as OH&S, separation and voltage differences, and that risk mitigation can only occur with well-trained people. Lawrence cautions that action must be taken immediately or we will become the one nation to face a digital recession by 2027.
“We might not be losing opportunity now because the technology is still 10 years away but when this technology does arrive, our infrastructure will not be there. That’s when things will go offshore and it won’t come back onshore until it’s fixed.”
Likewise, Robert says advances such as mobile medical, intelligent buildings and intelligent cars that communicate with signs and traffic are being held back.
“Innovation nowadays relies on the technology that’s in our hands and while it’s phenomenally powerful, it can’t be connected to anything,” Robert says.
“The very underpinning of productivity in this country is going to hurt because of the short-sighted nature of what we’ve done with telecommunications. Until there’s a tripartite sit-down with the right people to ask the right questions and grapple with it, we are not going to move forward.
“To me it all boils down to common sense. Where are we now? Where are we trying to get to? How are we going to get there? And having the right people in the think tank who are not prejudiced by price or politics to give an honest appraisal of where the country needs to be. Then, and only then, can you look at how we’re going to get there.”