NBN Co has denied it has plans to give preferential treatment to government agencies or health organisations wanting to use the national broadband network to provide services directly to Australian citizens.
However, industry experts would welcome the idea of health organisations becoming retailers on the NBN and bundling access with critical services such as patient monitoring and education.
The box unit on which the NBN fibre-to-the-premises network terminates outside the home has four ethernet ports so consumers could, if they wished, sign up for services from four different NBN retailers. NBN Co has been reported as planning to reserve one of these four ports for government agencies to deliver unmetered services to homes.
An NBN Co spokeswoman said that any agency wanting to provide services over the NBN would be treated like any other retailer and pay for capacity at the same rates. She said there was considerable scope for government agencies, particularly in health and education, to use the network as a basis for a range of innovative services.
She dismissed suggestions that one of the four ports would be "reserved" for such services.
By becoming an NBN service provider, a health or education agency could bundle broadband access with other services such as in-home care. This would mean bandwidth and quality of service would be determined by the agency not by the end user or the NBN retailer. There would be no danger of the service being throttled when a user's monthly data quota was reached.
Professor Rod Tucker, director of the Institute for the Broadband- Enabled Society at the University of Melbourne, said it was important that government providers of services such as e-health, aged care and disability care could guarantee the availability and quality of the connection to the home.
"If access to customers, patients is not ubiquitous because the services cannot be provided over some ISPs' networks, or if a particular customer's data limit for the month has been exceeded, then the benefits of such a universal service become limited," he said.
Sarah Dods, health services leader for the CSIRO's digital productivity project, said it would be unrealistic to expect elderly citizens most in need of tele-health monitoring services to organise an NBN connection from a retail service provider. "Our Smarter Safer Homes project is designed to enable elderly people to stay at home longer and to replace those pendant alarms. We'd monitor humidity, doors opening, etc to make sure they are washing themselves, moving around, cooking and eating properly.
"For these people, signing up for an NBN service would be just too complicated. The health service provider would come in and install a box on the NBN connection, and the billing for the NBN service would become part of the community care package."
In addition to becoming an NBN service provider, any health services organisation wanting to use the network would need to register with the Australian Communications and Media Authority and meet the obligations of licensed telecommunications carriers. Dr Dods envisaged that many would avoid this complexity by partnering with existing telco providers.