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Australia budget closes in on digital divide, cyber resilience

Australia’s latest budget is geared towards providing better broadband connectivity in regional and rural areas, shoring up the cyber security posture of its businesses and plugging tech talent shortages, among other areas

The Australian federal government unveiled its 2022-2023 budget earlier this week, with spending aimed at closing the country’s digital divide, improving the cyber resilience of its people, businesses and governments, as well as closing the tech skills gap.

Here’s a closer look at what the budget means for Australia’s IT and communications sector.

Communications

The big-ticket items in the budget – as far as the tech sector is concerned – are geared towards National Broadband Network (NBN) upgrades and providing better connectivity for regional and rural Australia.

The government will inject A$2.4bn of equity into NBN Co over four years to provide “fibre-ready access” to another 1.5 million homes and business premises by late 2025, giving access to gigabit speeds to nearly 90% of Australia’s fixed line footprint.

There is also provision for free broadband for up to 30,000 unconnected families with school-aged students, at a cost of A$4.7m over three years.

“Australia does have a digital divide between our cities and regions, so the significant $1.2bn in additional investment in NBN Co – particularly targeting regional areas and connectivity – should lessen the barriers for regional Australia and assist in expanding the tech workforce in a post-pandemic world,” said Simon Bush, CEO of the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA).

A range of measures are covered by the planned A$758m over five years for mobile and broadband connectivity and resilience improvements outside metropolitan areas.

Some A$400m will go to support the roll-out of mobile base stations along highways and in under-serviced areas, and A$200m will fund two additional rounds of the Regional Connectivity Programme to improve digital connectivity in regional, rural and remote Australia.

Another $39m has been earmarked for two additional rounds of the Peri-Urban Mobile Programme to improve mobile reception in peri-urban areas that are prone to natural disasters.

Smaller provisions in the budget include A$30m for the On Farm Connectivity Programme; A$6m to provide free and independent advice on telecommunications connectivity and services in regional and rural Australia via the Regional Tech Hub platform; and A$2.5m to establish a First Nations Digital Advisory Group for consultation on the design and delivery of digital inclusion initiatives.

In addition, the Australian Communications and Media Authority will be allocated nearly A$28m over five years to deliver a new spectrum management system and auction capability for spectrum licences.

Cyber security

In the wake of recent high-profile data breaches at Optus, Medibank Private and other organisations, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner has been allocated more than A$5m over two years to investigate and respond to the Optus data breach.

“We must get the balance right between putting legislation in place around when companies need to report breaches and fines to ensure they do the right thing, but not making it too onerous that companies don’t comply and it stifles innovation,” said Elenium co-founder and CEO Aaron Hornlimann.

“This is a global problem that every country and organisation is facing, but it also provides an opportunity for Australia to lead the way. If we get this right, it will attract investment from companies overseas.

“Companies should not be holding onto consumer data. The data belongs to the customer, not the company. There is no need for companies to be holding onto passport details when they’re just trying to validate the identity of an individual,” he added.

Cyber security rightly remains a focus for the government ... We’ve unfortunately seen too many incidents in recent months, so it’s vital for the government to continue to harden its own cyber defences
Simon Bush, Australian Information Industry Association

When it comes to the government’s own cyber security, the budget provides A$31.3m this year to extend the Cyber Hubs pilot. The pilot trials a whole-of-government approach to cyber security, using four Cyber Hubs to deliver cyber security capabilities to Commonwealth entities, and the funding will keep them running while an evaluation is completed.

“Cyber security rightly remains a focus for the government and the new A$31.3m investment in government cyber resilience and security is necessary. We’ve unfortunately seen too many incidents in recent months, so it’s vital for the government to continue to harden its own cyber defences,” said the AIIA’s Bush.

Proofpoint’s vice-president in Australia and New Zealand (ANZ), Crispin Kerr, agreed, saying: “The further A$31m announced to extend the government’s cyber hub pilot programme is a necessary investment to support the modernisation of Australia’s cyber defences and is critical to securing Australia’s security posture for the future.”

While the additional spending is generally welcomed, not everyone thinks it goes far enough.

“Depending on the report you read, anywhere between 82% and 95% of successful cyber attacks, breaches or incidents are in fact the result of human error,” said KnowBe4 security awareness advocate Jacqueline Jayne.

“Now for some maths – scams cost Australians A$2bn in 2021, and this budget will spend A$12.6m over four years, which is A$3.15m for each year to combat these scams and online fraud to protect us from financial harm.

“For those of us who can’t get our heads around the large numbers, that’s the equivalent of spending A$1.57 towards an issue that is costing someone else A$10,000.”

Government IT

Additional four-year funding totalling A$166m will continue the Modernising Business Registers programme to consolidate more than 30 business registers onto a modernised registry platform. This includes registers operated by the Australian Taxation Office and the Australian Securities and Investments Commission.

Veterans’ services improvements are promised, thanks to the provision of A$87m over two years from 2022 to 2023 to improve the administration of the claims processing system and improve veterans’ services. This includes enhancements to systems including MyService and myGov to better support veterans and their families, plus the development of business cases to replace and modernise “at risk legacy ICT systems”.

More generally, there will be a A$0.8m myGov user audit to identify changes needed to improve its functionality and deliver a more user-friendly experience. The money will come from existing funding for Services Australia and the Digital Transformation Agency.

The government’s in-house digital skills would be upgraded thanks to an A$11.5m Australian Public Service Digital Traineeship programme to support early to mid-career transitions into digital roles.

The IT sector stands to benefit from A$42m being spent on increased visa processing capacity and to help attract high-skilled permanent migrants.

“The increased funding for additional Department of Home Affairs staff to clear visa backlogs is...welcomed and necessary – delays in visa processing have harmed recruitment of top talent and consequently stunted economic growth,” said the AIIA’s Bush.

Stax managing director Adam Beavis welcomed the additional support to improve migration of skilled workers. “Improving visa processing times, increasing the permanent migration programme and tackling housing supply challenges will make Australia a more attractive option to international talent,” he said.

Elenium’s Hornlimann was also concerned about visa processing times. While he welcomed the increase to the number of permanent visas to address the lack of skilled professionals in Australia, he said the time to fill positions remains longer than desired.

“It took us three to four months to just ‘register’ to be open to hiring individuals from overseas. The process is long and complicated and while I appreciate it shouldn’t be easy, it does take time. If I have a vacancy today that needs to be filled, I can’t afford to wait for four months to fill that role and my team have to go through all of the paperwork involved. The government needs to make this process much easier for companies to hire individuals from overseas.”

Education and training

But the government is not relying on a resurgence in immigration to solve the skills shortage.

It has earmarked A$872m over five years to provide 480,000 fee-free Technical and Further Education (TAFE) and vocational education places in industries and regions with skills shortages. Around 180,000 of them will be delivered in 2023 in areas of highest skills need.

TAFEs are also being supported with a A$50m technology fund to modernise IT infrastructure, workshops, laboratories, telehealth simulators and other facilities at TAFEs across Australia.

A further A$486m will provide up to 20,000 additional university places in areas where the skills shortage is apparent, such as education, health, engineering and technology. The places will be aimed at people from socio-economic backgrounds, rural and remote areas, First Nations people, those who are first-in-family to attend university and people with disability.

“It’s pleasing that the budget is fully funding the government’s election commitments to reducing the skills crisis that exists in the Australian tech sector – it’s critical for our tech sector to thrive in order to drive Australia’s economic growth,” said Bush.

He added: “The government’s promise to deliver 480,000 fee-free TAFE and community-based vocational education places over four years alongside its obvious commitment to growing skills demands in the clean energy sector are both important steps forward. These both showcase planning for the long-term as these deal with the jobs of the future and contribute to Australia’s future economic prosperity.”

Quantum technology is specifically targeted in the budget, with A$5m over four years to sponsor up to 20 PhD research scholarships and encouraging collaboration in this area across Australian universities. But this is not all new money, as part of it comes from existing funding for the Department of Defence’s Next Generation Technologies Fund.

“Areas around critical technologies, such as AI [artificial intelligence] and quantum, are of particular interest – they’ve received some funding in previous budgets but need far greater investment and accelerated implementation to ensure Australia can compete on a global stage. The budget funding tonight of A$4.8m towards greater support for quantum research and PhDs is definitely a step in the right direction, as we cannot afford to fall further behind our international peers,” said Bush.

Iron Mountain’s ANZ vice-president and general manager, Garry Valenzisi, said: “Investment into the development and manufacture of future technologies will help to drive business innovation and advance critical projects for the benefit of individuals, businesses and the Australian economy.”

Telehealth also got a look-in, with the reinstatement of a 50% loading for bulk-billed telehealth psychiatry consultations in eligible parts of regional and rural Australia, and a A$3m, three-year allocation to extend and expand the Rare Disease Telehealth Nurse Programme.

Plus, the A$230m going into the Strengthening Medicare General Practice Grants Programme over the next two years will allow general practitioners to enhance their digital health capability, among other things.

“Ahead of the election earlier this year, we proposed nine measures to grow Australia’s IT sector, and we are pleased the Albanese government has acted on many of our ideas,” said Chris Vein, CEO of Australian Computer Society.

“We look forward to working with ministers like Ed Husic, Clare O’Neil, Michelle Rowland, Katy Gallagher and Brendan O’Connor in growing the nation’s technology skills base and ensuring Australians can access well paid, secure jobs in the modern, global digital economy,” he added.

Read more about IT in Australia

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  • Telstra will use Azure as a preferred cloud while Microsoft will look at boosting its capacity on Telstra’s subsea cable network in a wide-ranging deal.
  • The AskVic WhatsApp chatbot will provide culturally and linguistically diverse communities in Australia’s state of Victoria, with Covid-19 information and support.
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