Treasurer Joe Hockey has taken a knife to some of the Australian Government’s most ambitious technology projects in his 2014-15 Federal Budget, with looming funding deadlines now in place for the National Broadband Network and National ICT Australia.
And despite the Government's assurances about its continuation, the budget has also left little to allay the concerns of those advocating for a Personally Controlled Electronic Health Record (PCEHR).
The Abbott Government has stuck to its commitment of a $29.5 billion funding cap for the National Broadband Network, which had originally promised the structural separation of Telstra and a ubiquity of internet access for all Australians.
The Government will pay in a further $20.9 billion into the NBN project for the next two fiscal years (adding to the $8.6 billion spent or committed until July 2014), after which it will seek to fund the remainder of the project from the private sector.
Communications Minister Turnbull used the opportunity to once again complain about the state of the project he inherited, but estimates of what the ALP’s NBN model would have cost have been fluctuating as wildly as his own estimates for the current Government’s rollout.
Turnbull promised that nine in ten Australians within the fixed-line footprint of the NBN will access download speeds of more than 50 megabits per second by 2019. No promises were made on upload speeds - a more pressing concern for the business sector.
NICTA’s two year sprint
NICTA, which was established in 2002 for the purpose of nurturing and commercialising technology start-ups out of Australia’s research circles, will be asked to “stand on its own feet” from June 2016.
It will receive $84.9 million until that time, more or less along the lines of what it had previously been promised.
A release from Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull lauded NICTA for “rapid recent growth in commercial revenue through partnerships with domestic and overseas firms”. This proves NICTA “can draw funding from a wider range of sources,” he claimed.
NICTA has completed consulting and R&D work on behalf of organisations as diverse as the Commonwealth Bank, DB Schenker, Defence and Sydney Water. As of this time last year, NICTA was earning up to 15 percent of its funding from this revenue.
Last year’s budget papers predicted NICTA would earn around $11 million in commercial revenue in the current fiscal year, which suggests the research body faces a $25-$30 million annual shortfall if costs can’t radically be contained before the Abbott Government withdraws funding, or if private sector benefactors cannot be found.
Earlier this year NICTA also lost its funding from the Victorian Government, in response to its apparent NSW focus, and was forced to cut half of all lab staff in the state.
The Government used the Budget paper to reiterate its “commitment to a shared electronic health record for patients,” contributing $140.6 million to keep the scheme on track for the next financial year.
But no funding was provided for the years following as the Government prepares a response to a review of the Personally Controlled Electronic Health Record system as it stands today.
Health Informatics Society (HISA) chief executive Dr Louise Schaper welcomed the funding and what she took to be "the Government's clear statement in the Budget of their commitment to personally controlled electronic health records for patients."
However she repeated the health sector's plea for the Government to be patient with the huge change management task at hand.
"Being limited to 12 months will create ongoing uncertainty," she said. "But this is a good opportunity the Government has created for ongoing consultation to make sure we get this right."
Health Minister Peter Dutton's commissioned review into the PCEHR, and particularly its slow uptake amongst clinicians, was received at the end of last year but is yet to be released.