A team of CSIRO data analysts will pore over masses of historical national broadband network (NBN) usage data for new insights into the way Australia is using the network – and how NBN Co can best invest to support future business and consumer use cases.

CSIRO’s Data61 data-science division will use aggregated and de-identified NBN traffic data to provide what NBN Co CEO Stephen Rue called ”high-value insights” about how households and businesses have used the network during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The partnership will “inform how Australia can drive and retain innovation, help ensure our industries are as productive as they can be, and build resilience in our economy,” he said, noting its focus on energy reliability and efficiency, data privacy and security, agriculture automation, and digital health.

Network usage data – which is collected at 15-second intervals by NBN Co – already helps the network operator monitor energy usage and broadband usage patterns, such as when children get home from school or remote workers start working from home late at night.

Deidentified and atomised, the data will now be cross-analysed against economic, demographic and geographic inputs to extrapolate usage trends that will – among other things – highlight certain user groups’ usage trends, compare digital activities in different geographical areas, benchmark operational efficiency by industry, and better support greater numbers of employees working from home for the long term.

That insight is more than academic: NBN Co recently announced it would spend $4.5b to make 1Gbps services available to millions of premises by 2023, but analysis showed that it has only budgeted capital expenditure to actually activate around 400,000 premises during that time.

Supporting those services will require the company to ensure that its backhaul networks offer enough bandwidth to deliver adequate speeds – and Data61’s analytics work may prove crucial in helping NBN Co best target its spending.

Combining digital and domain expertise

COVID “has absolutely accelerated changes that we knew were coming in society,” Rue elaborated during an online presentation with Marshall and AustCyber CEO Michelle Price, hosted by the Committee for Economic Development Australia.

Within the context of this acceleration, the analytics work “facilitates the generation of new insights into how we are adopting digital technologies,” CSIRO chief executive Dr Larry Marshall said in announcing the partnership, “to help solve meaningful issues and shape the future in many areas of society.”

“We can use the NBN network traffic data to develop baselines for the digital maturity of whole sectors, jobs, households, and communities – and start to build an understanding of how we can accelerate this to give better well-being and better outcomes across all of our communities.”

As a key enabler of the fourth domain of human engagement – the others being land, sea, and air, with space emerging as a fifth – Price warned that more careful scrutiny of cyberspace utilisation would be crucial to ensure we aren’t missing out on new opportunities.

“It’s been through the intersection of science and technology, that cyberspace has come to exist,” she explained, “and if we are sleepwalking into the next phase of convergence, we need to wake up – because the opportunities are enormous.”

CSIRO’s latest mission

The partnership is the latest in a ‘portfolio of missions’ that CSIRO launched last year to explore what Marshall called “large-scale, major scientific and collaborative research projects focused on delivering very specific solutions from science to our classic national challenges”.

Partnerships with over 3,000 industry customers have already delivered economic benefits: research to improve management of southern bluefin tuna will deliver $616.5m in benefits through 2025, for example, while Data61’s TerriaJS project will deliver net benefits of $47.5m in the decade to 2028 by streamlining access to and analysis of government geospatial data.

“Some of the best digital outcomes that we’ve seen inside CSIRO are where we’ve put together digital experts and domain experts,” Marshall said, adding that “truly extraordinary” digital-led transformation during the pandemic had paved the way for an NBN Co partnership that is “a great way to bolster Australia’s economic recovery and really build up this long-term resilience in the nation”.

“Together as national agencies, we can really deliver a unique national outcome,” he said.

“The inclination when you’re in a crisis is to batten down the hatches, and use the ‘safe pair of hands’ approach and postpone investments – but we really need to stare down the barrel of this crisis and lean into our investments in innovation, because science and technology will drive economic recovery.”