Advocates for the National Broadband Network (NBN) fibre-to-the-premises (FttP) rollout have cited telehealth and remote patient care as one of the reasons for the need to keep the current project as is, but the Department of Health has stated that its own trial of telehealth technology has now been expanded beyond just testing out FttP.
The department's AU$20.3 million telehealth trial was announced by the former Labor government in early 2012, and in mid-2013, nine projects were funded looking at how "high-speed broadband is the future of healthcare" and would "highlight why it is important to be rolled out to all Australians".
The project targeted 2,500 patients across 50 locations where the NBN fibre network had already been deployed, and included trials in video conferencing and assisted telehealth care for elderly Australians living in aged care residences or at home.
The CSIRO's AU$5.47 million trial, for example, was to recruit 25 chronically ill patients in each site, from Townsville to Western Sydney, to Canberra, to Ballarat, to Tasmania, to test telehealth services over high-speed broadband connections with commercial partners iiNet and TelMedCare.
Following Labor's election defeat in September, the new Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull is considering a proposal from NBN Co to alter the design of the NBN from 93 percent fibre to the premises to a majority fibre-to-the-node and hybrid fibre-coaxial network for existing houses and businesses, with new houses to get fibre to the premises, while the remainder of the country will continue to be serviced by fixed wireless and the NBN satellites launching in 2015.
Some in the health and technology industries have suggested that such a network model would not be sufficient for telehealth, as it would not provide the speeds or reliability required for telehealth services in Australia, particularly when relying on Telstra's legacy copper network for the fibre-to-the-node network.
In November, Labor Senator Helen Polley asked the Department of Health to explain how the benefits of telehealth are "now threatened because of the Coalition's National Broadband Network model, which means not all premises will receive FttP".
The Department of Health responded in late January (PDF), telling the senator that FttP is no longer the only technology being used as part of the trial.
"Telehealth services can be delivered by a range of broadband access technologies. The government has expanded the technologies which are able to be used in the Telehealth Pilots Program to allow any fit for purpose broadband connection to deliver telehealth services," the department stated.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health told ZDNet that the new expanded trial includes ADSL, 3G, 4G and VDSL technologies.
"The government recently removed programme restrictions which required participants to reside in NBN rollout areas and use NBN access technologies. From 15 November 2013, fit for purpose broadband connections are able to be used to deliver project services to any eligible participants. It is expected that this change will assist the telehealth pilots program projects to achieve their intended outcomes and meet the objectives of the program," the spokesperson said.
"A number of the funded trials have begun to use alternate broadband access technologies to deliver telehealth services. Access technologies being used include ADSL2+, VDSL, and 3G/4G wireless."
The spokesperson said the pilot does not have specific requirements for download or upload speeds provided the access technology being used is "fit for purpose", meaning it is able to deliver the individual trial specific services.
The telehealth trial is due to finish in September this year.
It comes as NBN Co is testing fibre-to-the-building (FttB) services ahead of the government's expected change of policy. NBN Co has, however, specifically stated that for the purpose of this trial, there is to be no medical alarms connected via FttB.