iNTTN democratising access to telecommunications across Australia

CEO Jade Miller has a goal of reaching all Indigenous Australians, providing them with access to telecommunications.

iNTTN is on a mission to ensure that telecommunications are accessible by all, particularly Indigenous communities and those in the often forgotten rural and remote regions of Australia.

The company has only been established for a short period of time, but iNTTN -- the Indigenous National Technology and Telecom Network -- is already considered a market leader, and its founder and CEO Jade Miller sees the company as an advocate in the industry for Indigenous people due to its focus on inclusion across the industry.  

"If you look anywhere across the telecommunication industry at the moment, you won't find a significant presence of Indigenous people," Miller told ZDNet. "We're very proud we're Indigenous-owned."

One of the key frameworks that iNTTN works off is Reconciliation Australia. It has sprouted partnerships with major companies such as Telstra, Optus, and the company responsible for rolling out the National Broadband Network (NBN).

Rather than being in competition with the bigger players in the space, Miller described his company as one that is "enriching" the existing relationships people or businesses have with telcos.

"The way we set up the business model is more of a win-win type of model -- we want to enrich everyone's experience, whether you're with Telstra or Optus," he said.

"We have customers that often ring in and say, 'I've got a bill from Optus, or Telstra, and it says this and I don't understand, can you help me?', we help with that experience."

BEING AN INDIGENOUS STARTUP IN AUSTRALIA

"We've certainly experienced the types of challenges that any startup would experience, I guess. Everything from investment through to operational setup and development," Miller told ZDNet. "We've certainly experienced the top five reasons why every startup struggles -- the first three years we've had all of those."

But iNTTN had the added complexity of being an Indigenous company. iNTTN had to not only attempt to exist in the competitive telco industry; it also had to provide education.

"We certainly entered into an industry that required the cultural awareness of Indigenous people and Indigenous business coming into the market," he said. "That's been a time-consuming factor."

What was a positive, however, was the amount of "goodwill" present in the space, allowing partnerships to sprout from reconciliation action plans already in place by others.

If standing up a telco wasn't enough, Miller also added a customer service component.

"When we originally set up, we thought we could apply essentially industry-standard training to our customer service staff," he said. "We made a concerted effort to make sure that all of our customer service is based in Australia … that gave birth to another first, standing up Australia's first Indigenous-owned call centre."

The call centre has a unique proposition in offering the cultural element that comes out of Indigenous communities. It also supports other companies that might have Indigenous customers.

ENTREPRENEUR AND AN ADVOCATE

Miller doesn't have a history in telecommunications, but his interest in Australian infrastructure and democratising its access was piqued following a series of executive and ministerial posts across Victoria and New South Wales.

In 2006, Miller was appointed CEO of Yorta Yorta Nation, a corporation comprised of peoples with undeniable bloodlines to the Original Ancestors of the Land of the Yorta Yorta Nation. 

Traditional Yorta Yorta lands lie on both sides of the Murray River, covering some 20,000 square kilometres.

At just 27, Miller joined the organisation at what he called a challenging time -- the Yorta Yorta Nation basically had its native title extinguished by the High Court of Australia on appeal following a similar ruling by the Federal Court of Australia.

"It had a long journey in having its rights acknowledged," Miller told ZDNet. "We had to dust ourselves off and have another crack at things, so to speak."

In just seven years, Miller helped set up Victoria's first National Park which is jointly managed with traditional owners; reformed constitution; and set up a business arm of the corporation.

"I guess that gave rise to my interest in Australian infrastructure assets, including telecommunications," he said.

"The elders call on you to take leadership and it gave me a list of aspirations, and I achieved all those in seven years -- it set the scene of where I am now."

iNTTN was formed after several years of research.

"We registered the company in 2016 … but leading up to registration, it was roughly about five to six years' worth of research and study from myself and a consortium from around the world," he explained.

That think tank looked at industries across different countries and also determined what the Indigenous consumer had identified gaps in.

BUT THERE'S MORE TO DO

There's no denying there is a need to fast-track telecommunications infrastructure in Australia.

According to First Nations Media Australia, over 30% of remote Indigenous households do not have access to internet, with many households also without access to basic telephony services.

It said that while there have been improvements in the last few years in telecommunications access in many parts of remote Australia, through the introduction of the NBN Sky Muster satellite, the Mobile Blackspots Program, and state and local programs such as the Community Phones Program, these projects only go partway to delivering digital inclusion.

"Remote Indigenous people remain the most digitally excluded part of the Australian population and this is unlikely to change with current infrastructure planning and policy," First Nations Media wrote in a submission [PDF] to the Regional Telecommunications Review in 2018.

iNTTN is targeting 800,000 Indigenous customers on its books. In 2016, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare estimated there were 798,365 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia, projecting around 1.1 million people by 2031. More needs to be done, Miller said, to extend coverage to those without.

"We're not seeing enough cooperation in the corridors," he said of both the government and the telco industry, "If you talk to government in the Indigenous space … there's not enough knowledge around technology and communications as it is, so no one knows where to start the conversation where Indigenous people are concerned."

A glance over at AusTender will also reveal that Indigenous government-awarded telecommunications contracts sit at less than 1% of all contracts awarded.

"I don't think anyone necessarily has all the answers, whether you talk to a top tier company or established company," Miller said. "It's crucial, it's critical."

"When it comes to rural and regional areas, the gap in infrastructure … companies connect Queensland to Sydney, Sydney to Melbourne, across to Western Australia and completely miss northern Western Australia, then cut back to Queensland and over to Southeast Asia and the rest of the world," he explained.

There's an enormous gap, but Miller would argue there's also an enormous opportunity.

"The areas where there's a high need for infrastructure -- for example Western Australia, Broome -- it does rely on Perth as its capital city, as most states do, but the time is now to basically starting to look at those filling those gaps," he said.

"Broome and those areas get, as an example, good 4G mobile access, but as far as download upload speeds, it's quite poor still.

"We know that there's an urgency to get connectivity and access at the very least to regional, sort of rural areas."

There is a role for iNTTN to play and it could take form as a sort of "brokerage" engagement between traditional owners across Australia with top-tier companies.

iNTTN is also looking at the role it can play in helping stand up towers or mobile hotspots in regional areas.

"We're looking at exploring the options to do that for the first time with one of the Indigenous remote communities across Australia at the moment," he said. "That's probably a two to three-year goal, but we're certainly doing the research for that now and aim to have a first base station in the next three to four years."

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