A short history of Highlands Health Education Research Network (HHERN), an Ace Internet Services initiative.

The HHERN project came about from the need to deliver significantly faster Internet service to schools in the Southern Highlands of NSW. As the content for education on the Internet has grown, the schools have been limited in introducing this new and valuable material because of bandwidth limitations. Schools in the area are on the fringe of the ADSL network – thus, speeds are slow due to technological limitations. The maximum speeds being achieved were in the order of 6 Mbit/s down, and 0.3 Mbit/s up. These speeds did not allow a class of students to effectively use interactive educational material on the Internet, let alone the whole school. The only choice was the dominant carrier – Telstra – but the costs were (and remain) prohibitive, and the service offerings limited. Solving this problem had been a long-time dream of Allen Cupitt and his team at Ace Internet Services Pty Ltd, a local Internet provider servicing the Southern Highlands since 1995.  Ace’s long history of community involvement made it a natural lead player in building the partnerships for a solution.

An opportunity came about when the Garvan Institute of Medical Research built the Australian BioResources (ABR) facility in Moss Vale. During the construction of the facility, Ace supplied the builder’s wireless Internet access which proved to be very reliable and a good relationship developed between Ace and Garvan. ABR required significant Internet bandwidth to support their work breeding mice for medical research after the construction, far more than was available through existing links to the area. Dr Jeff Freeman and Jim McBride from Garvan, who were responsible for the project, including the IT components, found the limited supply in the area would pose significant issues for work at the facility. The Garvan team with support from NSW Department of State and Regional Development set about connecting into the Sydney–Canberra fibre optical trunk through the Australian Academic and Research Network (AARNet). When completed, ABR had access to the largest independent Internet connection in the region with a potential 10 Gbit/s of Internet capacity.

In 2007, Jeff was the guest speaker at the Rotary Club of Berrima District, of which the Ace Managing Director Allen Cupitt was a member. In a discussion, the AARNet connection to ABR came up. Jeff followed up and explored the possibilities with Jim. As a result Nick Cross from AARNet was introduced to Allen on the 11th of November 2008 with the idea of a building a schools network. Nick was excited and very supportive of the idea and at the prospect of delivering a unique solution for education. By the end of 2008 an agreement had been reached on how AARNet could be connected to the schools, this was the first piece in the puzzle for what would later become the HHERN project.

In December of 2008 a meeting of representatives from school principals, ABR, AARNet, Local Government, State Government and Local Business Chambers took place to gauge the interest in solving the problem for Educational Institutions in the area. There was strong support to find an innovative way forward for the schools, and to find a solution for business. All had suffered a similar fate with limitations on Internet access. With ABR and AARNet committed to the project, and the schools expressing a keen desire to support and benefit from it, the project was away. The only issue now, was how to get the connection from ABR to the schools.

In early 2008, Ace had approached the Wingecarribee Shire Council about building a tower on Oxley’s Hill in order to replace an older tower that was to be decommissioned. This would allow existing services to be maintained. Initially, the request was given support by Council Staff, but the timing was wrong. The request was rejected by Councillors, as the land had been identified to be sold to fund the planned Leisure Centre. After the election, the new Council was prepared to revisit the project, as the public had rejected the Leisure Centre in a plebiscite. By this time, the Schools project had been discussed with all the stakeholders, and with Ace now able to pursue building a tower on Oxley’s Hill, the third piece of the puzzle was to materialise.

In April 2010, with the Tower completed, high speed radios were installed, connecting the ABR facilities to the tower. For the first time, high speed, high capacity Internet was available for education in our region. The Southern Highlands schools are now able to take a lead in the Digital Education Revolution. Chevalier College was the first school to be connected, with Principal Chris McDermott having been involved with the development of the HHERN concept and was determined to have Chevalier the most technologically advanced secondary school in the region.

Following the success of Chevalier’s connection, other schools including the Southern Highlands Christian School, Oxley College, Tudor House, Youth Off The Streets School at Canyonleigh and OLSH College at Hartzer Park connected over the following years. The Bradman Museum joined, following a Federal Government grant to allow for digital outreach into the education sector.

HHERN has provided uncontended service speeds faster than the NBN to these schools and institutions for over three years. With recent upgrades, more than two and a half times current speed of the NBN is available to provide enhanced education outcomes for the nearly three thousand students, teachers, and support staff now relying on HHERN. With the massive capacities of more than 10 Gbit/s now available from AARNet, the HHERN project has many years of ongoing capability.

Even though State Schools are not directly connected because of the centralised IT management, Ace has included them in a range of events, including a teleconference with the Federal Minister for Education and by setting up a temporary HHERN connection for Bowral High to participate in a Google experiment on immersive interactive education.

Ace has taken many work experience students over the years from both Public and Independent Schools. The staff at Ace has a large percentage of locally educated staff who have the opportunities to work in research and development with leading edge technologies in a regional setting which in and of its self is a rare commodity.

In addition to the schools, businesses large and small, not for profit enterprises, Council and individuals have benefitted from the project either using the Oxley Hill Tower as a relay, or by gaining access to high speed Internet, and the services available over this connection. Our determination to deliver high speed high quality services has allowed businesses to establish themselves in the area, for people to work and live in our community.

Our infrastructure is developed to be low power and low impact so we have a soft touch on the environment. In fact our remote solar powered portable micro base stations are the perfect solution to deliver rapid high speed services to communities in remote locations with almost zero environmental impact.

The future is full of opportunities, and Ace is determined to have HHERN continue to engage with schools, institutions, business, families, and individuals to expand our reach and deliver services that will benefit our community.