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Monday, 27 February 2006
Page: 52

Senator EGGLESTON (3:54 PM) —Senator Conroy says he is a cynic, and I suspect he is also someone with a very short memory because, when it was last in office, the Labor Party’s regional telecommunications record was one of neglect and utter disinterest in the need to provide modern telecommunications to the people of regional Australia.

Under Labor, consumer safeguards of today, like the universal service obligation and the customer service guarantee, simply did not exist. These and other consumer and regulatory safeguards will remain in place under this government regardless of the ownership of Telstra. Under the Labor governments of Hawke and Keating, before the Howard government’s introduction of the consumer service guarantee, some consumers could wait more than two years just to have a telephone service connected. Now, under the Howard government, consumers are guaranteed a connection within 20 working days. What a major transformation that is! Given its previous abysmal record, the Labor Party’s new-found interest in regional telecommunications is certainly welcome, but I must say it is something of a surprising development.

Turning to the specific issue of payphones, the government acknowledges that access to payphones is an important community service, particularly for those of a low socioeconomic status who may not be able to afford a fixed-line or mobile connection and for people in remote areas that do not have access to mobile telephone services.

That is why the government has made the supply, installation and maintenance of payphones part of the universal service obligation. That means that these payphone services have to be supplied as part of the USO. Having said that, it should be acknowledged that payphones are no longer as crucial as they once were. Today, mobile telephones and mobile telephone coverage are far more readily available throughout this country. This is highlighted by the increasing trend of people to dump their fixed line connection and rely solely on their mobile phone.

Thanks to Howard government policies, mobile phone penetration now exceeds 90 per cent of the Australian population, with close to 19 million mobile phone subscriptions. The government’s subsidies to extend coverage to small and remote communities and along national highways mean that 98 per cent of the population of Australia now has mobile phone coverage. This means that demand for payphone services has declined. Indeed, Senator Conroy might care to inform the Senate of the last time he used a payphone.

Telstra operates some 32,000 payphone terminals in Australia. It has decided to remove 950 payphones, with a further 4,050 under review. I would ask that the Senate not rush to criticism but examine the detail of Telstra’s proposal. According to advice from Telstra, nearly all of the 950 payphones will be removed from sites where there are multiple payphones, and planned removals are in areas that are under-utilised and where other commercial services are available. Importantly, none of the approximately 7,500 payphones covered by the universal service obligation will be removed.

David Moffatt, Group Managing Director of Telstra Consumer and Marketing, said:

Telstra is not considering removing pay phones required for public health and safety reasons, stand-alone pay phones in remote areas, or those subsidised by the universal service obligation.

A large number of the pay phones we are considering removing are in metropolitan areas on sites with more than one phone. Of the remainder, the majority are located on private property and could be replaced by privately owned pay phones.

Senator Conroy might be interested to know that there has actually been a slight increase in the number of Telstra payphones provided in rural and regional Australia in recent years. More importantly, most of the payphones removed in recent years have been in urban locations, where there are alternatives readily available.

The government will insist that no-one is disadvantaged by having a payphone removed from their community, and Telstra has assured the government that, when it intends to remove any single-site payphone, it will conduct a three-month consultation process, with stickers placed on the phone. People concerned about the loss of a payphone service will be able to contact Telstra in order to provide the company with feedback on that proposed loss.

Senator Conroy has asserted that the government’s privatisation agenda has resulted in the slashing of telecommunications services throughout Australia. Personally, I would have thought a Labor senator would not want to go there, given Labor’s record on deficient services in regional areas of Australia. It is undeniable that today’s telecommunications services are far superior to how they were when the Howard government first came to office. There have been a number of telecommunications reviews, and the government has responded with a range of relevant initiatives to improve telecommunications services and infrastructure around Australia. Prior to the recent announcement of the $1.1 billion Connect Australia package and the $2 billion Communications Fund, the government had already spent more than $1 billion on telecommunications services since 1997 in rural and regional Australia alone. From 1997 to mid-2005, the government directed $1.016 billion in funding to regional telecommunications.

Following the successful passage of the T3 legislation, the government has, as I said, invested $2 billion into a communications future fund in order to future-proof telecommunications services in rural, regional and remote Australia. Spending from that Communications Fund will be tied to independent and regular reviews of telecommunications services in regional, rural and remote Australia. The first review will be conducted in 2008, with further reviews to follow every three years. This is hardly a story of neglect of the need of people in regional Australia to have good telecommunications services.

The $1.1 billion Connect Australia package, also announced not so long ago, will roll out affordable broadband connections to people living in regional, rural and remote Australia, as well as further extending mobile telephone coverage, building new regional communications networks and establishing vital telecommunications services for remote Indigenous communities.

Let us not forget, and let us make the point very strongly, that Telstra is going to remain in rural and regional Australia because, in August 2005, the government imposed a licence condition on the company requiring it to maintain a local presence in regional, rural and remote Australia. That means—among other things—that, under the universal service obligation, payphones in regional, rural and remote Australia will be maintained.

In conclusion, far from the government’s privatisation agenda resulting in reductions in services to regional Australia, it has to be said that the people of regional Australia are reaping the benefits of improved services, thanks to Howard government policies. (Time expired)