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Wednesday, 8 February 2012
Page: 263

Mr COULTON (ParkesThe Nationals Chief Whip) (13:35): I too rise today to speak on the Telecommunications Universal Service Management Agency Bill 2011. Despite whatever else is happening in this country at the moment, telecommunications is still the biggest issue that my constituents deal with. Only the week before last, I was speaking with the mayor and the general manager of a very large council in the middle of my electorate and asking them what their priorities were, where they needed the most help. I expected they might have said something about roads or health services, but they said, 'No. 1 for us, without any doubt, is telecommunications.'

What is happening with telecommunications and the way that this country is now going, with this very clumsy National Broadband Network, is that we are ending up with two classes of Australians. A large proportion of my electorate still do not have the basic service of mobile phone coverage. They have no hope of that changing in the near future. If you do not have mobile phone coverage, the National Broadband Network is not going to help you, because most of the data now that is received—by those that have phone coverage—is coming to hands-free devices: BlackBerrys, iPads, iPhones and the like. But if you do not have that basic signal then you are left out of the loop. One of the problems is that a lot of people own a phone but it does not work where they live or where their business is. So customers or acquaintances will ring a mobile number, leave a message and think that they have made contact with these people. Quite often people tell me that when they go to town they will go over the hill where the phone coverage picks up and there will be 20 messages. I spoke to a small plant hire contractor in Coonabarabran a couple of weeks ago who was losing business to another town because his phone was not reliable. A customer had left a message on his phone requesting a quote for the hire of a certain piece of equipment and when the message finally came through, some three or four days later, the customer said, 'Well, you didn't get back to me so I went to Dubbo and hired the same piece of equipment there.'

It is having a real effect on the way people do business, and it is not just isolated properties. Two kilometres from the middle of the town of Coonabarabran, where there is a large number of small rural holdings, there is no mobile coverage. In the village of Goolma, which is quite a small productive farming community, they have absolutely no mobile coverage. There is quite a busy road there that connects a couple of regional centres. There is a lot of traffic and there is concern about road accidents. We are desperately trying to find the funds to build a phone tower for the village of Goolma. I have organised meetings with the local stakeholders—the volunteer SU Association, the Rural Fire Service, the State Emergency Service, councils, the neighbouring coalmine and anyone else I can think of—who might want to contribute to this tower, because Telstra are saying that it is not viable and they will not pay for the tower. If someone puts up the tower they will fund the hardware on it. Can you imagine any one of my colleagues in a capital city electorate or a regional city electorate having to tell their constituents that they had to find some way of funding their own phone tower? It is absolutely appalling that in 2012 citizens of Australia are expected to fund basic infrastructure like telephone towers. Most of the issues with telecommunications I see on the television are people complaining because there is a mobile tower going up in their suburb and while they want perfect coverage they do not want to have the unsightly tower. I tell you, anyone here that has got that problem with a tower that is not wanted can send it to the Parkes electorate because I have got 100 places where that infrastructure could go.

This hole that has been left behind will not be filled by the NBN. One of the great frustrations, and I could not believe it was happening in 2008 as a newly elected member to this place, was to watch this House vote to remove the Regional Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund—$2.7 billion that was set aside to fund towers exactly like the one I just spoke about. It is not as if the government does not know about this. To his credit, the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Conroy, came to Hilmer and I think everyone who lived within 100 miles was at the town hall to greet the minister, and it was not to give him a pat on the back—I can say that. But I give him credit for coming along. It is not as if the minister is not aware of this being a problem but he seems to be completely unwilling or unable to act upon it.

With the NBN, most of the towns in my electorate will not get the fibre-optic cables; some will. The smaller towns are going to be delivered by wireless and while that is all right, it is not wireless that is going to your mobile device. It is wireless that is going to a fixed point in the home where you can then use a router to get it around to mobile devices. It not going to help the tradesman or the farmer who relies on mobile internet connections. Because we do not have the mobile service, they are going to miss out. I do not know whether people realise that when a technician comes to repair a tractor or a grain harvester the first thing they get out is a laptop, plug it into the machine and take a reading of what is wrong. The methods of repairing the machine are then downloaded to that mobile device. So we have a real case of haves and have-nots—of people who have the service and those who have not. That impacts on people who want to undertake education by remote means—people who might want to do a university degree. If they do not have adequate telecommunications coverage they are left out of the system. It impacts on a whole range of things like that.

The other thing that hopefully this USO will do is hang on to phone boxes. They might seen to be antique pieces—and I did see a humorous bit written in a Sydney paper where a young journalist had to learn how to use a payphone to make a phone call because his battery went flat—but the reality is that in towns like Goodooga, Boggabilla and a lot of other towns in my electorate where there is a low socio-economic level with a large number of the citizens, many people do not own a mobile phone. Most of them do not have the coverage, but if they do have the coverage they cannot afford the mobile phone. So they rely on the phone box to communicate. Travellers coming through who have a mobile phone that does not work in a regional area rely on the phone box for basic communication if they need to call for roadside assistance or something like that. While the focus of this place and this country seems to have been on ultrafast broadband and communication going forward, which is very important and very important to the people in my electorate, the great frustration for me and the people I represent is that they are largely being left behind. They have been pushed aside and they have not been included in this vision for connecting Australia to the 21st century. I find that to be a disgrace and a scandal. As someone who represents over 30 per cent of New South Wales, I find that completely unacceptable.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Symon ): Order! The debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 43. The member will have leave to continue speaking when the debate is resumed.