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Wednesday, 14 September 2011
Page: 10210

Mr CHRISTENSEN (Dawson) (16:02): As a member representing a regional area, I have a keen interest in communication technology and how it can level the playing field for the regions. Regional Australia and the bush have always been at a disadvantage due to reduced access to services and facilities or, indeed, in some cases no access at all. Communication technology has managed to bridge some of these gaps, and an upgrade to Australia's broadband infrastructure could bring services and the bush closer. However, the Liberal-National coalition believe Labor's NBN will fall well short of the mark.

The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Infrastructure and Communications inquiry and report, Broadening the debate: inquiry into the role and potential of the National Broadband Network, should have been a warning that the planned NBN would fall short of the mark. Had this inquiry been conducted at the appropriate time—that is, before the rollout of a $43 billion NBN, and I am expecting that to be even higher at somewhere over $50 billion—it might have gathered the information required to make an informed, unbiased report. That might have resulted in an upgrade to our broadband infrastructure that truly closed the gap for regional and rural areas. Instead, this report is clearly a politically motivated exercise to provide a manufactured support for the government's poor policy decision. The inquiry set out to find information that it could use to support the Gillard government's NBN program—which is already being rolled out.

What we have seen with the rollout of the NBN to date is nothing more than a political campaign. There was not enough planning and research prior to the policy announcement of the NBN in 2009. You cannot conduct an inquiry halfway through the process, because the government is hardly going to produce a report that tells the truth, and that is that the NBN that you have already rolled out is not a good idea.

Key elements of the rollout have been determined by political advantage, and it has still been a disaster. The rollout has been a case of shoot first and ask questions later—'Don't worry about consulting with the industry; just start rolling it out,' 'Don't worry about the planning and how it works; just start rolling it out,' and 'Don't worry about the benefits it will provide or, more importantly, will not provide; just start rolling it out.' The government has shot first and then asked the question later.

Believing in the mantra 'Build it and they will come', this government thought that, if they just threw a billion dollars around and built something, the people would come. So they built something. They started to roll out an NBN, and guess what: people did not come. Wait a second—yes, they did. Some did. When the Prime Minister and the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, along with the member for New England, pushed that big red novelty button to apparently turn on the NBN in New England, how many people were hooked up to the service? How many people do you think were hooked up to this NBN? Seven people. One of those seven, infamously, admitted he hooked up to the service just so he could play World of Warcraft online faster. So the Gillard government rolled out what will probably end up being a $50-plus billion taxpayer funded piece of infrastructure so that a sword-wielding virtual elf warrior can slay orcs and trolls a little more quickly and realistically.

If this report had been done at the start, it might have warned why people would not come. The people did not come because they do not want fibre to the home, unless they want to be an elven warrior. The demand simply is not there. The report covers examples of some of the great things that high-speed communication technology can do. But there are a few problems with those examples. Firstly, there are very few examples of applications that require the 100 megabits that fibre would provide. The high-speed real-life videoconferencing that links, perhaps, a specialist in the city with a patient in the bush is done with a speed of 20 megabits. I note that among the examples cited in the report is a trial of aged-care technology in the Hunter region. The technology provided video and voice communications with the elderly and, according to the report, was a successful application of the NBN. What the report does not mention is the fact that this technology required a speed of just 512 kilobits per second. That is only half of one per cent of the NBN's 100 megabit capability.

This is an issue that is noted by Dr Michael Williams, the Director of the Child and Adolescent Health Service at the Mackay Base Hospital in my electorate of Dawson. He said:

Good telehealth services are and can be provided using current technology and facilities. It is not necessary—

I repeat: not necessary—

to have the NBN to deliver much more effective telehealth.

I should also note that Dr Williams did not make this comment as a Liberal-National party stooge or as a supporter of the Liberal-National party. On the contrary, Dr Williams is the president of the Mackay Conservation Group and an avid supporter of the Greens, the very same party that is in bed with Labor on the rollout of the NBN.

The second problem with examples of this nature is the constant bleating about linking remote and rural communities with specialists in the city. The NBN will not be in truly remote and rural communities. Remote communities and much of rural Australia access broadband through wireless and satellite technology right now. Under the NBN, they will continue to do so but, worse still, at much lower speeds than their capital city counterparts and in fact regional city counterparts and quite possibly at much higher costs than they currently pay.

I want to turn now to the little rural parish of Kelsey Creek, a small, rural, cane-growing area next to Proserpine in my electorate of Dawson. Kelsey Creek is probably like many other smaller rural parishes in my electorate like St Helens Beach, Mcewens Beach, Dunnrock, Strathdickie or Cungella. Possibly all of these places or most of these places, just like Kelsey Creek, will receive a satellite service under the NBN. I am reliably informed by Kelsey Creek residents Mr Lloyd Fox, who some might kindly refer to as very IT literate, and his son Justin that the NBN will actually be detrimental to their particular situation when it comes to internet access. Currently the access that the Fox family have is to satellite internet through the internet provider SkyMesh. They have a monthly download limit of six gigabytes of peak data and 12 gigabytes of off-peak data at a cost to their family of $89.95 per month. That is what they currently get—not the NBN.

Under the NBN proposal, the only service they will get is satellite—they have to go through a satellite service because wireless and optic fibre will not go to this rural and remote community—and that service costs $99.95 per month. That is an additional $10 a month, or $120 a year, that the NBN will cost compared to existing internet services. Most importantly, it is putting upward price pressures across the ISP sector. Perhaps, if young Justin Fox and his dad were not so internet literate and the Fox family just used it for email, they might be on a simple, one-gig data plan, costing them a very affordable and reasonable $19.95 per month through their current satellite provider. The NBN satellite alternative for the same one-gigabyte service comes with a price tag of $44.95 per month. That is $25 a month dearer and $300 a year extra. This will, without doubt, see ISPs providing satellite broadband and putting up their prices across the board.

The biggest impediment that we have to broadband access in this country is cost, particularly for people in rural areas, who, I am very reliably informed by the good people at the ABS, are much poorer in income than their city counterparts. This cost pressure that the NBN will put on the provision of satellite internet services to places in my electorate like Kelsey Creek, McEwens Beach, Giru or Cungulla is only going to further erode the ability of many families to be connected to the internet and the digital economy. This government is actually denying rural people access to broadband through this NBN package. One aspect of this report that should have been considered prior to any rollout is the evidence that points to a better approach, an approach that bridges the gap and secures a better deal for rural and remote areas.

I would like to talk briefly about communication black spots, because the NBN that is being rolled out at the moment does not address communication black spots at all. To highlight the significance of black spots in our communications network, I want to bring to the attention of the House one particular tragedy in a black spot in my electorate of Dawson. In December last year, a teenage girl drowned at a popular swimming hole near Alligator Creek. Che-Nezce Perrie Shepherd was 17 when her foot became wedged between rocks in the creek, and a freak surge of water resulting from an exceptionally heavy downpour rapidly rose. Her friends, unable to free her, tried to call for help on mobile phones. Because this popular swimming hole is a black spot, they were unable to raise the alarm in time and Che-Nezce drowned in her friends' arms. I have raised this specific issue in this place before to point out what has not been done with existing communications, but I am pleased to say that, since then, the community support has prompted Telstra to address this particular issue—but no thanks to the government. The government can roll out billions of dollars on the NBN, but that NBN will do nothing for telecommunications that will prevent tragedies like this occurring in the future. Every day—fortunately, in less tragic ways—black spots in our communications network hinder businesses and the lifestyles of everyday people in regional and remote areas. Businesses in Mackay or Townsville do not need the NBN; they need their current communications to work. They need their mobile phones to work and the black spots cleaned up. This is one of the issues that should have been covered by a report before any alleged solution was rolled out.

My final point about the NBN is this. For the benefit of Hansard, I am holding up a Blackberry mobile phone. It could be an iPhone or an iPad or an EPC with wireless broadband capability. As one of the younger members in this place, at 33 years of age—still a long way in front of the member for Longman!—I can say that the trend in technology for our generation is mobility. It is mobility, it is wireless, yet here we are spending tens of billions of dollars on the wired network that is the NBN. It simply does not make sense.

Debate adjourned.