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Monday, 17 March 1997
Page: 1588

Senator LUNDY(6.11 p.m.) —I would like to address my comments in this second reading debate on the Telecommunications Bill in a more general way. Despite numerous inquiries and reports into the various telecommunications and information technologies that have surfaced over the last few years, neither the governments nor the carriers have provided a blueprint or industry development plan of where our telecommunications industry is going.

The maintenance of society is properly addressed by coupling investment and information technology expenditure with social equity and access provisions. There exists an interdependent link between social policy and economic development, and governments have the ability to position the telecommunications industries within a framework of regional development and infrastructure. For instance, locating knowledge and information technology based industries together with transport, mining and construction creates a Silicon Valley style development that develops regional and rural Australia.

The telecommunications industry is undergoing revolutionary transformations, and Australia is in a position to ride the crest of this wave provided we implement far-sighted and comprehensive policies. For too long parliament has had its attention diverted to other issues, specifically ownership, with this myopic view of telecommunications allowing central issues to be downgraded while public debates about who owns what are carried out.

At the same time, governments should be prepared to provide sanctions to enforce carriers to commit themselves to decisive industry development plans, and the telecommunications industry must expand, but information technology will achieve this only if it is freed from languishing with some decrepit, old legislative structure within which carriers and new technology providers struggle. I am pleased to see that the government has indicated that they will be supporting Labor's amendment to include sanctions with respect to the implementation of industry development plans.

On telecommunications generally, part of the role of government should be to be able to articulate a social policy objective which recognises the direction telecommunications infrastructure, telephony, facsimile services and other services like the Internet are taking. The coalition has, to some extent, abdicated its responsibilities by failing to outline a philosophy or cultural direction with respect to telecommunications. They are content to ape the US without regard to our unique culture and history, ignoring many unique features of our telecommunications industry, which include our geography, our spectrum availability and our unusually high uptake of new technologies.

A perception exists that the Australian telecommunications industry is subservient to overseas markets, and hence the communications community views the Internet and electronic commerce as generally a foreign domain, one in which Australia is not required to take a proactive legislative role. John Nieuwenhuizen, author of Asleep at the Wheel: Australia on the Superhighway, told the Weekend Australian of 15 March that an inquiry into the proposed introduction of the Internet in schools is essential. Nieuwenhuizen said:

There were royal commissions when radio and television were introduced. There ought to be public debate and inquiry [about the Internet] before it's too late.

Nieuwenhuizen's point is that this government has failed to provide a blueprint or policy for the Internet and that when other communications technology such as television was introduced there was widespread debate and investigation, yet the Internet, which defies national borders and to some extent regional control, has not been brought into the wider telecommunications policy debate. I am not calling for another inquiry, but it is essential that major parties develop a comprehensive policy vision for the social implications and applications of telecommunications infrastructure, industry access and specifically content. Labor is moving down this path, and yet the government is stricken by an all too familiar inertia.

With respect to this issue, Labor, in one of its recommended amendments to these bills, talks about the importance of having some sort of body that can conduct the type of social research to which I am referring. Certainly the Consumer Telecommunications Network and the Communications Law Centre advocated that quite succinctly in their submissions to the inquiry into these bills. Labor has recognised the value and strategic importance of this type of work and hence has embodied that in one of its recommendations. That will go some way to making sure there is a facility and body in Australia to perform some of this work. Nonetheless, that does not remove the obligation on major parties, particularly the party in power, the government, to have some comprehensive vision for the future.

There is also a growing perception within some sections of the business and commercial sector that the Internet has failed to deliver. Of course, the Internet is not there for commercial transactions only. To many users it is about entertainment and surfing. In fact, the majority of Internet users use it for entertainment purposes. To others it offers the promise of information access and exchange for the benefit of the global community.

Sales tax is another issue. Others are piracy and copyright protection. What is freedom to some people—freedom to access materials, goods, knowledge and ideas—may be oppressive or fraudulent to others. Intellectual copyright and plagiarism are issues now confronting both high school and university students as well as the general public, whilst globalisation of trade and encryption requires some specific policy response.

Ultimately, it is the federal government which must find a balance between protecting the disparate public and private interests with regard to the Internet, and articulate a holistic approach to information services. Serious questions regarding the Internet must be addressed in this policy context, including where it is taking us, whether it is a tool that is essential in schools, and whether it is a service for industry or an entertainment and niche service provider.

Teachers and academics have already voiced their concerns about the effect of the Internet and other telecommunications on literacy and writing skills. A Tasmanian based group called Switch Off and Play, or SOAP, has voiced concerns about the long-term damage that computers and video games have on children. Gradual loss of creativity and originality in young people may well result from the unchecked use of such telecommunications and information technology. These issues go beyond just IT policy and well into the realms of education and social policy.

The shift towards what the Americans call `edutainment' is acceptable in Seattle schoolrooms. However, teaching our children via video games and cartoons may well prove to be culturally and educationally misguided. I believe it is reasonable to implement very succinct policies that will ensure these issues will not be subsumed by the commercial interests of IT providers.

Similarly, libraries are facing a dilemma caused by the massive availability of electronic information. The Internet, electronic commerce and basic access and equity to telecommunications services are obviously paramount, and in many respects this whole area is a major policy tool for governments. Information and access to information are now a determinant of power in the community, and governments have the ability to use telecommunications as a mechanism with which to introduce social policy.

Untimed data calls is one area where public policy impacts upon social structures and environments. I am firmly in favour of untimed data calls in both the residential and the business sector. That is all well and good, but when analysing that position it is important to understand that we cannot consider data calls in the old context. We have to consider how those calls will be used in the future.

It is unclear what the government's position is with respect to data calls, specifically those for local businesses, despite the government having articulated quite a clear position in the inquiry report. Labor has made it patently clear what its position is: untimed voice and data calls for local business and residential customers must be maintained. Paragraph 2.80 of the inquiry report states:

The Committee carefully considered the views put by Telstra and found some merit in its argument. The Committee does not believe that the Government should allow these guarantees to be exploited by some to the cost of consumers in general. However, the evidence put before the Committee did not persuade it that there was a widespread problem of exchange congestion or that, where such problems existed, they were leading to significant costs being passed on to other consumers.

That comment was made in the majority report and was made in the context of the government arguing for the retention of untimed local data calls for business, certainly until they advocate a review in July 1998. Since that report has been published, the government's position has become very fuzzy indeed and I wait with interest for the minister's position with respect to these calls and exactly what the government intends to do.

If the government is true to its views in the report and it in fact does not back away from a very important position, then we have to look at that in the context of where the current debate is with respect to Telstra, given that obviously Telstra will be impacted upon largely in the first instance. There is no doubt that in the current climate they are positioning themselves for privatisation and are attempting to ensure that they have at least some reasonable expectation of a profit generating market in business data calls.

In relation to questions responded to in the recent additional estimates hearings, Telstra are aiming to have the technology installed to ensure that they will be able to provide a comparison to consumers, whether they be business or residential, as to what their bill would be either under a timed call package or under the current untimed billing mechanisms. I will quote again from Hansard with respect to that. In response to a question from me as to what degree Telstra had conducted investigations to implement the appropriate technology for billing for timed calls and untimed calls, Mr Ward said:

We are certainly working on technology to provide the capacity to be able to identify local call usage in terms of time of day and usage. In terms of the cost of that technology, I do not have those numbers in my head but I can certainly provide them. The capacity is certainly not implemented at the moment, but we think this is important—not only in the longer term of providing options for pricing but also in terms of billing inquiries and helping customers understand their usage patterns, et cetera.

The significance of this is highlighted for small business, whom the minister has described as having the capacity to pay. Under the government's position, the small business users of data calls will not have the opportunity in the first instance to compare such billing; they will be potentially straight onto a time based system without having the option of untimed local data calls.

With bills packaged in this way, while being perhaps competitive in the first instance, it sets the carriers up for complete control over the pricing of bandwidth along a vertically integrated pathway of data. Perhaps the minister should also have a look at the additional estimates Hansard, in which Telstra appear to contradict the position they took in the bills inquiry. I asked:

Just returning to my earlier questions with respect to billing and pricing policy, how do you intend to implement a timed data call for business in relation to Internet services provided by an Internet service provider other than Telstra?

After a comment by Mr Ward, Mr Hambleton went on to say:

I do not think we have a clear mechanism yet to implement time dating for data calls, whether for business or residential. In fact, in the process of representing to the Senate on the post-1997 legislation, we asked for a reserve power to address the issue if, in fact, there was a need to have a timed charge in the future and we specifically did not request any immediate intervention.

I sense a slight contradiction in there somewhere and believe that that statement by Mr Hambleton from Telstra really calls into question the minister's position quite generally with respect to the government's position, being ambiguous on timed local data calls for business quite specifically.

More generally, 40 per cent of Australian homes use personal computers. It is not an unreasonable expectation that some time in the future a far greater percentage of those will be connected to the Internet. At the moment the protection of untimed local data calls is expected to be reviewed in 1998. I would like to be a voice for those residential users, too: down the track, timed data calls by residential users are a completely undesirable outcome, as they are currently with respect to business.

This debate regarding the provision of untimed local data calls to business has particular relevance with respect to the Internet generally. Currently, Telstra charge for the volume of data that ISPs—Internet service providers—download. Then those ISPs on-sell in a variety of ways, providing customers with a range of charging options. Telstra's position in the marketplace as a wholesaler of bandwidth to Internet service providers puts their pricing policy for Telstra Internet access under the spotlight, as Telstra also compete against the ISPs for market share for commercial access to the Internet. The spotlight is warranted not for the wholesaling of bandwidth but for their charging of the connection between the user and the independent ISP.

The main issue there that comes into play is that, when we are talking about competition, are we talking about competition for competition's sake or are we talking about this particular issue with respect to ISPs and the ability of this legislation to address what could potentially be a conflict under this particular legislative regime if in fact those ISPs do not have some sort of protection from Telstra?

The `so what' in all of this is of course ensuring that independent ISPs can continue to provide affordable Internet access without being squeezed. It is their servers that provide the free content back into cyberspace and those ISPs are important because they ensure the content remains free on the Internet. It is becoming apparent that many of the larger corporations view content provision as being profitable in the future, and the control of access to the Internet will be the key to charging for content.

In the recent US election campaign, President Clinton announced a major initiative concerning the Internet in classrooms, the role of the Internet in people's homes and the strategy he would implement via a legislative mechanism similar to our own universal service obligation. I think there are valuable lessons to be learnt from that, both with respect to education and with respect to ensuring that content is of a high standard and not in the grip of a particular commercial interest.

Another upcoming issue is spectrum allocation. This issue tests legislators, who sometimes grapple with the concept of anticipating where future technologies will emerge from. In other words, we have got to be able to anticipate those developments and not restrict or confine any legislation to specific technologies.

The government has yet to outline its policy position in regard to the procurement of telecommunications technologies. This government has ignored, in the processes of this, local IT manufacturers continuing to purchase offshore. Although the modem market has been tariff free for over a decade, local manufacturers are still restricted by federal policies that favour imported products.

The fundamental tenet of good and reasonable government is its ability to provide basic access and equity to telecommunications. While increasing numbers of Australian homes have become on-line, many other families are still without video recorders. For those at the bottom end of the scale, wealth now determines access. The information divide between rich and poor, haves and have-nots, has the potential to create a permanent underclass that will take no part in this revolution, as Paul Crawford has articulated.

The fundamental question is who pays for and who benefits from telecommunications? Is it the users, be they private, business, government or other organisations? Is it the indirect beneficiaries or is it the community at large? Competition for competition's sake ignores the potential of our indigenous IT industry as much as it relies solely on consumer savings as a measure of its success. (Time expired)