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Wednesday, 15 March 2000
Page: 12822


Senator TIERNEY (1:27 AM) —I have made a series of speeches addressing the challenges of, and seeking solutions to, the problems in rural and regional Australia. Given the current interests in rural and regional services it is quite timely to bring forward the matter I want to discuss today relating to communication technologies in the bush.

In my last speech I concentrated on the banks and, given some of the things that have happened in the last week or so, I am actually tempted to continue my remarks on that but I will restrain myself at this stage because I want to speak about telecommunications services that are provided to rural and regional Australia.

Of course, with the development of optic fibre in the last 10 years we have tremendous potential in terms of what can be done in telecommunications, with not only telephones but also computers, interactive TV, videos—the range and types of services are seemingly limitless. It creates great potential for our regional and rural areas, which have been fighting the problem of tyranny of distance since European settlement in this country. With this new technology there are opportunities for jobs to be created and developed in the bush; for new businesses to be established with the potential to thrive, working on markets that are not only Australia-wide but also worldwide, at the click of a button. There is the opportunity for people to work from home, and those homes in regional and rural Australia have a wide range of services that makes living out in country areas a lot more pleasant and a lot more in line with what happens in the rest of Australiathings like banking from home, shopping from home, telecommuting. These are all possibilities with this new technology.

I saw the enormous potential of this in 1994 when I was in the United States in North Carolina. The city of Raleigh-Durham was a classic case of where they had adopted these technologies and had started, even six years agowhich is a long time in terms of information technologyto move very widely in areas such as telemedicine and education, exploiting this technology for the good of the citizens of their state.

We have the potential here to create a greater evenness in society, but there is the risk that you can create greater divisions if the benefits of this technology are not spread rapidly enough. There is a danger that you can have an information rich and an information poor. Australia is particularly vulnerable to this due to the structure of its population, with 80 per cent living in the cities and only 20 per cent outside the major cities. There is a danger of the creation of this information underclass. But we have the technology, if we have the will, to overcome this.

Looking back on how this developed, Telstra in the early nineties battled even then to provide a decent telephone service to much of rural and regional Australia. I was speaking in the Senate in 1993 on the matter of a report that had landed on our desk from somewhereoff the back of a truck, I thinkwhich was a confidential internal Telstra report on the actual level and standard of services on the telecommunications network in western and south-west New South Wales. It was a damning report on the reliability of the service, the reliability of Telstra in getting repairs done, and its failure to provide a range of things that it was supposed to provide. We are talking about seven years ago.

Telstra has lifted its game enormously since that time, and with the rollout of optic fibre and the introduction of digital telephone exchanges we have come a very long way in a very short time. But as the Prime Minister told the heads of Telstra earlier this week, we still have some distance to go, particularly given the challenge of the high bandwidth needed for some of the new technologies that are coming in.

Back in that earlier time in the early nineties, we saw the potential of that. I remember being in the estimates hearings. Telstra was laying out its plans for improvement in the network, how it was going to roll out the optic fibre, where the digital exchanges were going to be. Telstra's map showed, particularly in my area, the optic fibre going from Sydney through Newcastle up to Brisbane and up the coast via Coffs Harbour and then, sure enough, showed another line going from Sydney via Newcastle up through Armidale to Brisbane.

When I saw that I thought that all those centres on the line would obviously be connected. I thought that would be the case. I mean, it just seemed so logical that if an optic fibre cable went through Armidale, people in Armidale would have access to it. So you can imagine my surprise when I was up there a few months ago talking to people at the university and finding out that that optic fibre pipe actually went through Armidale, but there was no connection. If we give the analogy of building the railway network 100 years ago in this country, this is something like putting a railway line through the middle of Armidale and not putting a station there. That would have been inconceivable at that time. I think it is inconceivable now that Telstra has not provided links into country towns that are on the main route. We can understand the problems places like Nyngan and Bourke would have, because they are not on the main trunk route. But a lot of very large towns, including Tamworth, Armidale, Coffs Harbour, Lismore, and Grafton on the north coast that we would think would be linked up, but they are not.

There is a particular problem where high bandwidth is needed in some of those towns. That was particularly the case with Armidale. It is certainly the case with places like Lismore. These places have universities. They need to attract high quality staff. Those high quality staff need the proper bandwidth to get on and do their research. Then from that research, as is the case in Lismore, a whole range of new industries develop that are university based, university researched, flowing through to product in the region of what they call Cellular Valley, which is their industrial park, related to that sort of technology and jobs springing from that. The mainspring for all of this is having proper communications, proper bandwidth. That is what they do not have in some of these larger country towns.

Research carried out by the national bandwidth inquiry found in a survey of 232 country towns throughout Australia with populations above 1,000 that they had the communications network that would meet the current requirements and expected demand. That is the case when using faxes, email, sending letters, telephone callsthat sort of technology is catered for fairly well. But what we need to do is build beyond that as quickly as possible.

One of the major problems that we face here in the way Telstra is doing itand we saw this right back in 1993is that they will go to the most productive and profitable markets first. So they are likely when they put an optic fibre in between Sydney and Brisbane to be concentrating on Sydney and Brisbane in terms of the link-up and developing their market. That is understandable, as they are the major economic centres. It is just a pity that those along the way at this stage are not quite getting the service that they need.

I believe that within the current legislation they could get this service. The government does not have to change anything, it does not have to change law, for Telstra to put these people on the optic fibre network, the high bandwidth system. It really is a matter of will and priority from Telstra. Telstra has announced a half-yearly profit of over $2 billionobviously some of that money goes to shareholders and some comes back to the government. That is great, but one wonders whether, like the banks which I was speaking about previously, Telstra's priorities are a little bit askew in terms of the two things, what they are doing for their shareholders and what they are doing for their customers. I think perhaps it needs a bit of a tweak back in the other direction. Telstra needs to put a higher priority on the customers and, even though it is a little less profitable to work in the smaller country towns, a little more costly per unit, we really should be able to be moving very rapidly towards a universal service where higher bandwidth is available right across the country.

If I can just compare the attitude that is needed with the attitudes that existed 100 years ago on another type of communication service; that is, of course, the postal service. We introduced across this country access to postal services for everyone and with a common stamp cost, so if we send a letter from here to Manuka, which is about three kilometres away, or we send it to Perth, we still pay the same rate. That thinking that drove them 100 years ago was the tyranny of distance that existed in this country at that time and the need for people in rural and regional Australia to get the services that people in cities get on an accessible and equitable basis.

We need companies like Telstra to start applying that same thinking so that across Australia they provide quickly the highest bandwidth possible. If they do that, then in these rural and regional areas, instead of industries struggling to survive, they can get a real shot in the arm with a whole range of new markets that come not only nationally to their doorstep but also internationally. That is the promise of that new information technology and I, like many senators who are based in rural and regional Australia, would urge Telstra to move quickly on this matter.