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Tuesday, 13 September 2011
Page: 5863

Senator BIRMINGHAM (South Australia) (12:32): This debate is of course in continuation from the sittings a couple of weeks ago. At that time I highlighted, answered and responded to some questions that Senator Ludlam posed in relation to these amendments. The amendments are important to ensure that the competitive aspects of fibre deployment in greenfield sites are maintained. We think it is critical, vital and important that, in regard to those greenfield sites, we see a decent sense of competition and a decent sense of the pro­vision of services to greenfield developers for the deployment of fibre services. These amendments seek to provide a fairer playing field for competitive greenfield operators against NBN Co. The government has set up a framework in which NBN Co. is the provider of last resort—they claim. However, in reality we see a situation where NBN Co. will, as I highlighted in the previous debate, provide to developers a free service that will obviously be extremely attractive. That will leave competitive greenfield operators essentially as an unviable provider of services, because developers will have the choice of paying a private company or getting a service free from NBN Co. That of course is a Hobson's choice; there is no choice at all. In that situation, anybody is sensibly going to go with NBN Co. Therefore all of these small private businesses who have built themselves up over a period of time to be able to deploy fibre in greenfield sites effectively and competitively will be squeezed out of the market, because they will have been seriously undermined by this government.

If we look at some of the evidence that the Joint Committee on the National Broadband Network received on this matter we see that competitive greenfield operators, through the Greenfield Fibre Operators of Australia, highlighted a range of problems with this bill that these amendments try to redress. We see it very clearly in the GFOA's submission, which highlighted that:

NBN Co is the obvious first choice for Developers because the NBN Co can fund the network build costs that are otherwise paid by Developers to private providers … and that funding is recovered by NBN Co charging RSPs higher operational prices.

…   …   …

Without competition maintained and enshrined in the Bill, NBN Co will have no real constraint on charges nor incentive to be innovative or provide community and utility services without charge.

These amendments clearly seek to maintain competition, provide a sense of innovation and, most importantly, ensure that developers have a choice of fibre provider and have the opportunity in that choice to get fibre deployed quickly in their greenfield site, in the most innovative and efficient way possible and, importantly, in a manner that that meets the requirements of NBN Co. but which is not stifled by NBN Co.

If we look further at the submission of the Greenfield Fibre Operators of Australia we see that the GFOA believes:

… that the Minister wants NBN Co to be a monopoly and that he will therefore either set standards and specifications that only suit NBN Co network design and business or be silent and allow NBN Co standards and specifications to become the default standards and specifications as uncertainty overcomes the property develop­ment industry. Either way, by Ministerial deter­mination or silence, setting NBN Co standards and specifications for network design, deployment and interconnection will eliminate all competition to NBN Co by GFOA or others interested in investing, building and operating fibre networks on any basis.

The opposition's amendments transparently seek not to undermine what the government is seeking to do in providing fibre to greenfields sites; they seek to strengthen it. They seek to strengthen it by providing more choice to developers, by providing the opportunity for people other than NBN Co. to deliver those services by ensuring that we have a situation wherein NBN Co. cannot go in and gold-plate the standards that are required. Instead, as a result of the opposition's amendments, a situation will be put in place whereby we will actually see ACMA and relevant industry bodies determine what is necessary for compliance with NBN Co. rather than having NBN Co. set its own determination of compliance.

During the debate last time I posed two particular questions to Senator Conroy about the operation of this legislation. They were questions that my colleague Senator Nash had posed and that the minister had thus far been unable to answer. I hope that with the intervening weeks since this debate last took place in the Senate the minister will be able to actually answer those questions. I hope that on this occasion he will front up and actually explain the situation regarding the notions of NBN Co. operating as the provider of last resort.

The important issues Senator Nash highlighted—the questions she asked and that I posed again—related, quite simply, to when the last-resort provision was triggered. Can you tell us, Minister, when is the last-resort provision of NBN Co. to assume responsibility for deploying fibre at these greenfields sites triggered? How long will developers have to wait to see NBN Co. come in and deliver the service for those communities for those new developments? Tell us what the trigger for that provider of last resort is, as well as the expected time frame for that trigger. Then, once it is triggered, how long will it take for NBN Co. to actually deliver the service? How long will people at these sites have to wait to see NBN Co. come in and actually deploy the fibre at those greenfields sites?

These are two fundamental issues. The minister keeps claiming that this does not set up some sort of monopolistic provision for NBN Co. in the greenfields sites. We dispute that. We think our amendments will at least provide for a better competitive framework. In addition to that, we are concerned as to just how the operation of these last-resort provisions will work. Please give us a clear answer on those two matters.