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Monday, 26 February 2018
Page: 1762


Mr WILKIE (Denison) (10:11): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

One of the constants in my time as a member of the federal parliament has been people contacting me, or my office, to express their frustration with telecommunications providers. Sometimes it's customer service and long waiting times to get an issue resolved on the phone. Sometimes it's lengthy delays in getting the NBN hooked up, which I'll talk about a little later. And, increasingly, it's complaints about the quality and speed of their broadband connection, particularly when that quality and speed is significantly worse than what they were promised and what they expected.

My office and I are seeing this over and over again, where customers were promised one thing by a telco but got something markedly different. For instance, one constituent says he's being charged for a 25 megabit per second download speed and a five megabit per second upload on NBN fibre to the home, and he's actually getting less than one tenth of that. In other words, people are getting worse than dial-up speed when they've been promised a whizz-bang, superfast NBN connection.

Of course, this is a complex matter and there are obviously a range of factors that affect speed and performance. No-one is denying that, and the Competition and Consumer Amendment (Misleading Representations About Broadband Speeds) Bill 2018 doesn't seek to deny it. What it does do is stop telcos making misleading claims about quality and speeds that the average customer will never actually receive.

Our consumer law is generally pretty strong and there are laws already against making misleading claims about a product. But, despite this, misleading claims by telcos are slipping through the cracks because they don't, technically at least, fall foul of the law. For example, if a telco says that you'll get a 25 megabit per second download speed, you may get that speed some of the time in certain circumstances. But, overwhelmingly, they're misleading claims and customers are being hoodwinked by the big telcos.

That's why this bill seeks to amend the Competition and Consumer Act to finally enshrine in consumer law that telcos must be up-front and honest about what they're selling. Indeed, this bill requires that telcos, when they sell a broadband service, be prohibited from claiming the service is of a particular quality or speed, without also including certain other information.

The bill sets this required information out in three broad categories: firstly, the typical, not maximum, speeds that the average customer can expect to receive; secondly, typical busy periods and what impact this can have on average speeds; and, thirdly, other factors that might be reasonably expected to affect performance. Moreover, there's a penalty of up to $1.1 million for noncompliance with these requirements, which is consistent with other penalties in consumer law.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is alert to this issue and made it clear to the industry what they should be doing. ACCC chair, Rod Sims, personally has been upfront that misleading claims by telcos are in the commission's sights for 2018.

At the end of the day, if the feedback from my community is anything to go by, then the problem is still out there. So this bill will give certainty for consumers and build on the good work the ACCC is already doing by giving them the power, and a firm legal basis, to go after businesses that do the wrong thing.

The NBN is a very complicated area of policy and it's very poorly understood. I can't tell you how many people have contacted my office over the years who are confused and sometimes even frightened about how it all works. People are worried that they can't keep their home phone and that they'll have to buy a computer. People are worried that they're going to be without a phone because they've received a letter or heard from neighbours that the phone lines will be switched off. And when they try and contact the telco for answers, they simply can't get them. No wonder so many people turn to their member of parliament for assistance. The situations that I've just described are when someone is lucky enough to get the NBN connected. But I've lost track of the number of people who've experienced delay after delay in getting the NBN even hooked up—missed appointments, often over and over again, installations that don't work properly or have damaged property or left a mess for the customer to clean up.

These situations are annoying and frustrating for residential properties. But when someone's trying to run a business and they need the phone and internet, as you so often do in this day and age, an NBN stuff-up can mean the difference between a business staying afloat and going under. And don't even think about trying to get compensation, because the big telcos hardly ever take responsibility for their failures.

I'm sure you can well imagine someone's frustration when they've gone through the arduous process of getting the NBN, waiting hours on the phone, staying home from work, sometimes again and again, because the technicians don't turn up, only to find that once it's switched on the speeds are nowhere near what they were promised.

I make the point again: this isn't simply about individuals who want to have faster internet; it's also about small businesses who need certain speeds to do things like upload video. I can guarantee that, in some cases at least, these businesses simply would not have purchased the plan that they did if they knew the truth about the speeds they'd be getting. Let's not forget too the subpar copper network, which subcontractors tell me is in dire need of improvement.

The NBN was sold to Australians as being superfast and the answer to every internet problem under the sun. As Rod Sims said just recently, 'There is something lodged in the consumer mind that says NBN is coming here to provide you with fast speeds.' No wonder, when you look at the fanfare with which the NBN was announced.

But the truth is that both the Labor and the Liberal governments have made a mess of the NBN, they've given customers unreasonable expectations and they've let the telcos continue to give people unreasonable expectations in order to make money.

Of course, the detractors of this bill will say it's an excessive regulatory burden and too hard for the industry. But that's patent nonsense, because all this bill does is require telcos to tell the truth when they're selling broadband plans to customers. Heavens, it's not rocket science, but simply enshrining in law the industry guidance published by the ACCC. Remember: it's not the customers who have unreasonable expectations about broadband speeds; it's the telcos that are giving them these expectations, and this bill will put a stop to that.

In closing, I'd like to acknowledge the hard work of my colleague the member for Indi, who has heard about similar issues in her community and has been very active in this place in lobbying for reform. I'd also like to acknowledge and thank the member for Mayo for agreeing to second this bill and for her own tireless work on this issue. I invite the member for Mayo to make a short contribution in my remaining time.

The SPEAKER: Is the motion seconded?