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Monday, 14 September 2009
Page: 9379


Mr JOHN COBB (1:24 PM) —I rise to talk on the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (National Broadband Network Measures—Network Information) Bill 2009 as somebody from regional Australia. A large part of my electorate is not just outback New South Wales and western New South Wales but small towns that are right up against the foothills of the Blue Mountains, and those areas are all in various ways affected by the lack of readily available fast broadband. I will talk a little later about what might have been and the fact that we could have been standing here as we are, in September 2009, very close to the completion of a broadband network which would have looked after all regional Australians.

But I have to say it is outrageous that this government is overseeing such a monumental—not to put too fine a point on it—stuff-up with broadband. The Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (National Broadband Network Measures—Network Information) Bill 2009 is a case in point, because it highlights that they are still working out the details for NBN mark 2 more than six months after the promised time line for their full-blown broadband services expired. Since the Rudd government took office, and it is almost two years now, not one home, not one business and not one farm has received a new service under Labor’s national broadband network proposal—nothing.

Under the coalition policy, 99 per cent of us would have had high-speed, affordable broadband just about by now. The cost to taxpayers would have been less than a billion dollars—$958 million, to be exact. For a total expense of about $2 billion, including private money, we would have had a high-speed broadband service now for 90 per cent of the country. Everyone in my regional electorate would have been better off by now. Instead, there is a great deal of uncertainty about telecommunications because, as we all know, the minister cancelled a signed contract and nothing has proceeded.

When Labor wanted votes during the election campaign, they promised fibre to the node to 98 per cent of Australia for less than $5 billion. Admittedly, a lot of that was going to be pinched from the $2 billion that was until recently held in reserve to help service regional infrastructure, but that has gone. That was plan 1, which was replaced after 18 months, and $20 million was wasted in coming to that decision. We now have the headline-grabbing $43 billion plan, which is apparently going to be a Rolls-Royce service but which is only going to get to 90 per cent of Australia. So we will be getting less. I can assure you that the electorate of Calare, west of the Blue Mountains, will be getting less, but we are going to have to share in billions of dollars of debt, whereas at one stage for a cost to the whole nation of less than a billion dollars we were going to get a high-speed service to 98 per cent of the population.

Which 10 per cent of us will miss out on the topnotch broadband speed? I do not think it is a coincidence that 16 per cent of the country’s population live outside capital cities and major urban centres. It is pretty obvious regional people are going to miss out on the fastest speeds in this grand scheme but still be lumped with paying for the $43 billion plan. Let us remember that there was no cost-benefit analysis involved in the $43 billion. Most of the money is obviously going to be borrowed, but what the heck? Australia is certainly into borrowing money at the moment. Labor says, ‘Full steam ahead.’ It has not worked out how to pay it back, but I dare say we will at some stage in the future.

The broadband plan of Labor would see taxpayers carry the bulk of the risk, with the government becoming a 51 per cent majority stakeholder in a new public-private company. This is all well and good, but Labor has made it clear that towns of under 1,000 are going to be left with slower speeds. I happen to be the very proud representative of a lot of towns, Mr Deputy Speaker Scott, as you would be yourself without a shadow of a doubt—towns of well under 1,000, and some over. Darwin might not have towns of fewer than 1,000, but there are quite a few not far from it. On that basis, in my electorate of Calare 21 communities, representing 8½ thousand people, have been dumped in the too-hard basket in one hit and will have to wait years for services. It does not matter whether it is Carcoar, Millthorpe, Peak Hill, Spring Hill, Tottenham, Trangie, Trundle, Tullamore or Yeoval. There are heaps of them under 1,000, and they will miss out not just on a Rolls-Royce service but on any service in the near future.

Let us remember that about now the coalition deal with Optus and Elders would have had all of us—98 per cent of Australia—covered. But, instead of that, not one house is covered. In fact, the bigger regional towns, such as Parkes, Peak Hill, Forbes, Blayney, Molong, Cobar, Bourke, Nyngan, Narromine and Trangie, could miss out on fibre to the premises, because only 90 per cent of the population will get connections of 100 megabits per second, with the remaining 10 percent, or about two million people, to get speeds of 12 megabits delivered through wireless and satellite services. I ask this question: when will this happen? As I said, they would have had it by now under our scheme, under the contract that was cancelled by the minister—a signed contract with government. We need to clarify this, because until we know what the government is planning our regions have every right to be worried about what sort of service they will end up with, if they ever do end up with one. I think the government has to release its broadband coverage map so that we know where the two million or so people are who will be dudded on speed, with broadband connections almost 10 times slower than everybody in the major cities.

It is a disgrace, especially when you consider that, as Optus itself said this year in its submission to the Senate inquiry on Labor’s NBN:

The cancellation of OPEL was a lost opportunity for Australian business and consumers, particularly in the bush. Almost 900,000 premises across rural and remote Australia were to have been delivered metro-equivalent services at metro-comparable prices. Many of those—

or most of those—

premises would have been receiving services now.

I guess it is something we have come to expect. It is Labor in the never-never—in this case Labor broadband under Rudd with a nine-month implementation study, planned at a cost of over $50 million and with a rollout period of eight years. But do we have the faintest idea when that is? No. I think you have seen as much detail in that last sentence as you are likely ever to see in the near future.

We also set aside $2 billion in the Communications Fund to ensure that earnings from the fund—around $100 million a year, depending on investment opportunities—would be available so that our telecommunications in regional Australia could be updated to be modern and, where possible, to have the latest technology. Our national broadband scheme would have benefited our country and would actually have been established by now. So much for that, because Labor cancelled that; they actually cancelled a signed contract with Optus and Elders.

As it is at the moment, with $43 billion set to be blown, our country businesses and students are looking at not only being disadvantaged but having to pay, or at least share equally in paying, the billions involved, as well as having the uncertainty about when they will get some sort of service—if ever, because it is pretty obvious that Labor have taken a look at this and said, ‘We’ll cancel this contract because it’s for regional Australia.’ I think everyone forgets that it was only inner metropolitan areas that would not have shared in that OPEL contract. Even outer metropolitan areas would have done well out of it. But Labor did not really see regional Australia as their hardcore constituency. They looked at the 10 per cent they were leaving out of their potential scheme and they said, ‘How often do we get a seat here?’ The member for Solomon is fine—he is in a city—but his colleague in the Northern Territory may not be so happy about the fact that OPEL was knocked over.

I cannot leave without making this point once again: when the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy cancelled the signed contract held by OPEL to deliver broadband to regional Australia, which would have been finalised between now and next month and would have been delivered, he did a severe disservice to regional Australia—not just the big towns but all the towns, and not just the towns but all people bar the two or so per cent who would have had to make use of our subsidy to go onto satellite. That was to be continued. They would all, at the very least, have had wireless. Let me tell you: as much as people like to put wireless down, something like 100 million Americans use it. The figures of usage in Australia have gone up exponentially in recent times. When all is said and done, if Labor ever get around under their own program to looking after the 10 per cent they are wiping like a dirty rag at the moment, wireless is what they are going to give them as well.

Regional Australia not only has missed out on having a service this year, which it would have had, but has had a good $4 billion stolen from it: the $2 billion of the Communications Fund set up to keep telephonic services up to date in the bush, the best part of $1 billion that OPEL was putting into that scheme and the matching amount of money that our government committed to it—$4 billion in total. Instead of getting that $4 billion to provide a service for it by the end of 2009, regional Australia is going to share in a debt and not get a service at all. It is going to share in a $43 billion debt and have no service.