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Tuesday, 1 March 2011
Page: 1889

Mr OAKESHOTT (6:28 PM) —I also rise to support the National Broadband Network Companies Bill 2010 and the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (National Broadband Network Measures—Access Arrangements) Bill 2010. I am quite obviously a supporter of better information and communication technology for regions such as the mid-North Coast and for regional Australia generally. I consider this more than just an NBN; I consider it an NDN—a national decentralisation network. Many members of parliament have talked about decentralisation, the importance of that and its place in building and empowering regional communities. This is, if done correctly, the opportunity to achieve that. I know many members have long been advocates for better ICT and for getting as close to equity as possible in the delivery of ICT services in the regions, whether mobile phones, television services or the internet.

Something that has been a frustration for a long time—in fact, it was mentioned in my first speech—is the example of a year 9 student living five minutes from a regional town who had to access the internet via dial-up, as much for technology reasons as for financial reasons. In all of this, we should not forget that while, yes, this is about technology it is also about the financial situation of many people and their ability to tap into the technology improvements that we are seeing rapidly coming into Australia. So this is fulfilling my commitment to her as a student in a regional area—trying to allow her as many opportunities as a metropolitan student. Hopefully we will allow the issues around rates of participation in education to finally start to be addressed in a way that we have not done before.

Also, there is the issue of employment opportunities, and I know the previous member talked about business opportunities. I quote the example of a veterinary business just outside of Wauchope that has been growing successfully and has become one of Australia’s leading veterinary oncology services. When I first heard about it I did not know and I suspect many people here would not have known that there was such a thing as a veterinary oncology service. They obviously now want to send files of a decent size, and they want to stay in a regional community to do their business. They are enormously frustrated by the lack of support with regard to both the speed and bandwidth abilities of existing services. If they want to grow their business then we have to provide better speeds and bandwidth to allow that innovation and entrepreneurship to flourish in a regional location. That is an existing business; we have not even started to explore the opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurship that may and will come if we do this right for Australia.

I separate the issues to do with the National Broadband Network into three areas: the technology, the spend and the politics. I am not going to talk about the politics tonight—I think that has been played out by plenty of others—but I will talk about the technology and the spend. The technology, I would hope, is broadly recognised across this chamber as a sensible approach to the future for Australia. Fibre cabling is unmatched for both speed and bandwidth. I was having a look inside the blue cabling the other day, and it is worthwhile for everyone who is interested to have a look at one of these pieces of cable, to see just what we are actually using now and the opportunity for technological improvement still within the scope of the fibre cabling. Inside one of those blue cables there are about 12 mini cables, and inside each of those—correct me if I am wrong, advisers in the chairs—there are 12 of what are the equivalents of mini cables within cables. To use 100 megabytes per second, I was informed that we are only using two of those 12 within the 12 inside the cabling. There is enormous opportunity for technological improvement of speed. It is about the connections at the ends. I gather we are up to one-gigabyte connections in the technology at the moment. And this same fibre cabling can handle that technological improvement.

So the argument that this is a rollout that we are going to pull out in 15 years and that everything will have moved is wrong. There is opportunity within this rollout for technological improvement. That is an important fact that I think gets lost in this debate. That room for growth in technology within the fibre structure is a huge opportunity for Australia in innovation. Hopefully, over the 15-year life of the cabling, it will be taken up and we will all be the better for it in our education and employment and our general life opportunities.

The issue of complementary measures is also an important one. I saw some of the commentary around the 4G release by Telstra. I know that in communities such as mine, and right around Australia, there are sometimes arguments thrown up that wireless or WiMAX or other technologies are competing with fibre. I would strongly argue that these are complementary, not competitive, measures. We do need a base network if we are going to run these complementary measures. We are not going to be able to get 4G in regional locations without the backbone of this fibre technology. So, if we do not want to just replicate what we have already done in the past, which has been the great criticism of our approach to ICT, and allow the market to solve the problem; if we are not going to just have 4G in capital cities and maybe a few regional locations; if we are genuinely going to chase the principle of equity; and if we are to allow the technology to do its job of allowing 22 million Australians to communicate with each other and with the world, then we have got to build the backbone—the backbone that will allow those complementary measures to hang off it—for that innovation to really be worthwhile. We need the backbone. As to the wireless technologies—the WiMAXs—I think they are all valuable and important contributions. I hope we see more of them and I hope that technology improves. But I think we sometimes get lost in the woods of the debate around speed and forget the importance of bandwidth. I think it is the dual contribution of speed and bandwidth which make a fibre network and platform important.

From that, we then get into some conversations around the costs. I have said many times before that that is the fertile territory for all of us: to try and minimise the initial costs and maximise the efficiency in the rollout. That is the challenge that I hope this parliament is willing to take up.

I am pleased to take on a role in the proposed Joint Committee on the National Broadband Network and I hope there are 15 other members in this place who, with similar intent, with me will do what they can to make sure we get value for money, we have an efficient spend and we minimise the overall costs to government for this important rollout for Australia. I am particularly heartened by the terms of reference. There is a whole range of issues for the committee to monitor in the progress of the rollout, particularly paragraph (2)(g) which gives the members of the committee fairly open scope to look at ‘any other matter pertaining to the NBN rollout that the Committee considers relevant’. In the debate that has happened until now there has been concern that the government is hiding something or that there is a fear of scrutiny or a fear of anyone having oversight to look for value for money. I hope with 15 other committee members we can provide that oversight and scrutiny to make sure we get the efficiency from taxpayers’ dollars that I know we are all looking for.

I also give my private members’ bill, the Auditor-General Amendment Bill 2011, a bit of a plug. To many people’s surprise, the Auditor-General has some limitations on jurisdiction in any oversight or auditing role regarding government business enterprises, one of which is NBN Co. I hope the bill currently before the House will broaden that scope and allows for an auditor-general to follow the money trail from the point of receipt from taxation to the point of delivery. That point may be through a state, a national partnership agreement, a GBE such as NBN Co. or a contractor—and there will be many people working on a contract basis for Commonwealth dollars in this rollout. The Auditor-General Amendment Bill is important in allowing the Auditor-General to provide backup support so that we really do chase those principles of value for money and efficiency in this rollout.

I think a wholesale platform built without vertical integration is an important starting point in this technology improvement. The concept of bundling is one I hope the government talk a lot more about than they have in the past because people are generally confused about why we are upgrading one internet service with another. People forget that this is a bundling opportunity for all technology to the home. Telephony services and television services will potentially come down the one fibre line and the cost to the household needs to be considered in the context of all those bills received by householders. That is the bundling opportunity in a rollout such as this. I think when most people do that maths they will see a huge opportunity for a reduction in their living expenses through what will be done by this rollout over the next decade.

As well, I hope the commitments given about the roll-in stay in place. I think it is a very important part of engaging regional Australia in this technology advance. I even encourage, if possible, some point-to-point rollout that allows for networks within the network to be built as quickly as possible: for example, a hospital-to-hospital network or a school-to-school network as an approach to trying to get as much benefit in the build process as we can as quickly as possible.

My final point is that we should not be nervous about having a conversation about an end point and where and how any sale opportunities at the end could or should arise. Again, my personal view is that economic forces on the platform do not stack up. More than likely government is going to be a monopoly owner of this platform for a long time. But where they do stack up—and metropolitan areas would be the obvious location—I do not think this parliament should be shy of that conversation and starting to frame how we would look for sale opportunities at an end point to reduce the cost to the taxpayer, so long as we keep vertical integration as a core principle behind the wholesale platform. That is a conversation I hope we can start alongside the rest. I hope we now can get on with the job of building the thing.