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Wednesday, 23 March 2011
Page: 2995

Mr FLETCHER (6:31 PM) —I am pleased to speak on the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Dividend and Other Measures) Bill 2011, a bill which is critical to the future of broadcasting in Australia but also critical to the future of wireless broadband. The reason for that is that the bill essentially does two things. First of all, it amends the regulatory framework for free-to-air digital television services and the switchover to digital-only television. Secondly, it introduces measures which implement the restack of digital television channels so as to free up a block of continuous spectrum which can be auctioned for future use, most likely for the delivery of LTE—long-term evolution—or fourth-generation wireless broadband services.

So it is a bill which is of considerable importance. Unfortunately, this government has form in rushing through legislation in this area without allowing the proper opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny. That was what was done with the predecessor to this bill in 2010: the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Television) Bill 2010. Key elements of the policy scheme in that bill were simply dropped and replaced with a direction from the minister to the Australian Communications and Media Authority, and that was an unfortunate thing.

I want to make three key points about this bill in the time available to me tonight. The first is to ask: what does this bill say about the attitudes of this government to wireless as a medium for the delivery of broadband services? Secondly, what assurances are there, I believe it is appropriate to ask, about the way in which the spectrum allocation process will be conducted in respect of this spectrum once the restack has occurred? Thirdly, what are the implications of policy in this area for the transition to digital broadcasting in rural and remote Australia?

Let me turn to the first area that I wish to address. What does this government believe about the importance of wireless as a medium for delivering broadband services? The premise underlying this bill—and it is a premise that on this side of the House we acknowledge and support—is that to realise a material block of spectrum here for reallocation for the purposes of delivering wireless broadband in the future is of very high importance. At the moment the problem is that the blocks of spectrum that will be freed up once analog television ceases operating are not contiguous. They are spread in quite a disparate way. So what will need to happen is that those blocks will be restacked—that is, all of the frequencies used for digital television broadcasting will be brought together, and that will free up a large block of spectrum in the 700-megahertz band. That is a necessary step to take if the utility and value of the spectrum for other purposes, particularly wireless broadband, are to be maximised.

Most commentators in this area say—again, it is a proposition that those of us on this side of the House accept—that wireless and fibre or wireless and fixed have important complementary roles when it comes to the provision of broadband services. But what is puzzling is the conflicted attitude of the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Conroy, to the use of wireless for the delivery of broadband services. Consider, for example, what Senator Conroy had to say about OPEL, the network which was going to deliver wireless broadband services under the Howard government’s Broadband Connect program in a contract announced in mid-2007. Senator Conroy described OPEL as a ‘dog of a product’. This is using, I might say, the same technology at the same speed—12 megabits per second—as is now part of the National Broadband Network between the 93rd and the 97th percentiles. Senator Conroy in an interview on the 7.30 Report in 2007 had this to say about the OPEL network:

If you pick up your cordless phone while you’re using your Internet, your line can drop out. If you use your microwave, your line will drop out.

It was a fear campaign about the use of wireless to deliver broadband. I reiterate that it is the same wireless, the same technology and the same speed as is now embodied within the National Broadband Network proposal to deliver broadband using wireless between the 93rd and 97th percentiles.

But if we go to what the then Leader of the Opposition, Kevin Rudd, had to say in 2007, it is even more interesting. On 19 June 2007 Mr Rudd said: ‘People in regional and rural areas deserve every bit as good a service as those in the big cities. Our fibre-optic-to-the-node plan will offer high-speed broadband to 98 per cent of Australians regardless of where they live. When you look at some of the technical deficiencies in wireless and problems in terms of being able to access speeds of 12 megabits per second using wireless then we believe we have hit upon the right technology.’ It is a technology which they have subsequently abandoned.

There is a real contradiction here. On the one hand we have these criticisms of wireless made for political purposes by the current minister, Senator Conroy, and the former Leader of the Opposition, Mr Rudd, and yet at the same time we have a bill which is proposing complex arrangements to restack the spectrum in the 700 megahertz band so as to free it up for an auction of spectrum which is very likely to be used for the delivery of wireless broadband technologies.

Senator Conroy has continued to run this line, even quite recently, about the deficiencies of wireless. What did he say on 10 August 2010 in relation to the coalition’s policy on the use of wireless as a component for the delivery of broadband? He said that this ignored the advice of industry experts and that:

It will consign Australia to the digital dark ages.

Apparently in the eyes of Senator Conroy wireless is a deficient technology for the delivery of broadband. Indeed, in an interview on 18 August 2010 he described the coalition’s policy as one that would ‘condemn Australians to a wireless network’. We have a deeply conflicted minister and a deeply conflicted government who on the one hand, with this bill, are going through a complex process to restack the spectrum so that it can be auctioned in the expectation of earning several billion dollars because the spectrum will be acquired by mobile telephony operators and others who will use it to deliver fourth-generation, or long-term evolution, wireless broadband while on the other hand they, especially Senator Conroy, are relentlessly criticising wireless as a technology. Senator Conroy just keeps doing it; he just cannot stop himself. It is like some kind of Pavlovian response—mention wireless and there is Conroy jumping up with a criticism. What did he say in Senate estimates on 19 October 2010?

Let me be really clear about this; you cannot monitor somebody 24/7, every second, on an existing fixed wireless network …

In other words, on one hand there is nothing but criticism of wireless as a technology from Senator Conroy but on the other hand there is a bill which is premised on the importance of wireless. Let us be clear and reiterate that the truth is: wireless is a very important component of the delivery of broadband in the future, as is fixed technology including, in an appropriate way, fibre. There is no contention about the importance of fibre. I need hardly remind the House the contention is about the appropriate ownership structure, the appropriate reach of fibre and whether you need to spend $5,000 per premises to deliver fibre to the home, as is the policy of this government.

Let me turn to my second point I want to highlight, which again relates to the National Broadband Network and its implications for the legislative scheme we are considering. We have seen that the tail has wagged the dog when it comes to broadband policy in this country. The tail of trying to make National Broadband Network Company’s business plan as credible as possible has wagged the dog of good telecommunications policy. Already this government has fallen prey to temptation. It has fallen prey to temptation to impose legislative restrictions on the capacities of companies other than NBN Co. to compete in the delivery of broadband.

We have seen this in the so-called cherry-picking provisions. Let us be clear: cherry picking is a notorious code phrase regularly used by monopolists as really meaning ‘we want a free kick’. It is the phrase that Telstra, as this country’s dominant incumbent monopoly in telecommunications, used for many years, and now we have NBN Co. using exactly the same language. There is a real danger that this government will fall prey to temptation when it comes to auctioning off the spectrum which is being rationalised and restacked under this legislation. There is a real danger that this government’s desire to protect the National Broadband Network Co. to maximise that company’s business prospects will affect the way this government thinks about the auction of this spectrum. I simply highlight here the risk that this government may fall prey to the temptation of trying, in whatever ways it can, to nobble the capacity of competitors using the auctioned spectrum to be effective competitors with the National Broadband Network Company. A way in which this government could do that is by rigging the rules of the auction. I simply highlight that risk.

My third point in the brief time that remains available to me is that there are serious concerns about the way in which this government has dealt with the transition to digital as a means of providing continued service in television to people in rural and regional Australia. Of course the transition to digital is inevitable and indeed it is desirable, but it is important that it be managed in an appropriate way to provide continuity of service. For example, it is important that the VAST satellite service should be seen as a safety net rather than as a standard means of delivery of service to hundreds of thousands of households. That is an import concern that those of us on this side of the House have about this bill.

This is a bill which reveals a sharp contradiction in the attitudes of this government about wireless broadband spectrum. I highlight the concern that there is a risk that this government will fall prey to the temptation to rig this auction in a way that will undermine competition to the National Broadband Network Company. I also highlight the importance of maximising the delivery of continued service to rural and regional Australia.