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Wednesday, 8 February 2012
Page: 244

Mr EWEN JONES (Herbert) (12:19): I rise to speak on the three bills before the House, the Telecommunications Universal Service Management Agency Bill 2011, the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Universal Service Reform) Bill 2011 and the Telecommunications (Industry Levy) Bill 2011. These are designed to ensure a smooth transition to the National Broadband Network with respect to the universal service obligation.

The first of these bills, the Telecommunications Universal Service Management Agency Bill 2011, creates the Telecommunications Universal Service Management Agency, TUSMA—so eloquently put by the member for Ryan—which will be a statutory agency responsible for organising and delivering the universal service provision policy outcome in the telecommunications industry. The Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Universal Service Reform ) Bill 2011 allows the minister to progressively roll back the current universal service obligation, USO, set-up as it becomes obsolete. The third bill in this package is the Telecommunications (Industry Levy) Bill 2011, which provides for a levy on the telecommunications industry to contribute to the costs of TUSMA.

In a country as big and sparse as Australia, having some form of universal service obligation is vital to ensure that those living in the remote parts of our country are not punished for it with telecommunication services that are not up to scratch. Coming from a regional part of Queensland—although from a fantastic city, Townsville—I fully support measures that make sure this is not the case.

At the moment, these provisions have been more than adequately provided by the Australian Communications and Media Authority, ACMA. While I recognise that the rollout of the NBN may require tweaking of this set-up, it is typical of this government that its knee-jerk reaction is to create a brand new bureaucracy to manage these provisions, which means brand new expenses for the taxpayer. The coalition is concerned about this expense, both the increased government spending in this area and the flow-on costs in the industry levy and the need for efficiency to keep this down. To deal with this, the shadow minister for regional communications will be moving an amendment to this bill that will require ACMA's annual budget to be cut by the amount of the new TUSMA administrative budget. This will not only avoid the duplication of costs that the new agency represents but also will provide the incentive for these costs to be minimised.

With these bills providing for the roll-back of current USO provisions, the shadow minister will also be moving an amendment requiring the minister to have an independent review of telecommunications services before this roll-back is allowed to go ahead. It is vital that this amendment be included to ensure that regional Australia is not left to suffer in the transition to the new USO framework.

I cannot consider these bills outside of the context in which they are required, the transition to the National Broadband Network. As one of the first trials and rollouts of the NBN has been in Townsville, any bill that provides for this transitional period is extremely relevant to my electorate. To ensure that the NBN roll-out has been dealt with properly, and because of the lack of information we have been able to get from the NBN people, I sent out a survey to residents in Townsville who have been offered the service. I asked for feedback on whether or not they had chosen to connect to the NBN and why.

I would like to take the opportunity throughout this speech to share with you some of the feedback that I have received from those people who have been so good as to return their forms. Overall, the responses have been quite mixed despite the fact that you might expect at least a broadly positive response from an infrastructure project carrying a $43 billion price tag. Of the roughly one third of positive responses, the biggest comment is of course the access to faster internet—it is what we all want—which has expanded the possibilities for internet phone services, movie downloads, and everyone in the family being able to make use of the internet at the same time. In particular, people have told me of how useful this has been for business and study.

James Cook University have brought to my attention in the past the benefits that the NBN offers their staff and students. I had one letter from a lady who was very effusive. She said that it is the greatest thing that has ever happened to her family. She emailed me her response and she said that while she was doing this her son was downloading a movie, her daughter was supposed to be doing her homework on the internet while simultaneously being on Facebook—fancy that!—and her other son was downloading music on iTunes. These are things that she said could never possibly have happened previously. She was most effusive in her support.

The NBN roll-out has certainly not been without bumps, though. One problem that has been frequently mentioned is the difficulty connecting to unit complexes or blocks of flats. While taking into consideration that this was a trial and that they must have rules it still beggars belief that you would not want people living in a unit complex to have the same service as the people living next door. The guys—the people installing these things—are right next door putting it into a house but they will not put it into a unit. That was just one of those things that we thought could have been done better. The lack of information on this coming back from NBN Co. to the residents in those units has left a lot of people disappointed. Body corporates have had issues; they often do not live in the complex.

There was also a consistent problem with a lack of information about how to connect to the NBN and what service and internet plans are available through it. Although a lot of these plans are from the providers and not the NBN Co. there has to be coordination of the two and a flow of information. A consistent problem all the way through has been that information was not all that great. Even many of those who want to connect just do not know where to begin. They are being given form responses and access to pages on the internet but those are very difficult for a lot of people follow.

While many people have appreciated the fast internet access provided by NBN others have pointed out that their internet speeds have not been any faster than what they experienced with their previous set-ups. The taxpayer is left paying for this huge infrastructure project to provide a standard of broadband already available through the private sector in most parts of the country.

One gentleman actually took the time to come in and sit down and speak to me. He does CAD designs for buildings. He has to send 10 meg, 12 meg or 15 meg files of CAD drawings throughout the country. He is quite the tech-head—is that a term you can use in the chamber?—and he said that the best speed he could ever get on NBN, and he had signed up for the full thing, at any time of day was 62 megabits per second. And most of the time it was running at around 30 to 32 megabits per second. He also knew of people in Douglas, another suburb in Townsville, who are on ADSL2. They are consistently getting 30 megabits per second. Whilst he signed up for the trial he did not continue afterwards because the cost differential between the two services was just too extreme.

If the NBN is supposed to be so great and you have so few people using it, surely there is something that they have to look at here. It seems to me that they are not listening to any of the feedback from the customers. Despite this government's insistence that the NBN will not be more expensive to consumers many people have come to me telling me that the prices are far more expensive than their current plans, or are just way out of their price range. This has particularly been a problem for pensioners living in the area in which it is being rolled out.

One of the people who responded to the survey said that when they had signed up for the trial they had to sign a two-year contract with one of the internet providers. But two months in, the internet provider more than doubled the price of the access for the rest of the trial. Even though they had a signed contract for two years the internet provider said, 'No, that is not right.' The Telecommunications Ombudsman sided with the internet provider, sho said that it was not a contract. That is the sort of thing we have to watch out for. Those are the sorts of problems we are having.

One of the major pieces of feedback we have received has been about the decision by NBN Co to string cable overhead. This is occurring within 12 months of Cyclone Yasi. We have had the Treasurer and Deputy Prime Minister in Tully. We have had the Premier up there. We have had all these things going on in relation to Cyclone Yasi and yet the NBN is being strung up from telephone poles.

We have also had a larger number of people than would be expected complaining that rats and mice have eaten through the fibre optic cable, disconnecting them from the NBN. They have said that NBN Co. have come back and fixed it at no cost to the consumer but it is happening an awful lot.

A number of residents have complained to me about the fact that the government apparently overlooked the risk of cyclones. They have expressed the concern that on top of the enormous expense of this project, all it will take is a cyclone smaller than Yasi and not only will they be without internet and telephone services, but the taxpayer will have to foot the repair bill.

I liken the way the government is marketing the NBN to the way a new car is marketed. It is all shiny and new and it should be fantastic. That is not my experience out there. If the government are to be serious about this national broadband network I think that they have to pull their collective fingers out, do some serious thinking on this and knuckle down to the job.

The NBN say that it is about bringing people from the outside in yet they are running the optic cable past Julia Creek but not allowing anyone in Julia Creek to log on. It is a sin and they should be brought to book on that.

This whole thing is marketed as if it were a brand new car but it turns out that it might be the Lada Niva, the Mahindra or the Ford Edsel. It speaks a good game but just does not deliver. Across this survey you would expect that in a trial area you would have a great, positive response about how wonderful this thing is but we are just not getting it. For the amount of money we are spending on this thing, the amount of effort going into it and the amount of credibility the government is investing in it, you would think that they would be able to deliver 100 megabits per second to 1,000 people in Townsville. But they cannot deliver it. To use an analogy, if this were a car, there would be warranty claims on this vehicle forever, and they would not be accepted. They would have to get an extended warranty from another provider and try to get it fixed up by some bloke down the street.

As a part of the coalition, I support the principles of the universal service obligation that these bills provide for. But the NBN rollout is proving to involve expense after expense. While many Townsville residents appreciate access to fast broadband, our experience has continued to leave me sceptical that taxpayers, even those who already have the NBN, are getting anything that remotely resembles value for money.