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Wednesday, 8 February 2012
Page: 248

Mr BALDWIN (Paterson) (12:30): I rise today to speak on the Telecommunications Universal Service Management Agency Bill 2011 and associated bills. This package concerns Labor's National Broadband Network. Specifically, it establishes a new government agency to ensure that universal service obligations are being met. If passed, the legislation will take effect from 1 July this year. The universal service obligation ensures that all Australians will have reasonable access to telephone services, payphones and, of course, 000 emergency calls. It is vitally important, especially in regional and rural areas, where mobile phone coverage is not always readily accessible or reliable.

Eventually, the provision of these services will be open to tender, which will be good news for customers, as competition often leads to reduced prices. However, a long-term plan has already been signed by this government to have Telstra provide the service, and we the public do not have access to the price details—or any of the submission details, for that matter. This Labor government talks of transparency and then goes out of its way to hide the detail. Note that from the outset the coalition will move amendments to ensure that our rural and regional areas get a fair go here. We already know that Labor does not plan to deliver fibre-to-the-premises broadband to every home under its NBN. We need to be absolutely sure that people will not lose phone services under the switch, and before the USO is scaled back.

In order to ensure quality, we believe an independent review should be undertaken when more than 10,000 voice-only telephone services are being delivered via the NBN. The review would need to consider price, quality of voice reproduction, reliability, repair time and convenience for customers. It would also need to guarantee that services were at least equivalent to that currently being delivered by Telstra over its copper network. In this way, the NBN would have some accountability on its services. People in rural areas rely on their telephones for communication, whether that be for safety, household services, work or simply entertainment. Taxpayers cannot be funding reduced services.

Of course, it could be a fair while before 10,000 connections are actually made in this country. At the moment, we are five years into Labor's federal leadership and yet we only have a handful of internet customers under the NBN. The then Leader of the Opposition, Kevin Rudd, went to the 2007 election promising superfast broadband for the nation, to be paid for by taxpayers. Yet, despite millions of dollars having been spent, no such upgrades exist for anyone in my local area or indeed the Hunter as a whole.

I remember reading a news article on 19 October in the Newcastle Herald, just after it was announced that Newcastle would not be among the first to get the NBN. The member for Charlton, Greg Combet, was quoted as saying:

"Given that this was a joint Hunter and Central Coast submission, and the highly competitive efforts to secure the NBN roll out, this is a good outcome for the region generally …

So here is Greg Combet, member for Charlton, telling the people of the Hunter to be glad the Central Coast was getting the NBN. After all, the Labor MPs from around the Newcastle region campaigned for better internet services for local homes and businesses. We then had the member for Newcastle, Sharon Grierson, urging local businesses to work hard to make a good case to bring the NBN to Newcastle. In a meeting back on 1 September last year, she told business leaders that the NBN was vital for the region and that it was up to stakeholders to put together a coordinated tender that would convince the government to make the Hunter a priority.

So all of a sudden the government has gone from, 'Elect us and we will deliver superfast broadband to your area,' to saying, 'If you convince us you need superfast broadband then we will consider rolling it out to you; otherwise, you will get services eventually—sometime over the next 10 years or so.' I would have thought fighting for the local area was the member for Newcastle's job as their elected MP. In truth, I would be lying if I said I was surprised. After all, the Gillard Labor government had a choice between the Hunter, where it holds four very safe Labor seats, and the Central Coast, where it is trying desperately to save face thanks to the scandal surrounding the member for Dobell, Craig Thompson, who is accused of misusing union funds for personal purchases and procuring the services of prostitutes.

What we know for sure about this Labor government is that we cannot trust the Prime Minister. After all, it was Julia Gillard, our Prime Minister, who said, 'There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead.' What we can be absolutely sure of is that this government will do whatever it can to stay in power. As Labor stalwart Graham Richardson so famously once said: 'whatever it takes'. That has become the Labor mantra This government's focus is firmly rested on its own political ambition, not the true good of our country. That is why Labor's marginally held seats, and those crucial to its political survival, will be the first to get connected to the NBN.

Back home in the Hunter region, where the average local Labor MP has a winning margin of around 16 per cent, there is simply no need for Labor to buy votes with an early installation of the NBN. I wish the member for Newcastle, Sharon Grierson, good luck on convincing her Labor colleagues to install the network in her electorate. But I know she has already given up, because she has been convincing local businesses to have a go instead.

I keep listening to Labor spout about how the NBN will improve internet access for every Australian. But it is not every Australian—it is only 93 per cent. For many people in my electorate of Paterson, no fibre upgrades will ever arrive. Towns with fewer than 1,000 people, such as Coomba Park, Boat Harbour, Pacific Palms, Gresford, Vacy and Stroud, just to name a few—in fact, most of the electorate of Paterson—will not get fibre-optic cable under the NBN. They have been promised satellite. But, instead of rolling that out now, Labor has said, 'You can wait until everyone else has it.' In other words, they are saying to the people, 'We in the Labor government don't really care about the other seven percent.' Well, the coalition does, and we will fight tooth and nail to ensure phone services do not fall into the same category. If Labor is determined to push ahead with its over-priced, under-delivered network, it has to benefit everyone who is paying for it. That is why the coalition has been arguing for a mix of technologies—cable, wireless, whatever is cost-effective and quick to deliver—so that everyone has a chance to improve their services as soon as possible. Our plan would have been delivered at a fraction of the cost of this massive white elephant that will kill competition. Labor would have you believe we did not have an internet policy at the last election and that we had not taken any action while we were in government. But that is simply not true. ADSL2 was not even available until 2005, and as the technology took off we developed a policy to upgrade internet access for everyone as quickly as possible through a mix of technologies that would be affordable for the consumer.

The coalition's OPEL plan would have been delivered by now, had the ALP not interfered. That plan would have cost the taxpayer just $958 million, not $50 billion, and residents in Paterson would have been among those to benefit from metropolitan-equivalent broadband services. The coalition would have delivered 25 new WiMAX base stations and eight telephone exchanges upgraded to ADSL2 in my electorate alone. One of the beauties of our plan, which included a mix of technologies, was that people would have been able to access the internet while on the go in the electorate. With most people now owning an iPad or iPhone or an Android equivalent, they do not necessarily want to be tied to a fixed line in their home.

While the rest of the world is going wireless, our government completely ignores wireless needs with its NBN. Affordability is also key here. Our own government studies show that it is the low-income earners who are least likely to have the internet connected at home. That means we should be trying to make it cheaper. But people are starting to realise that the NBN is not going to mean a cheaper service. It is going to be expensive for the taxpayer at a cost of $50 billion or more, and plenty of that has already been spent without much to actually show for it. For example, from June 2010 to June 2011 the number of NBN employees grew by 648, with each person's pay and entitlements costing the taxpayer almost $224,000.

The NBN is also going to be expensive for the consumer. The government will be keen to recoup its costs, and since it has banned Telstra and Optus from providing voice and broadband services on their copper and cable networks respectively, it has cut out competition and will be able to charge high prices. A paper by telecommunications analyst Ian Martin has already shown that the NBN will have to boost its revenue, per customer, by 5.7 per cent every year, just to meet its corporate plan.

I have not even mentioned that, despite promises by Labor that every major project undertaken would include a cost-benefit analysis, this, the biggest project undertaken by a federal government in Australia's history, has conveniently not been subject to such an analysis. Worse yet, all this spending does not necessarily mean that services are going to be better for everyone. When it comes to voice services, as soon as you start providing them with a fibre line, you cut off people's home phones every time there is a blackout. If your phone or internet goes offline, under the NBN, we also have no guarantee that it will be fixed in a timely manner, which can cost safety and productivity for regional and rural people.

A number of my constituents in Dungog and Gresford could tell you what a big problem it is when you cannot rely on a fixed-line phone service or the internet. Janelle from Dungog contacted me last week about her phone and internet service, which still has not been fixed to this day. She has been told to wait anywhere between seven and 10 days for a reconnection. Meanwhile, other business owners in the area say they are losing customers because they operate their businesses online. That is typical of the many businesses in regional and rural areas, which have been able to use their internet and phone to bridge the distance gap. Yet, ironically, it is these same people who will not get any foreseeable upgrades because their towns are under 1,000 and they are covered by this government's plan. It simply is not good enough.

The year 2007 was the year that former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd promised fast, reliable internet and phone services for Australians. Here we are in 2012, millions of dollars later, and nothing has been delivered. We are all sitting here waiting for fibre cables to be laid when we could have reliable services already delivered through a mix of technologies. I have a message for the government benches: people do not really care how they get quality services, as long as they get them.

These bills would not be before the House if Labor were not still pushing ahead with its over-priced white elephant, the NBN. While those on the other side of this House spruik the benefits of faster download speeds, most people have not seen any improvement in their internet services and will not get the NBN for another 10 years—and certainly no-one in the Hunter region has access, despite their taxes going towards hefty salaries for NBN employees.

As Australia and the world move towards a more connected society built around advances in telecommunications, it is important that we continue to upgrade services. However, with speed of delivery being a crucial factor for businesses and homes that need better internet speeds now, having to wait for cable to be laid some time during the next decade simply is not good enough. By upgrading internet through a mix of technologies, the coalition would have been able to deliver upgrades now. Yes, some people want and need speeds of 100 megabits per second, but some people, including many of my constituents in the Dungog area, Port Stephens, Great Lakes and East Maitland, just want an internet connection that does not drop out right when they are about to make a purchase, download a file or see the end of that movie.

Through Labor's NBN plan, everyone will be forced to pay for a service that many do not want or need. I have spoken to people in Dungog this week and they are pleading with me to get an internet service that actually works—not an internet service with a 100 megabits per second download rate. The government needs to allow people to walk, not keep them locked up with the promise that one day—one day in the distant future—they may be able to run. A universal service obligation is important, but so is honesty and transparency in the timely delivery of services.