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Wednesday, 8 February 2012
Page: 255

Mr BRUCE SCOTT (MaranoaSecond Deputy Speaker) (12:57): I rise to speak on the Telecommunications Universal Service Management Agency Bill 2011, the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Universal Service Reform) Bill 2011 and the Telecommunications (Industry Levy Bill) 2011. The Telecommunications Universal Service Management Agency Bill 2011 provides a framework for the new universal service obligation. We have to make sure the service is adequately funded and that it will meet the needs of people.

The notion that it is only rural and remote Australia that requires universal service provision is wrong. For instance, the payphones in some of the shopping centres in city areas are there to provide a service for those who do not have other means of communication. Quite often they do not pay, they are not viable—so these services are not just provided in rural and remote Australia; we often see them in our very big cities. Just like railway stations and bus stops are essential, payphones are an essential means of communication for those who do not have access to other communications technologies such as a mobile phone.

The bill will create a new statutory agency called the Telecommunications Universal Service Management Agency—to be known as TUSMA—that will be responsible for entering into contracts on behalf the Commonwealth for the delivery of public interest telecommunications services. This includes the standard telephone service, payphones, the emergency call system and the National Relay Service. Communications for people in Australia should not be considered a privilege but a right. Affordable communications should not be a privilege but a right. Access to basic communications technologies is a right, such as a clear voice signal on a telephone. I think increasingly we are going to have to look at how the USO will cover access to other technologies as they rapidly emerge. The universal service obligation is a vital aspect of our Australian telecommunications markets and every Australian deserves access not just to a basic clear voice signal on a telephone, so I believe we are going to have to look at the new emerging technologies, many of which are with us now such as iPads and mobile phones, and try to keep pace with the new developments, being technologies that universally people are going to want to access wherever they live in this vast land of Australia.

Certainly the USO is primarily of great benefit to regional, rural and remote Australia. But, as I said earlier, it is not just about regional, rural and remote Australia but about many of our capital cities. The coalition strongly supports the need for the USO. We need very strong legislation, we need to make sure that Telstra, which will be delivering this USO, are able to be funded adequately and also that they do deliver on the expectations of government and those on both sides of this House. The USO also provides for funding to ensure that payphones continue to be available. I know that in many areas of Australia payphones are diminishing especially, as I mentioned before, at bus stops, railway stations, street corners and other areas. But in many parts of my electorate, as you would be aware, Madam Deputy Speaker Livermore, if people do not have a phone at home—and some do not—they will use a payphone as they are of modest means and have opted to use just the public telephone when they need a phone, particularly as in so many of these communities there is not a mobile phone option. So the payphone is the only other telecommunication available to these communities.

We have had pretty good arguments with Telstra from time to time about the removal from my electorate of some payphones, particularly from some of the smaller communities in the remote parts of my electorate, and they have said, 'Well, they're just not paying.' 'Well, that's what the USO is about,' I have said to Telstra. Telstra know they have got to maintain them—and that is fine—but I think this is important to some of those smaller communities where they have two payphones. What if they come in and take one out? What happens if that remaining one becomes inoperable? It might have been vandalised, although we do not see much vandalism out in the western parts of my electorate. But what if it is inoperable? Where would someone go? What if the mechanism has failed? That is why you need the back-up of a second payphone, which should be considered part of the USO—and it is. So it should not always be that it has to pay its way, as Telstra sometimes tell me. It should be considered as insurance against the failure of the system, the other payphone.

There are two more things. I want to give Telstra a bouquet and a brickbat as well. Let us start at the moment with the floods in my electorate, and this underpins the importance of good communications. My home town of Roma has had 300 houses and businesses inundated. In Mitchell, 80-odd kilometres to the west of my home town of Roma, 80 per cent of the homes and businesses have been inundated. The clean-up has started but the important point that I want to make is about Telstra CountryWide. This goes to one of the provisions which we as a coalition put in place to make sure that we had a face-to-face service with Telstra, which is the universal service provider, available in our country areas to be used rather than having to ring a 1800 number for a call centre somewhere in Australia or offshore to be able to access information when you have got a critical issue or you might want information about repairs and maintenance times as to communications networks in your area.

The people in the Telstra CountryWide office in Roma are part of natural disaster relief and have attended meetings every morning or twice a day. I have to say this is one of the other benefits of having a Telstra CountryWide, a physical Telstra presence in these communities, not just throughout the year other than flood times or times of natural disasters but even more so in times of natural disasters. It is about that physical presence and of being able to have someone available within minutes to be able to talk to them and see what Telstra could do to make sure that communications networks remain up and running, because that is what is critical when it comes to saving property and also people's lives, and in some cases it could be the difference between life and death. So I thank Telstra CountryWide and I thank Telstra for the way that they have operated during our natural disaster this year, just as they did last year, in 2011, and the year before. My home town of Roma has had three such years in a row. Mitchell is similar.

The other thing that I want to say is that Telstra CountryWide or Telstra generally have provided free, prepaid mobile phones to people who have lost connections. What a wonderful thing it is that they have provided those to those people who do not have a phone because it has been inundated with water or those people have had to be relocated to emergency evacuation centres. I congratulate and thank Telstra for that. I think they have also offered to waive any reconnection fees after people's homes have been cleaned up and to do any checks that are necessary. So once again this is about the importance of having Telstra maintenance staff on hand, so located geographically right across this nation, so people do not have to rely on perhaps a repair company or a subcontractor to come from a place remote from these communities. I thank Telstra for that. It is very much appreciated. I also thank the staff of Telstra Countrywide in Roma, Longreach and other parts of my electorate and all the maintenance staff who work beyond the call of duty during these times, and beyond. I often see them preparing lines that have gone down long after the five o'clock bell has rung, sometimes into the night. I thank those maintenance staff. It is about keeping the communication networks up and running in times of emergency. Last Friday morning, at 3 am, when houses were about to be inundated with water within four to five hours, the telephone was absolutely vital to making emergency calls to all of those farms in the predicted area of the flood zone. People could then start preparing to leave their homes or prepare their homes for what was expected to be a flood of 7.1 metres—within four hours it was revised upwards to over eight metres. Of course, that caused further devastation.

As I said, I had a bouquet, but I also have a brickbat. The brickbat is that people in the town of Eulo in the far west of my electorate, on the Paroo River, rang me during the flood and said, 'Do you know that the connecting cable from one end of town to the other,'—which had been running along the footpath as a result of a fire in the town last July—'is still running along the footpath and exposed above ground?' No, I did not know that. I rang Telstra Countrywide and they are going to get onto it as quickly as possible. But it flagged something that really concerns me. Why was the cable still on top of the ground? Telstra said a new store was going to be built and they would repair it then when the new installation was done. It really worries me that perhaps Telstra is not funded adequately or, through some of the cuts in its administration at the very senior levels, that maintenance is being compromised.

The cables were burnt in July. Telstra had to run a temporary cable along the top of the ground in the street at Eulo. Now, in early February, with floods in the area the cable is still on top of the ground. It is not good enough. We are also working—and I am lobbying very hard—to see if we can get mobile phone coverage in that area. If that cable had been cut or vandalised there would be no telephones in the community because it is the main connector from one end of town to the other. The only other communication medium would have been mobile phone coverage.

I will touch on one other issue: the government's announcement today of some $650 million to put two satellites into the sky by 2015 for high speed internet in relation to the NBN being rolled out to all Australians, including those in remote Australia. I am yet to see all the details of the speed that will be offered and I certainly look forward to seeing whether it really will live up to expectations. I only hope it does.

The western Queensland communities in the Diamantina, Barcoo, Quilpie and the Longreach regional council have all been lobbying for funding to run optic fibre cable to build the backbone of the infrastructure into those remote communities. They had a quote recently from Telstra of $20 million to roll this out. They already have a partnership agreement from the state government to put in $2 million. The councils themselves will put in $2 million. I call on this government and the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Conroy, to spend some of the money that was put aside for the Future Fund by the previous coalition government under John Howard, when $300 million was going to be earned every three years from the Telecommunications Future Fund to fund infrastructure, when the market fails to provide it. We have seen about $100 million of that spent. There is still $200 million to be committed. I call on the minister to put that money up now to assist those councils out in Far West Queensland, who are going to put up their own money as well as the state government's, so that we can build infrastructure and replace microwave links and single channel radio systems with optic fibre cable connections. It is all very well to give them satellite connections by 2015—they have already had satellite coverage for internet access and maybe this will be faster—but I call on the government now to put that money from that fund towards that optic fibre network. (Time expired)