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Tuesday, 7 February 2012
Page: 106


Mr STEPHEN JONES (Throsby) (21:04): Labor stand for universal service. We stood for it in 1991 when we first introduced competition into the telecommunications industry. The universal service obligation was enshrined in the 1991 act, which was introduced into this place by the then Hawke Labor government. We stood for it when we introduced the legislation into this place to give force to the National Broadband Network because the National Broadband Network is our commitment to universal service for all Australians when it comes to access to fast, reliable, high-speed broadband—and that includes those Australians who live in the seat of the honourable member for Wright, who spoke previously.

Over 250 pieces of legislation have been introduced into this place—as the Leader of the House is fond of reminding us. A good deal of those 250 pieces of legislation have been about implementing our plan to build a national broadband network which will connect every Australian household to the markets of Australia and the world. It beggars belief that each and every one of those pieces of legislation has been passed through this very difficult chamber in the teeth of opposition from those opposite, in the face of all logic and, in the case of my friend the honourable member for Wright, in the face of self-interest. If there were ever an electorate that was going to benefit from the rollout of the National Broadband Network, it would be his electorate as well as other electorates in regional and country Queensland that are represented by the LNP that stand to have greater access to education services, health services, businesses and markets not only in Queensland and across Australia but also all around the world. The honourable member says that as a result of this, the package of legislation and this initiative, somehow the poor members of his electorate will have no choice but to connect to the National Broadband Network. That is a little bit like complaining that the poor people who want to access electricity have no choice but to put a plug into a power point. Yes, they will. They will have access to a fast, reliable—in fact, world-beating—technology that other countries in the world are looking at with hungry eyes and envy, saying, 'Why didn't our parliament have the courage and the foresight to introduce this legislation?'

It is going to transform our country. It is going to transform regional Australia and we are very proud of this. This legislation, the TUSMA bill—the Telecommunications Legislation (Universal Service Reform) Bill 2011—is an important part of that package of legislation because, as we transform to the National Broadband Network, it ensures we maintain the philosophy behind the universal service obligation that was inserted into that first Labor bill when we introduced competition in the telecommunications market, way back in 1991. It ensures that it is not lost in the transition but is relevant to the new telecommunications and broadband market.

This package of bills sets up a new long-term framework for the delivery of some existing services—those that were first introduced in the 1991 legislation—but also for some new sets of arrangements. The existing services are: the universal service obligation, which ensures reasonable access to basic telephone services and to payphones for everyone irrespective of where they live in Australia; secondly, the National Relay Service, which is there for those with a speech or hearing impediment so that they too can have access to a telecommunication service; and finally, that service we hope no Australian ever needs to use but we know needs to be there, and that is the emergency call service, which has critically important arrangements for handling calls to 000.

Currently, based on Telstra's historical position as a vertically integrated operator of a national network, it has had legislative responsibility for the universal service obligation and the emergency call service. The National Relay Service is provided by two other parties under contracts with the Commonwealth. These bills put in place some new arrangements. The first is to assist in the migration of voice-only customers from the Telstra copper network to the NBN fibre network. This is because, little by little, bit by bit, we are decommissioning the copper network and translating everybody onto the new National Broadband Network—the fibre network.

I know there are many residents in electorates like mine who know that they have soggy, rotten cable running past their houses that can barely transfer a voice signal, let alone a high-speed broadband signal. They welcome the decommissioning of the rotten copper network and having it transformed to the world-beating, modern technology of the National Broadband Network's fibre optic cable. It will also assist in the development of any necessary technology solutions to support the continued provision of existing public interest services that are provided on the copper network—things like traffic lights, public alarms and the like.

The reforms also establish a new statutory agency, the Telecommunications Universal Service Management Agency. It will never be known as that. Hereafter, it will be known as the TUSMA and it will have responsibility for the provision of the USO and other services through contractual and grant arrangements with third parties, as the National Relay Service is now doing. This will introduce competition and contestability to the provision of these universal services. Those who have been close to the telecommunications industry over many years will know that there are many operators within the telecommunications—particularly the service provider—market who have from time to time questioned the level of the universal service levy and the amount that they are paying to meet their commitments under the USO. So, through the open contestable grants based contractual arrangement that TUSMA will operate, we will know that there will be the best possible price and the best value for taxpayer money in the letting of these USO contracts.

It is appropriate to move to a contracting model given that the NBN rollout and Telstra's progressive structural separation of its copper network in areas covered by the NBN fibre will happen over the next 10 years. With the more competitive and open telecommunications that the NBN will promote, a contractual model over time will enable greater scope for competitive supply arrangements that in course are going to benefit consumers and indeed the entire industry, further lowering costs for these core services to end users.

The bill is great news for regional Australia as it ensures that all people, including those in regional areas—and I am advised that even in Grantham, which is a town in the electorate of Wright, whose honourable member spoke earlier—are among those who benefit from the rollout of the NBN. They will be early adapters and great advocates, I am sure. They will be petitioning the member for Wright to ensure that his party continues the rollout of the NBN not only in the electorate of Wright but throughout the rest of regional Queensland as well. That is because, under the NBN program, 70 per cent of regional Australia under our program will receive fibre to their home.

We are already seeing real progress under the NBN program. NBN recently announced the 12-month rollout program which covers 485,000 premises. I see the member for Cunningham is in the chamber with me. We are very proud of the fact that, as a result of the work that we have done, two of those locations will be in the electorate of Throsby, in the suburb of Dapto, and the electorate of Cunningham in the suburbs surrounding Wollongong. I can tell you there is enormous excitement from businesses and the people in those areas. Far from saying, 'What are you doing spending our money rolling out the NBN in these suburbs?' the complaint is, 'When are we going to get it and can you guarantee that it is going to roll past my business or my household and, if not, why not, because we expect it? We want some of this.' If the shadow communications spokesman would care to come down to the Illawarra and meet some of the businesses and households down there, I am sure he would have cause to rethink some of the mindless opposition that the coalition has shown to the rollout of the NBN and its policy formulation process. It is really making a difference.

A few weeks ago, I had cause to talk with a young family who live in Kiama, in the electorate of Gilmore. This family is connected to the NBN—it was one of the pilot sites. They have two kids at university. Before they had connection to the NBN, things were like this: if one person was on the internet, everyone else had to shut everything down and you could not use the phone because that would slow speeds down to such an extent that the kids could not download their university assignments or browse the web. But, with access to the NBN, four people and a visitor can be using the NBN and additional wireless devices off a wireless router at speeds greater than three or four times that which they had previously experienced.

There are a lot of advocates out there who have seen the benefits and know that this really is an exciting time in telecommunications in Australia. I know that there are many potential NBN customers who are ready and waiting for the NBN to come down their street. Those opposite pretend that their inferior fibre-to-the-node and wireless offering will suffice. I can tell you that no-one is being won over by that. Those opposite expect regional Australia to make do with a second-rate broadband service, but we simply do not believe that people in regional Australia should be sold short. We believe a first-class broadband network, together with these universal service obligations, is nothing short of what regional Australia deserves.

Just recently, we have seen some extraordinary statements by those opposite on broadband and telecommunications in this country. Those opposite have said that they cannot understand why we are building and designing a telecommunications network with the capacity that the National Broadband Network will have. They cannot see, as those in industry see, that rates of data transfer are increasing exponentially. What we perhaps see as massive redundancy in the system today will, within the life of this parliament, be seen as what is required to satisfy the needs of future applications. I really do ask those opposite—and I know there are many on the benches opposite who do understand this—to reconsider their policy position on this and to reconsider their attitude to the role of the internet as a critical part of the future of our economy.

Just recently, a study by Deloitte Economics found that the internet contributed around $50 billion to the Australian economy in 2010. It is estimated that that figure will, over the next three years, rise by a factor of over 30 per cent and that we are going to see a continued exponential increase in the value the internet offers to the Australian economy. For people who live in electorates like mine, who are struggling with the transformation of our economic base, this is not an optional extra; this is not a piece of technology which is just there to enable people to Skype their relatives over the other side of the country or their kids who are backpacking through Europe or to download cheap videos—as important as those things are. Quite literally, this is the technology which is going to be the tool, the highway if you like, which enables those of us in regional economies, such as the ones that the member for Cunningham and I represent, to transform our economic base and transform the way we live. The universal service obligation bills are an important part of the package of legislation we are progressively introducing into the House. I will end on the point I started on: this is a demonstration of our commitment to universal services when it comes to telecommunications in this country. (Time expired)