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Tuesday, 3 December 2013
Page: 1496


Mr CLARE (Blaxland) (20:52): I rise to speak on the Telecommunications Legislation Amendment (Submarine Cable Protection) Bill 2013. The Labor Party developed this legislation in government and will support it in opposition. Australia's international communication links are critically important to our economy and to our society. When Australia was first connected to Europe by telegraph cable over 140 years ago, the impact on our economy was immediate. Our primary industries now had real-time information on the current prices of their commodities in our primary markets. Today, fibre optic submarine cables are how Australia's economy is fully integrated into the global marketplace. While physical goods travel by ship or by plane, contracts are negotiated and payments are made by electronic communication.

Large and small businesses as well as individual consumers depend on these links. There are 14 mainstream fibre pairs out of Australia. Each carries between 1,000 and 2,000 gigabits per second of active traffic. Each of these fibres is laid across the ocean floor where they can be damaged, especially by anchors of ships. To protect these critical links, schedule 3A of the Telecommunications Act creates a power for the creation of protection zones that restrict activities which could result in cable damage. The Labor government reviewed the operation of this scheme and identified five ways in which it can be improved. The bill implements these reforms.

Under this legislation, the Australian Communications and Media Authority will have the power to set standard conditions that could apply to protection zone limits. It will also have the power to set standard conditions that would apply to non-protection zone permits. ACMA will also be allowed to only publish a summary of proposals to declare, vary or revoke a protection zone. Protection zones can be provided around other cables of national significance that are wholly within Australian waters, and inconsistencies will be removed between the legislation and Australia's obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

I know that Liberal Party talk a lot about reducing regulation but schemes like this remind us of why regulation is often so important. We support this important legislation. Without denying this bill being read a second time, I move:

That all the words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading the House notes that:

(1) in his Second Reading Speech, the Minister acknowledged:

(a) the importance of communications infrastructure to our economy; and

(b) the unforseen evolution of technology and services that could be facilitated using submarine communications cables when Australia's links were first developed in the nineteenth century;

(2) it is critical for policy makers to adopt a forward-looking view of our nation's communications and infrastructure requirements; and

(3) the assertion that broadband speeds of 25Mbps will continue to be sufficient for the needs of Australian households in future is inconsistent with items (1) and (2)."

In his second reading speech, the minister reminded us of the 1990s boom in international capacity and noted that, over time, demand has caught up with the extraordinary increase in capacity. He spoke approvingly of the way investment in international communications infrastructure has been developed to meet future traffic needs and he said:

Modern submarine cables typically provide multiple terabits per second of capacity when deployed and can be further upgraded, positioning them to meet future traffic demands.

The minister did not constrain his remarks to submarine cables in his second reading speech. He spoke at length about the National Broadband Network—and this is where the debate gets interesting. The government has praised the rollout of international undersea fibre optic cable for being forward-looking but is not adopting the same approach to the rollout of fibre optic cable on land here at home. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Prime Minister's statement, when he was opposition leader a few months ago, when he said that he is:

… absolutely confident that 25 megabits per second is going to be enough—more than enough—for the average household.

I suspect that in the years ahead we will look back on these words in the same way that we look back on other memorably short-sighted predictions, like those of the president of IBM who, in 1943 said that the world market for computers might be five, or Ken Olsen's statement in 1977 that, 'There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.'

The minister criticised the NBN at length in this debate. Allow me to respond. The National Broadband Network is the biggest and most important infrastructure project in Australia and it is important that it is done right. We think that means using fibre, not copper which we will have to replace with fibre down the track. The government has a different view. They are proposing to use fibre to a node or a box in the street and then use the old copper network to homes and businesses. It begs the obvious question: who is right?

In the short time I have been in this shadow portfolio, every expert I have spoken to has told me the same thing—that is, that fibre is the end game, and that that is where we have to get to. The minister has said much the same thing and the new chairman of NBN Co., Dr Ziggy Switkowski, has also said this. A few years ago he said that an all-fibre network is desirable end point. The question then is not whether we need fibre to our homes and businesses; it is whether we build this in one stage or in two. Labor's argument is, if fibre is the end game, if we are going to need it, then just like the submarine fibre cables which are the focus of this legislation, we should plan for the future and build it now. Japan, South Korea and Singapore are all investing in fibre to the premises. So is New Zealand and so should we. Otherwise, we are putting ourselves at a disadvantage—left behind with a second-class, second-rate broadband network. There have been problems with the construction of the NBN. That is not good enough and needs to be fixed but we should not stop building it. Building a fibre optic network to homes and businesses is the right policy and we should be speeding up its construction, not throwing it out.

The government has promised a faster and a cheaper NBN, but they are not off to a good start. Since the election, construction has slowed down and they have broken their promise to honour all existing contracts, leaving half a million Australians in limbo, not sure whether they will get fibre to the premises or fibre to the node.

Debate interrupted.