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Thursday, 18 November 2004
Page: 71

Senator EGGLESTON (2:41 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, Senator Coonan. Would the minister please advise the Senate how the Howard government's commitment to telecommunications is helping to connect rural and regional Australia to services such as high-speed Internet? Is the minister aware of any alternative policies?

Senator COONAN (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —I thank Senator Eggleston for the question and I do note his very keen interest and hard work on the committee that he chairs in the great state of Western Australia with respect to connecting rural and regional services. I know all senators on this side of the chamber are committed to delivering affordable telecommunication services to all Australians regardless of where they live. I am pleased to be able to report today that Australia is experiencing exponential growth in the takeup of broadband services. This is due in no small part to the government's push for greater competition in telecommunications. Despite a lot of nay-saying from senators opposite, the news on broadband takeup in Australia is very good. The latest data from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission shows that the number of broadband Internet subscribers increased by 102 per cent to 1,047,800 in the 12 months to June 2004, and the good news continues. The Sydney Morning Herald reported this morning that Australia has now overtaken Sweden in broadband home penetration figures, and the latest Nielsen NetRatings survey shows we have the fastest growth of the countries surveyed.

The figures show the number of Australians with broadband at home has topped 3.3 million—that is, 41 per cent of all home Internet users. Estimates by analyst IDC suggests that at current growth rates we will have 1.5 million broadband subscribers in Australia by the end of this year. Even more exciting is that this exceptional growth in broadband access and use is not just happening in our cities. I know that Labor does not care about rural and regional Australia, but this government does. Through targeted government funding initiatives such as the $108 million Higher Bandwidth Incentive Scheme or HiBIS, more and more Australians living in rural and regional areas are getting faster Internet access.

In the last few months I have had the great pleasure of visiting many rural and regional communities across Australia to announce new broadband services. Broadband is now connected or will soon be connected in towns and centres including Walgett, Bourke, Boggabri, Nimmitabel, Warren, Nyngan, Berridale, Cobargo, Bannockburn, Waurn Ponds, Mount Low, Mission Beach and Mount Pleasant, in South Australia, just to mention some. Wherever I go in rural and regional Australia to launch these new services, the response is very positive. Communities and businesses are ready to grasp the opportunities that broadband Internet access can offer. To ensure that there are not pockets left behind in our cities, particularly in outer metropolitan areas, the Howard government has committed $50 million over three years to address broadband black spots in metropolitan areas.

Senator Conroy, who is the current opposition spokesperson, should let the Senate know now whether or not he supports Mr Stephen Smith's vision for a Snowy Mountains scheme for broadband and whether the Labor Party have costed such a scheme. This side of the chamber will remember that it was only the coalition who provided any additional funding for broadband during the election campaign, aside from some vague rhetoric about improving broadband. True to form, there is a lot of rhetoric from Labor but never any detail about how to achieve it; in fact, Labor seem to be so wedded to their telecommunications policies—

Opposition senators interjecting—

The PRESIDENT —Order! Senator Coonan, have you completed your answer?

Senator COONAN —No; I could not hear. In fact, Labor are so wedded to their ideas for telecommunications and IT in Australia that any shred of evidence or policy disappeared from their web site a week after the election because they were so embarrassed about how inadequate it was. This government will continue to provide good regional and rural telecommunications services for Australians.