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Wednesday, 29 February 2012
Page: 1161


Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (10:25): I enjoyed hearing Senator Cameron's remarks, and I will follow on in a similar vein. The Greens will rise, as the coalition has done, to support these bills. The Telecommunications Universal Service Management Agency Bill 2011 and the package of other measures in the related bills that come with it are really the last legislative pieces of the puzzle for the National Broadband Network rollout. This is something that I have taken a keen interest in since I arrived here. It has been one of the defining issues, obviously, in the communications portfolio. This last piece, effectively, of the regulatory framework is certainly deserving of support.

The bills create a new statutory agency to deliver basic voice, payphone and other public interest telecommunications services at an ongoing cost to the taxpayer of $100 million per year. We heard evidence during the hearings Senator Cameron referred to in the committee that he chairs that maybe we should not be doing that anymore. Some sections of industry think, 'In an NBN world, why should we be keeping the copper network up and why should we be providing these services to people when the age of broadband is here?' The fact is that the age of broadband is not yet here. Certainly in Canberra we get services and in Melbourne we get services. In regional areas and in some outer suburban areas where costs have been cut over the last couple of years, in fact services are terrible. So it is extremely important that we maintain the universal service obligation. We believe, actually, that it should be extended—that it should be brought into the 21st century. But at the very least, while the NBN project rolls out, there is the need to preserve and protect services and to make sure that they are not cut, particularly in areas where services have never been great in the first place.

The bills also mandate reviews in the future to assess exactly how well the USO is being delivered in an NBN world. This is an issue that will need to be revisited. We welcomed input into the Senate inquiry from consumers and from end users who convinced the committee on the need for a consumer affairs representative on the TUSMA board. As Senator Cameron outlined, that was one of the recommendations that the committee took up and has proposed. I understand that the government is interested in pursuing that amendment. The Australian Greens obviously believe that the USO should be brought into the 21st century. It is not merely voice telephony and public payphones. Really what we are talking about in this age is fast data services.

The broadband network is one of the most important infrastructure projects that this country has seen. The network, once established, will bring us closer to the rest of the world and it will be the envy of many countries, given that 93 per cent of the population will have fibre coverage to homes, schools and businesses and other premises. The other seven per cent of Australia's population will have data services through wireless and satellite. It will not be as good as you can get in the metro areas, but it is a huge step change in advance of what we have been able to deliver to people thus far.

Given convergence and the increasing reliance on data services to conduct business in the daily lives of so many people, data services have become an essential service just as much as public telephony has been for many years. We welcome the work of advocates like ACCAN for remembering that this is about people. We have tended to come in here on NBN bills and have long and exotic debates about engineering problems and about competition policy, and we tend to forget that these services are about people. The really interesting questions are around what we will do with the services when they do become ubiquitous.

Some issues with the bill were raised during the committee process. Some of the smaller telcos do not believe that they should continue to pay for the USO. They think that if Telstra is out there maintaining this infrastructure then either the price tag for providing those services should be lower or they should be somehow exempt from contributing. We believe, in line with the general principal, that the areas that are easy to service—the big cities, where the profit margins can be made—should cross-subsidise services in regional areas. I do not think it should be controversial that services should be cross-subsidised in the USO. Effectively, it is one way of doing that for areas where services are patchy. We disagree with the smaller telcos and some of the providers in that instance. We think it is important to maintain the USO.

Perhaps in 10 or 20 years it will be obsolete. Perhaps by then we will have closed the copper network down and we will be providing fast data services and there will be no need for the hardline. But I would imagine that, even though people certainly are abandoning fixed-line services in homes and are transitioning across to mobiles, it is still an essential service. The copper infrastructure still has value and it still provides services that cannot be delivered, at least in 2012, through other forms of technology.

In their evidence, Macquarie and Optus certainly argued that the NBN should render the USO obsolete. Why don't we revisit that question in a decade. Provided the coalition do not destroy the project, do not rip it up or do not flog the pieces off to private industry in an attempt to somehow balance their budget black hole, we should have a piece of infrastructure that will be providing ubiquitous, fast data services to most Australians and will also be generating a return to the Australian people. That is important to remember. In the obsession with privatising essential public services and monopoly infrastructure, we are building an asset. The reason it is off budget is that we are building an asset that will return a small premium back to the taxpayer as it is paying off its debts.

ACCAN, representing end users in the committee hearings, argued for a more integrated approach to providing disability access to telecommunications services. They propose that a range of services be brought under the TUSMA umbrella to be managed in a more integrated way than they are at the moment. We were told at the hearings that the minister was contemplating it but that it was too early and the bills would need to be passed first, so we do not have resolution on that. It is something I think this chamber should pursue. People who are interested in telecommunications and in making them available to people with any form of disability should uphold the mandate that we are extending these services to all Australians. We cannot forget that perhaps this is only part of the job.

Competitors to Telstra have argued that it is not appropriate for the government to simply contract out USO services to Telstra for the next 20 years as a consequence of the deal that was done between the government and Telstra to enable the NBN to go ahead. I have some sympathy for that point of view, because we know that this deal was done behind closed doors in an effort to get Telstra on board and that the universal service obligation had to go somewhere. I think it is appropriate that it has been brought back into public hands, but of course the industry noted—I think correctly—that all we are doing is simply contracting these services straight back out to Telstra, mostly, because they still hold the copper asset.

The bill as drafted does, however, maintain a 20th-century incarnation of the USO, but only for access to voice services. This is something the Australian Greens will be pursuing. I do not think that in the 21st century it is appropriate to contemplate a universal service obligation being simply a voice service. We have moved on. The government has quite correctly proposed a huge investment in telecommunications in this country precisely to provide fast data services to people. Therefore, I think the USO itself, and what we understand by the term 'universal service', should be updated and brought into the 21st century. We will revisit those issues.

The committee made a number of recommendations—it only made three—and I think we should propose a fourth: that the Telecommunications Universal Service Management Agency and the TIO, the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman, enter into a memorandum of understanding to formalise arrangements for the TIO to provide information to TUSMA for the purposes of TUSMA's monitoring and reporting responsibilities. That is just common sense. If the government moves that amendment we will certainly be supporting it.

Recommendation two was that the bill be amended to make it a criterion for one of the appointments to the membership of TUSMA to be a person with substantial experience or knowledge and significant standing in the field of consumer affairs. Again, the Greens believe that that is entirely reasonable, and we were persuaded by the evidence given by ACCAN in their advocacy work for the people who will actually use this technology.

The committee then recommended that the bills be passed. The Australian Greens believe that we need to revisit the idea of what the USO is. What is the universal service obligation? It is not simply a voice service in the 21st century; it is something more than that. We believe those issues should be revisited.

Yesterday we saw a huge piece of the puzzle fall into place outside this chamber concerning the bills that we passed well over a year ago now relating to the structural separation of Telstra—to separate out its wholesale and retail arms. Having that agreement signed off by the regulator was an incredibly important piece of the puzzle. The regulator had been holding out for a better deal for Telstra's competitors, for the smaller carriers and for the aggregators, who will take services from the NBN. That is a question about how the competitive landscape looks over the eight- or nine-year rollout of the NBN. It was tremendously important to get that agreement on the books. It removes a significant impediment to the volume rollout. Mr Quigley of NBN Co. told a budget estimates committee the week before last that the delaying of regulatory approvals by the ACCC was having a material impact on the volume rollout—on when we actually scale the build up and start rolling past not thousands but tens and then hundreds of thousands of premises. This was being held up because the ACCC and Telstra had not been able to come to an agreement.

So, what do we have? We have the regulator on board. We have Telstra on board, despite their fierce resistance to the bills. We have to coalition on board for the structural separation undertaking. Mr Turnbull confirmed that for us yesterday. They made it sound like the idea of disaggregating the wholesale and retail arms of Telstra had been their idea all along. The fact is that the coalition held up that proposal and that bill for a year. It cost us a year in the rollout, because former senator Nick Minchin was simply in here advocating for what he thought was the best interests of Telstra. As it has turned out, the best interest of Telstra is to take its place as a retail incumbent in an NBN world with a huge expansion of a customer base into regional areas, where services have never been provided before, and to get out and compete in the marketplace as a private entity. We do not think Telstra should have ever been privatised, but since it was it should play by the rules that everybody else has to play by.

We still do not know when exactly the coalition is going to drop its strange objection to the rollout. I do not understand why or how the National Party—and Senator Williams is in the chamber with us this morning—has stayed silent while its coalition partners try to wreck a proposal to bring world-class telecommunications to regional areas. What on earth are you doing?

I think it is high time the opposition simply dropped its destructive opposition to this project. It creates a degree of uncertainty amongst the NBN engineers, the people building the project and, most importantly, the people in the communities scheduled to get the services when you have the shadow spokesperson or the Leader of the Opposition marching around the landscape saying they are going to destroy the project. It is unbelievable. Let us simply get on with it.

I look forward to the committee stage of the debate on these bills. I look forward to seeing, hopefully, the government taking up some of the proposals that were put to it by the committee. I thank the committee staff and secretariat and the other members of the committee for their contributions, and we look forward to the passage of the bills.