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Wednesday, 24 August 2011
Page: 5332

Senator HUMPHRIES (Australian Capital Territory) (12:25): I am very pleased to contribute to this debate on the Telecommunications Legislation Amend­ment (Fibre Deployment) Bill and I respect­fully adopt many of the comments made in this debate by my colleagues Senators Macdonald, Joyce and Birmingham. The concerns that the coalition have about the entire structure of the NBN rollout remain real concerns. I think it is fair to say that it gives us no pleasure to describe the kinds of expensive pitfalls—

Senator Conroy interjecting

Senator HUMPHRIES: I will come to that, Senator Conroy—have patience. I do not relish the thought that this might go terribly wrong and that we might find enormous costs being visited on the Australian people to clean up the mess that Labor has created with this. However, it is important to put on the record the concerns that we have and to hope that the government will pay some, albeit slight, attention to the issues that the coalition are raising here. We do have experience in rolling out important new technologies while in government, and it is important to make sure that we have the capacity to work for the best possible outcome for the people of Australia.

I want to start by raising a specific issue to do with the ACT. The legislation before the chamber is principally designed to provide a platform for the government to deploy fibre as part of the NBN, particularly in greenfield sites around Australia. It is extremely important that we establish a good basis for fibre to be available to people moving into greenfield developments around the country. Getting that infrastructure right from day one is important. In broad terms, as we have heard already, the coalition supports ensuring that infrastructure is available in a way which minimises the cost of residents retrofitting those areas later. In respect of deployment in the ACT in greenfield sites, that is largely happening already. I do not think there have been any greenfield developments for some time in the ACT that have not had proper allowance made for the rollout of broadband to all of those new areas.

My concern today is particularly about the retrofitting of broadband infrastructure in established areas of the ACT. I understand that the minister or the NBN regime will have considerable powers over the way in which that infrastructure is outlaid. In particular, I understand that it will be possible, if required, for the NBN rollout to occur in spite of, or at variance to, arrangements under local planning laws for the provision of cabling and other infrastructure requirements of the NBN. That maybe an issue that is relatively easy to deal with in some parts of Australia, but I can assure the minister that it will not be easy to deal with in the ACT. In his drive between the airport and Parliament House, I am sure the minister will have observed that the ACT—

Senator Conroy: I was a long-term resident who went to university with you. I'll get those photos out.

Senator HUMPHRIES: Indeed, you remind me that you have a deeper footprint in this place. You are absolutely right.

Senator Conroy: I remember what they did to you in the square in Bush Week. I was there.

Senator HUMPHRIES: I think I better have a conversation with you behind the screen later on about that, Senator Conroy.

Senator Conroy: That was the problem: there were no screens.

Senator HUMPHRIES: Yes. I will return to the subject of the legislation. In that case, Senator Conroy would be well aware that in the ACT there are places where we do not have overhead cabling for services such as electricity and telephones that run along streets. In the ACT those facilities are buried underground or they run along the spine of residential developments. It was designed to provide for a higher level of amenity in the ACT, but admittedly it also adds costs to the replacement of those items of infrastructure. I hope and would appreciate an assurance from the minister that the rollout of the NBN to existing residential areas of the ACT will not entail the overriding of that very import­ant planning principle for this territory—that the amenity which the planners of Canberra going back several decades have sought to protect will not be compromised by the temptation for a future possibly cash strapped NBN to cut corners and to begin to string wires between streetlights in the territory in order to make sure that the costs of the NBN scheme are kept down.

I know this is a consideration because NBN Co. itself, in its own public statements of the likely costs of rollout, has said that the question of what it calls 'aerial deployment' has a significant impact on the total cost of the rollout of NBN. Its corporate plan states that, even though the NBN has paid Telstra $16 billion to lease their underground ducts, increasing aerial deployment from 10 per cent of houses—which, I gather, is its existing plan—to 25 per cent of houses would trim costs for the NBN by $1.8 billion.

I do not want to sound a harbinger of doom but I foresee the day when this government and this NBN Co. may well discover that it needs to make a $1.8 billion saving because the costs of this scheme have blown out and the profits anticipated from it have dwindled. Finding savings of $1.8 billion might be a very attractive option for them. In those circumstances, the temptation to run cables between streetlights might be such that NBN Co. will be unable to resist. As costs and time taken to complete projects blow out, the overwhelming urge will be to override the wishes and the interests of local communities and string fibre overhead. I do not imagine that many communities will take that kindly but, I can tell you right now, the ACT community particularly will not take it kindly because we do not have a system of overhead cabling along streets. This government, with respect, has done enough to detract from the quality of the city's fabric with its rundown of the budget of the National Capital Authority without adding to this by running cables between street lamps in this city.

I urge the government to reconsider the use of the power in that case. It is a bit of special pleading, I know, but I want to make that point very clear. Senator Conroy, who knows the ACT so well, he tells us, is not here. I hope there is someone who can offer some assurances about that. That would be much appreciated by the people of the ACT. The minister's department, in its own consultation document, states:

While the construction of the NBN involves considerable expenditure, an additional requirement to move all cabling underground would add substantially to its cost.

This is the clearest signal, I think, we could all expect that overhead cabling is very much on the agenda if that is what is required, irrespective of what local communities might think about that.

The second issue I want to raise today is the very issue that the minister himself brought up at the table a moment ago, which is the rollout of broadband in Gungahlin, the large township in the north of Canberra. I make no bones about the fact that I am dissatisfied with the quality of broadband available in Gungahlin. This city is the most online community in Australia, where take-up of technologies is the greatest across the country and where good-quality broadband is a product that the people of the city take very much as a matter of importance and signi­ficance. In having quality broadband avail­able to the people of Gungahlin, ultimately the largest and—at this stage—the newest township of the city, there is a significant issue which needs to be addressed by the government.

I have called for better quality broadband and I am committed to achieving that for my community. But I will say that, notwith­standing that call, I am less than confident that the NBN will be the answer to that call. I am concerned that the NBN, because it has elements of instability about its concept and its execution, may not deliver what the people of Gungahlin want and need. I note that Labor promised to fix broadband black spots, of which Gungahlin is clearly one, before the 2007 election. But in the last term of Labor we had no more than the canvassing, announcement and then reannounce­ment of plans rather than any actual delivery of better broadband. We all know about the broadband plan that was going to cost $5 billion and then was going to cost $50 billion and whose cost is escalating all the time, but I particularly want to know what the government's plans were for Gungahlin.

Before the last election there were inevitably further announcements that Gungahlin was going to be well dealt with. Then, last October, NBN Co. officials told Gungahlin residents that the timetable for the first 3,000 homes to receive the NBN, between April and June of 2011, would be available within six weeks—that is, before Christmas last year. That followed an announcement during the election campaign by the minister that 14 locations across Australia, including Gungahlin, would be among the first to host the National Broadband Network. People are still waiting. Obviously, the broadband that was supposed to be in 3,000 households by June this year is nowhere yet in sight. It is now August and we still do not have any households that have been connected. Although I welcome the slightly higher level of urgency, or anticipation, that appears to be creeping into the announcements made by NBN, I will not, with respect, be convinced that any of this will happen until I actually see it. I hope that one day I will.

I noticed the minister having a go at some members of the other place, yesterday in question time, for calling for broadband to be connected to their electorates. I make absolutely no apologies whatsoever for being on the government's back about the timetable for the rollout of NBN broadband in areas of my electorate in the ACT, because that infrastructure is being provided in part through taxpayers' dollars. My constituents pay plenty of dollars in tax and they are entitled to know how their dollars are being spent in providing this essential service. I will continue to call for it in this place and to seek to know what is going on. It does not detract from my view that the NBN is not the best vehicle to deliver high-speed broadband either to the people of Gungahlin or to anyone else in this country, but I am perfectly entitled to know what is going on. If the minister chooses to characterise that as walking both sides of the street, it says more about his failure to comprehend the role of members of parliament and their duty to their electorates than anything else.

Again I call on the minister, formally in this place, to outline clearly to the residents of the ACT two things: first, if they are in existing premises and are not connected with high-speed broadband, what will be the nature of the deployment of fibre to their homes and, specifically, will there be a guarantee from this government that there will not be a rollout of overhead cables along the streets of the ACT? Second, I want to know whether we can have a firm timetable for when deployment will occur in Gungahlin.

The third matter I will raise today is the question of competition within the ACT marketplace. The government will be well aware, I hope, that the ACT, being a com­munity which is so adept at taking up technology, already has a very good and competitive broadband supplier in the form of the TransACT network. TransACT provides a very high-quality product to the people of the ACT. It already provides at least 60 megabits per second to a large number of places in the ACT and is continuing its rollout of broadband. However, the question that needs rightly to be addressed for TransACT's benefit is: exactly what will be the impact of the NBN rollout on this highly competitive and effective provider that is already in the marketplace? TransACT has been around for 11 years. It operates in both the ACT and regional Victoria. It has a very high-quality product that is used and supported by a lot of Canberrans, but it is not clear at this stage whether the network will be overbuilt, whether it will be integrated into the NBN or whether the NBN will simply be competing with TransACT. As other senators have made clear in this debate, elements of that competition are less than fair, given the subsidy which NBN effectively operates under to provide its services, especially on greenfield sites. I hope that the future of that very important asset to the ACT community will be clarified soon, and I look forward to seeing how the government intends to deal with that existing, effective player in the ACT marketplace.

The question of fibre deployment to the Australian community remains a murky question. I do not think that anyone can rise in this place and say with certainty where we will be in just a couple of years time under the government's plans. Those plans have changed dramatically in the last three years, and I see no reason why they could not change just as dramatically in the next three years. A lack of certainty is not good for business. A lack of certainty would concern many people, certainly consumers and potential customers. This government's plans need to firm up. It particularly needs to provide the certainty that it has done its homework with respect to this deployment, which was not evident when it first made the announcement of the National Broadband Network without having done a cost-benefit analysis, which is something that it so solemnly told the Australian community in 2007 would never happen in respect of any major product that it was embarking on. There is no cost-benefit analysis today. We do not know whether this stacks up or not. While the government remains unwilling to share information about those issues with the Australian people, we are entitled—in fact, we are compelled—to ask the kinds of questions like the ones being asked today in respect of this legislation.