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Joint Standing Committee on the National Broadband Network
Rollout of the National Broadband Network

CRAIGIE, Mrs Lynette Suzanne, President, Western Australian Local Government Association

JOHNSON, Mr Peter, Manager, Information, Communications and Technology, Western Australian Local Government Association

Committee met at 09:10

ACTING CHAIR ( Mr Josh Wilson ): I declare open this public hearing of the Joint Standing Committee on the National Broadband Network in relation to its inquiry into the rollout of the National Broadband Network. I welcome you all here today. This is the 10th public hearing of this committee and a Hansard transcript of the proceedings is being made. Before the committee starts taking evidence I remind witnesses that in giving evidence to the committee they are protected by parliamentary privilege. It is unlawful for anyone to threaten or disadvantage a witness on account of evidence given to a committee and such action may be treated by the Senate as a contempt. It is also a contempt to give false or misleading evidence to a committee.

The committee prefers all evidence to be given in public, but under the Senate's resolutions witnesses have the right to request to be heard in private session. It is important that witnesses give the committee notice if they intend to ask to give evidence in camera. In addition if the committee has reason to believe that evidence about to be given may reflect adversely on a person, the committee may also direct that the evidence be heard in private session. If a witness objects to answering a question, the witness should state the ground upon which the objection is taken and the committee will determine whether we'll insist on an answer, having regard to the ground which is claimed. If the committee determines to insist on an answer, a witness may request that the answer be given in camera. Such a request may of course also be made at any other time.

Welcome. Information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you. I invite you each to make a brief opening statement, then the committee will ask questions.

Mrs Craigie : I will start by giving a little bit of background on the area we cover and the importance of the NBN for us. The Western Australian Local Government Association is made up of 139 smaller local governments. Twenty of these have staff of fewer than 20 people. Our smallest shire by area is smaller than Brisbane Airport and the largest one is bigger than Victoria, the ACT and two Tasmanias combined, which is my shire. One of our shires is just smaller than Tasmania but doesn't have a single gazetted town within its boundaries. It still exists as a shire. Six of these shires are further than from Perth than Auckland is from Sydney. Our total of employees and elected members across local governments is smaller than the student population at UWA. We're just trying to paint a picture of our size. The combined population of our seven smallest shires is smaller than the staff count in each of the three biggest councils, so there's great variation in their sizes. WALGA can be literally dealing with members experiencing floods and bushfires at either end this of the state at the same time on the same day, covering the equivalent of Cook down to Canberra. The NBN is fantastic for our smaller communities. We absolutely need it. We need to be faster. We need it to have infrastructure capable of growth in line with our growth communities, particularly those outer metropolitan growth councils. We have a few other issues, but I'll let Peter give a brief synopsis of where he is at first.

Mr Johnson : I tend to deal with our local governments on a technology basis. To put that in context, half of our local governments have no employed staff member looking after ICT in any way. It's all externally done. Responses from local government to us about what's going on with the NBN vary extraordinarily across the state, from very high uptake, success and enjoyment through to some issues in other areas, because of either a lack of service, a service not as advised or, probably one of the biggest issues we have, a lack of certainty about whom to talk to about a problem. Is it NBN? Is it an RSP? Is it your local provider? That causes quite a bit of confusion right across the state, whether it's a large metro or a smaller community. That's where we're at. I can go on and give you more technical background if you like, but it's about finding someone to talk to and service delivery as expected. One of the things we find is a lot of the marketing hype around the NBN talks about the upper end of potential speeds, not about the lower end of actual speeds. That causes significant problems within our metropolitan and larger regional areas, where the expectation, promise and delivery seem to be at odds with each other.

Mrs Craigie : In regional areas, particularly where I'm from, one of the big issues is the expectation that's given by service providers that the NBN is coming, so there's no internet service available. You're waiting for the NBN and in the next breath you're told it won't be here until 2020 anyway. It's a long time for small businesses to wait if there's no internet available of any other sort.

ACTING CHAIR: Thank you both for providing evidence and testimony here today. Western Australia is a state with a range of different local government areas, as you've already mentioned. Some are inner metro, you have outer metro councils in areas of rapid growth—I have some of them in my electorate; the city of Cockburn would be a good example—then you have local government areas in rural, regional and remote parts of Western Australia, which give remote its full meaning. Are you able to tell us a little more about what the NBN should be able to offer local governments in those different categories and the challenges they face?

Mr Johnson : The always-on nature of the NBN or broadband in general is vital to anyone in any community. With that comes an expectation that there must be a minimum delivery speed. That's a big issue right across the state, because unless there is that minimum delivery speed then simple things like online transactions, which more and more government, semigovernment and commercial enterprises are using, rapidly become less available to people in those smaller communities. The days of filling out forms on paper and sending them in using Australia Post are diminishing. We know that and celebrate that. It's a good thing, but if you're in a remote community and you don't have that minimum speed then you can't take advantage of it. The online element associated with areas like education and health is huge. For example, the university student of today will do most of their studies online, augmented by attendance at a university. That is a complete reversal from 10 or 15 years ago when it was the other way round. We're finding that, depending on where you choose to live in the state, your access to those simple day-to-day services and utilities varies enormously. Interestingly we've also found within the metropolitan Perth area, the largest population concentration in WA, quite substantial differences between suburbs. We're finding within local government that people are making choices about where to live, set up businesses and develop, based on, amongst other things, the availability of reliable high-speed broadband.

ACTING CHAIR: We're seeing evidence of that even in my electorate, which in Western Australian terms would be classed as inner metro. I have some people in new developments who are fortunate enough to be getting fibre-to-the-premise. Most people are getting fibre-to-the-node. Some people in the southern part of my electorate, in the city of Cockburn, are on satellite, which is very strange. Coming to satellite and Sky Muster, the concept of the NBN is, no matter what your geographical distance from a capital city, you ought to have some equivalent and minimum standard NBN access so that we start to close the digital divide. We have had evidence, though, that there are issues, particularly in remote and regional parts of Australia, with Sky Muster. Is that something your member councils are raising? Is the NBN in that respect becoming an issue talked about more intensely with greater frequency at or through WALGA?

Mrs Craigie : I believe it is. One of the problems in regional WA at the moment is we're all facing the loss of small communities and the inability to attract business, particularly to areas that were so mining intense before. We're looking at other types of industry we can bring there. Without substantial speed and delivery of internet, it is very difficult to attract other businesses to even look at coming. The facilities just aren't there.

Mr Johnson : There are a couple of issues with satellite. There have been some technical issues with actual delivery. That has caused a lack of faith in some respects with satellite across the nation. There are inherent technical difficulties. The latency and the capacity speed of satellite is a well-known constraining factor, but the technical issues that have plagued the rollout of Sky Muster have been problematic. The other thing we are quite concerned about and are watching with interest from Western Australia is, as you said, Mr Wilson, there are areas where satellite is being used as an infill solution. In the original discussion around satellite it was to be a technology of last resort, not an infill mechanism. We're finding that some areas where there was an expectation for at the very least fixed a wireless connection are now being coloured in on the map, if you like, as ready for service using satellite. If it's an interim measure, we can live with that and it's fantastic that those people are being connected; if it's a long-term measure then it's not fine, because that is to the detriment of those areas, particularly if you have fairly local metropolitan areas or regional centres where people aren't able to take advantage of reasonable internet. Our regional cities are surrounded by this: Albany, Kalgoorlie, Geraldton and so forth. As soon as you get a little bit out of town, if you're suddenly thrust into satellite-only territory, you have a problem. It becomes a factor with your lifestyle, where you live and where you work. That affects smaller communities in particular, where there is no choice for someone to move there. Those smaller towns that are diminishing through a change in industry, whether it's agricultural or extractive industries, need to be propped up to some extent, and internet is one way of doing it.

ACTING CHAIR: Your submission talks about a survey process and makes reference to the fact that there are, I think, 31 non-metro local governments that contributed to the survey, and 12 of the 31 indicated they had significant concerns, particularly about future capability. I guess it goes to that issue of, if you have got certain kinds of technology—satellite, in particular—both the speed and the data allowances are fairly constrained, whereas in the metro areas the future-proofing is there, in the case of fibre to the premises—not so much with other technologies. Is there anything more you can tell us about that concern about future capability and the potential that, when we get to the end of this rollout program in the next couple of years, in metro areas that have fibre to the premises people will be able to continue to look at faster and bigger programs as time goes on, whereas people with a technology like Sky Muster are essentially going to be locked into the past?

Mr Johnson : Whether it is fibre to the premises or fibre to the node, in a Western Australian circumstance—in Perth, in particular—we have quite serious concerns about future-proofing. Some of our growth areas, north and south of the river here, further down, have got large new residential areas going up, and we are finding that the backhaul element—or the NBN infrastructure, if you like—is not keeping up. Those areas are actually diminishing in their speeds within a period of perhaps two to three years. Because more and more people appear to be sharing the same connection, going back a bit, it is becoming less and less. That is a matter of considerable criticism within Perth. Where 12 months ago you could do something, whatever it was—it could be watch Netflix—now you can't, and it is, or it appears to be, because of those growth areas causing difficulty.

So we are not convinced that a single rollout without future-proofing built into it is a good thing, because, within a very short period of time, it is no longer adequate for service. We are finding in those suburbs that are more static—in Perth, that means most of the inner suburbs—where there is not a huge population variation year on year, that the NBN services are quite reasonable when they are connected, where we are not seeing that same sort of growth. It is in the outer suburbs where there are issues with speed, because, as I said before, it is ticked off as being finished and of course it is not. Our eastern suburbs, on the other hand, are suffering from what Lyn was talking about before: 'Yes, it's on its way. It'll be here any minute after 2020.' It's just not quick enough to support industry and normal population living in those areas.

Mr BRIAN MITCHELL: Thank you for your testimony today. My electorate is a big agricultural electorate in Tasmania—not quite as big as your shire perhaps but in Tasmanian terms quite large. We often talk about a digital divide between city and country. You have touched on it today. The economics of rolling out fibre to more isolated communities is cited as a reason for giving those communities wireless or more and more—as Mr Johnson has alluded to—satellite, which was never the original intention. But satellite has limitations of speed and bandwidth that preclude isolated Australians from taking part in education, viewing the broad range of digital media that is now available and accessing the emerging range of data-heavy health services available on the internet. What would you like to see happen with the NBN in regional communities to ensure your constituents are not missing out on the full range of services that are available over the NBN?

Mrs Craigie : Understanding that there is a financial limitation there, it would seem to me that this is the only answer: we need NBN. Whether we work together as communities to try and bring that about—maybe that is one solution. I don't know. Certainly it is not something local government can afford to do by itself. We can't go there. But we certainly need it. If we look at health, for example, there is a greater dependence now on our health system saying they won't fly people—if you look at my area, it costs almost $1,000 one-way for an airfare to Perth for a specialist appointment. The government is saying it cannot afford it; they want people to use Skype and all that stuff. The internet service there is not capable of holding that conversation. As we said before, the time lag and the data lag make it impossible to have an appointment over the internet. We definitely need it, even if it is for health and education, let alone the fact that people now, as you say, are using it for all this social interaction. I do not see that we are ever going to get a situation where we can attract the population to move out of the city, while we have issues like this. It is almost a cyclical thing: if we had better internet, we could attract population, which would provide more income—

Mr BRIAN MITCHELL: It certainly is a chicken-and-egg situation. When it was in government, Labor rolled it out to the more isolated areas in Tasmania for that very reason—they were the areas that did not have good internet in the first place and they could benefit most from it. It seems to be working up in Smithton. Is that right, Senator Urquhart?

Senator URQUHART: For me it is as if the remote and regional areas are where it is needed the most, as far as education and health are concerned. They are missing out on those things, and yet they are at the very end of the rollout, if at all.

Senator SMITH: Mr Johnson, how many fixed wireless stations have been rolled out and switched on across Western Australia?

Mr Johnson : I do not know at the moment.

Senator SMITH: How many are under construction?

Mr Johnson : I do not know that either.

Senator SMITH: I know that: 100 fixed wireless stations have been switched on, and 20 are under construction. Can you explain to me how many premises are ready for service across the wheat belt, for example?

Mr Johnson : We do not have those figures. They are ever-changing figures, and obviously NBN reports those figures.

Senator SMITH: I can help: 15,000. How many fixed line areas have been switched on across the south-west of Western Australia?

Mr Johnson : I cannot tell you that.

Senator SMITH: I can help: 67,600. To be fair, the evidence would be more compelling if the Western Australian Local Government Association started by talking about the rollout of the NBN in Western Australia and the progress that has been made, because there has been significant progress—Western Australia has met or exceeded all of NBN corporate targets over the last three years. That would have aided and supported the arguments you are making about the importance of access to technology in keeping communities alive in regional areas. If you are familiar with Western Australia and its regional areas, you know the importance of keeping young families and keeping elderly people in regional locations so families do not feel the pressures of having to leave town because of lack of aged care access for example. These are all the things that compound to make it difficult to keep regional communities alive and, as a result of that, access to national broadband network services are absolutely critical. There is no doubt about that.

I am interested in your opening comments, Mr Johnson, where you talked about a lack of information and a lack of awareness about the NBN rollout. Before I ask you a question about that, what is your role, Mr Johnson?

Mr Johnson : I am the technology manager at the Western Australian Local Government Association.

Senator SMITH: What does that involve?

Mr Johnson : In this context today it involves me talking to people within local government about ICT issues and advocating on behalf of local government sector, where required, about technology issues.

Senator SMITH: What sort of external-facing role to you have? What sorts of people do you engage with externally for the local government association?

Mr Johnson : Within the last two weeks, for example, I have had face-to-face meetings with CEOs of councils in the south-west area—the wheat belt going down—about, among other things, their technology infrastructure and so forth—

Senator SMITH: I am more interested in knowing whether you are responsible or the CEO, Councillor Craigie, is responsible for interfacing with WA state government and private suppliers around technology issues. Is that your role as well?

Mr Johnson : That is part of my role as well.

Senator SMITH: How often has NBN Co. come to engage with the local government association? I am assuming you are the first point of contact.

Mr Johnson : It would be either myself or another executive manager. On an occasional basis is how I would put it, but certainly we have spoken directly to NBN representatives. Recently, in the last year or so, the NBN has employed people here in Perth specifically to have that interaction. Our feedback internally but also from our councils around the state has been very, very good. Those people have been very well received as a point of connection.

Senator SMITH: So the interface between NBN Co staff employed here in Western Australia with representatives of local government across Western Australia has been very good.

Mr Johnson : Yes, has improved markedly.

Senator SMITH: That is an important issue because to understand the rollout and the success of the rollout in Western Australia you have to go back to the difficulties and delays—and the shambles, some people would say—around the other contracting arrangements. I am happy to prosecute those arguments here about compare and contrast September 2013 to where we are now, but I don't think that's fruitful for this. How many times have you engaged with NBN Co? You said occasionally.

Mr Johnson : Personally, in the last 12 months no more than six times.

Senator SMITH: So that is once every two months.

Mr Johnson : Yes.

Senator SMITH: That's not bad. I am told by NBN Co that they brief you every quarter, and in the last period they have seen you twice already this year—would that be true?

Mr Johnson : I couldn't give you a completely accurate—

Senator SMITH: And I am told that the briefing occurs at the executive level, which reports directly to the CEO.

Mr Johnson : Correct.

Senator SMITH: Is NBN Co not providing you with the necessary information that you need or are you not raising it with NBN Co? If you are raising issues with NBN Co at these meetings, which I think are more than occasional, and you're not getting information back from NBN Co but they're happy to help you and support you, I don't understand why there's this confusion about what's happening when you're meeting with NBN Co.

Mr Johnson : We're not actually saying there is confusion in that aspect. We are saying there is confusion amongst end users which includes our local governments, as in 'Who do you talk to in NBN?' It's not so much a matter of the NBN information—that is widely available and the NBN website and associated elements are very up-to-date. They are much more useful than they have been in the past. The confusion is when an end user has a problem, for example, with their service not being fast enough or not being connected—

Senator SMITH: Are we talking about a residential consumer or a local government authority?

Mr Johnson : A local government authority in this case could be a consumer. But we are acting more on advice that we get and it's a case of 'Who do I talk to?' and there's confusion about whether it is the RSP or NBN and so forth.

Senator SMITH: That's not uncommon. Are you familiar with the technology choice upgrade initiative?

Mr Johnson : Yes, and it's very well received. The ability for someone to make a choice themselves has been well received where appropriate.

Senator SMITH: Has there been a lot of interest in Western Australia with regard to that technology choice upgrade option?

Mr Johnson : I'm not sure of numbers as such, but certainly the fact that it is available and people are able to make a reasonable choice about incurring extraordinary expenses has been well received, particularly by business.

Senator SMITH: I want to turn to the experience that local governments have had with the contractors themselves rolling out the NBN. As we know this happens on the ground. I was fortunate enough in the last month to have observed the contractors that work in Perth's eastern suburbs in the Bayswater and Bassendean area to see the switch on of the NBN. I am curious to know the feedback you have had from councils in regard to the issues, if any, that contractors had or the experience of local government with contractors rolling out the service on the ground?

Mr Johnson : It has varied, both in geography and in time. We are finding that there appear to be fewer disputes, if you like, than there have been in the past. However, with any form of physical disruption, there are going to be issues about remediation and other things. Some councils have not had good experiences with contractors. It is mainly associated with remediation after putting in kits and so forth and also the coordination of activities with other activities.

However, with the increased conversation from NBN to local government directly through those employees in particular, some of those issues are being smoothed out, if you like, before they become disputes. However, there always is that issue—and this comes back to the confusion of, 'Who do you talk to?'—of, when a contractor is in the field doing something, how can a local government actually interact with that contractor? It seems to us—it seems to a lot of our members—that that is not as simple as it could be.

ACTING CHAIR: Senator Smith, I'm going to stop you there. You've had a number of questions and we've only got a couple minutes to go.

Senator URQUHART: Mr Johnson, I want to go back to some issues you raised—I think in your opening statement—on satellite, particularly. You talked about Albany and Kalgoorlie. Is it your understanding that they're on satellite?

Mr Johnson : No. I am talking about outside.

Senator URQUHART: Right, outside of those—so it's the areas outside.

Mr Johnson : Yes. Certainly Kalgoorlie is well-connected.

Senator URQUHART: Yes, that's what I thought. They're areas of over 30,000 people and I thought, 'Don't tell me NBN's going to try to put them on satellite as well.' So it's areas outside of those. Do you know how big the areas are outside of those large centres that you're talking about?

Mr Johnson : That are on satellite? Bearing in mind the sorting factor of the size of Western Australia, they are huge.

Senator URQUHART: Yes, but in terms of the number of people in residences.

Mr Johnson : The number of people is very, very small and that's the dilemma that you've got there. However, where we have an issue with satellite being a semipermanent solution is that those areas aren't particularly small.

Senator URQUHART: Tell me about those.

Mr Johnson : They may have a community of 200 or 300 people. That's where we would like to see some sort of provision for, later on, backfilling with fixed wireless, for example, and that sort of stuff.

Senator URQUHART: What sorts of towns are we talking about there? You were talking about 200 or 300 people.

Mr Johnson : We could be talking about Coolgardie township itself, which is not too far from there. We could be talking about Sandstone or any one of those very small communities.

Senator URQUHART: Obviously Coolgardie is a mining area; well, it's within a mining area. There are mines out around Coolgardie, so one would think that there would need to be a good connection, particularly for the businesses in those towns.

Mr Johnson : We do find that some of the mining activities have separate, self-funded solutions. They're not necessarily part of the community solution.

Senator URQUHART: So they've actually paid for a provision of service themselves?

Mr Johnson : In some cases.

Senator URQUHART: Do you know what those services are?

Mr Johnson : In terms of who they are?

Senator URQUHART: No, what is it? Is it fibre they've paid for?

Mr Johnson : Quite often it's fixed wireless, it's point-to-point wireless.

Senator URQUHART: So they've actually paid for a fixed wireless system?

Mr Johnson : Yes.

Senator URQUHART: That's good, because I was quite concerned about the size of that. You talked about the temporary satellite. Can you talk to me a little bit more about what's your understanding of why it's a temporary satellite? I can tell you quite clearly that my understanding is that once you're on satellite, you're on satellite; it's not temporary. That's my understanding. Tell me why you think some of these places are on temporary satellite.

Mr Johnson : We suspect—essentially for financial reasons and scale of reach—that, where it may not be as suitable to put in fixed wireless and the backhaul associated with that, those infill areas have been classified as 'satellite only'. If we're talking about Wiluna or something like that, we could live with that. But when we're talking about essentially outer, outer suburbs of smaller regional places like Albany, Geraldton, Bunbury and so forth, we don't think that's an acceptable end solution. As an interim solution, we can live with that. But I agree with you that once you're on satellite, it appears that you're on satellite.

ACTING CHAIR: I can tell you that's even stranger when you see satellite services in Wattleup or Banjup, which are 15 or 16 kilometres south of here as the crow flies. It does go to that issue of congestion of satellite services; a larger footprint than was initially anticipated. You'll correct if I'm wrong, Mr Johnson, but the visibility and the transparency of the process has got worse in some clear way. The three-year rollout plan from NBN Co was taken down from the publicly accessible website late last year. There were regional and remote townships that were under the impression they were getting a certain kind of technology like fibre-to-the-node, and are now getting satellite. The point you're making is: they don't know whether that means they're getting satellite forever or whether the satellite is a stand-in service, and, ultimately, they might get fibre-to-the-node. Understandably, that would be a cause of anxiety. Is that right?

Mr Johnson : It does. Ironically, in some of those communities they've elected to stick with the existing copper—ADSL-type solutions. There is a fear, even though we are well aware that NBN has publicised it, as has Telstra, that those copper services are not being turned off where they're going into that area. There is still a fear, if you like, that people may be left with an inferior option to one that they've already got. We accept that there's no actual basis for that. However, you can't force people to not be worried about it.

Senator URQUHART: So in the discussions you've had with NBN, have you been able to raise the issue about this interim satellite? Have you raised that for these particular areas, and, if you have, what sort of a response have you had?

Mr Johnson : We've only raised it informally in conversation because, as was pointed out, exactly what technology is being put in exactly what places is not as clear as it seemed to be in the past, so we can't actually say, 'This is what we were expecting; this is what we've got,' because we've got nothing to refer to anymore.

Senator URQUHART: Would it not be reasonable to ask NBN what they intend to provide in those areas?

Mr Johnson : We do ask that.

Senator URQUHART: And what's the response that you get?

Mr Johnson : The response is, 'It's a rollout plan and it will happen as it happens.' So we are not getting any specific response—

Senator URQUHART: You don't get any information?

Mr Johnson : which is why we're not particularly formalising the question. It's not really us as a group chasing up.

Senator URQUHART: That must be incredibly frustrating because you are getting, I suspect, lots of questions from communities about what they can expect, and you go to NBN and they don't give you an answer so you can't go back and inform people.

Mr Johnson : We can't.

Senator URQUHART: You are not unique here in WA, let me tell you. This is something that we are hearing right around the country, and it's pretty frustrating. I must say that during estimates we get a similar response from NBN, where they won't always answer questions for us in estimates. You are not on your own.

You said that you had lots of problems about who you would talk to and there was confusion between NBN and the RSPs—the retail service providers. Is that communities coming to you or local governments coming to you, because what I've found throughout this hearing and in general is people tend to go to their local council to try and get answers. But you're not able to provide that?

Mrs Craigie : Yes, that's exactly right. People see the local government as the body who knows. You get the irate ratepayer or business owner coming to the front counter. It would be really good if we could have a single point of contact in NBN—similar to the Ombudsman, I guess—where we could refer people to, because we as local government don't know either.

Senator URQUHART: Are you aware of the 1800 number that you can call for NBN?

Mrs Craigie : Yes.

Senator URQUHART: Have you tried that?

Mrs Craigie : I haven't personally.

Mr Johnson : We haven't, but we do refer people to contact the NBN directly. However, there are issues that are RSP issues, which are not necessarily NBN's problem.

Senator URQUHART: I guess that's one of the dilemmas that we've had with a lot of people who think that it's NBN's problem, but it's not always NBN's problem; it's something with the service provider. The service provider tends to say it's NBN's problem, NBN say it's the service provider's, and people get shunted between the two and they have no idea where to go. Quite often it will be NBN's problem, but not always, but it's just a matter of trying to work out, 'Who's going to fix this for me?' That's really what people want to know: where can they go to actually get this fixed. So you're having the same problems as people on the east coast?

Mrs Craigie : We're having the same issues, yes.

ACTING CHAIR: I am going to bring this to a close simply because we are now trying to get our next witness on via teleconference. I take this opportunity to thank Councillor Craigie and Mr Johnson for their evidence here today.

Proceedings suspended from 09:50 to 10:20